Minor league moments

The little girl pulled her long brown ponytail through the opening in her pink-and-yellow mesh baseball cap. She gave it a tug and her father a flicker of her attention.

“First and second with no out,” he told her. “This could be good. It could be an insurance run.”

My heart smiled and broke at the same time.

Last night, I found myself back in the land of minor league baseball. It was a well-remembered haunt. The team I was watching, the Columbia Fireflies, was, in a past incarnation, the team I had watched play as the Savannah Sand Gnats in historic Grayson Stadium 20 years earlier. (Just so you know, anytime a stadium is described as ‘historic,’ that means ‘run-down, but in a charming sort of way.’) I watched a 17-year-old Adrian Beltre play third base for the Sand Gnats, when they were a Dodger affiliate. I recited the words to parts of Kevin Costner’s iconic speech from “Bull Durham” painted on the wall.

I, too, believe there should be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.

Later, I spent seven seasons watching 70 or so minor league baseball games a year as the beat writer for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, then a high-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. Rafael Furcal streaked through town for a week or two. I can still see him stealing second in a blur of dirt and dreams. I covered Jason Marquis, Gregor Blanco, Brayan Pena, Adam Wainwright, Wilson Betemit, Adam LaRoche. I wrote about baseball and happiness and heartbreak and fathers and sons and mole crickets and the diamond that legend has it is buried in a dusty North Carolina infield.

I met Ray, the venerable scoreboard operator who remains as much a fixture at the park as hot dogs and post-game fireworks. Friendships were cemented on the grassy right-field berm, sealed with sun-sweetened beer and forged by inexplicable sorrow.

I stood in celebratory clubhouses with champagne oozing from my eyelashes. I saw a perfect game – albeit thrown by the wrong side. I tip-toed across the freshly raked infield in high heels, trying to leave no trace of my passage but nevertheless shedding bits and pieces of my heart as I went.

Sometimes, that feels very long ago. Last night, it felt close enough to touch.

I walked by the Bojangles Berm in right field, comforted to know properly sugared sweet tea was nearby if I needed it. I chatted with fans and beer pullers and team store cashiers. Post-interviews, I had a sunset drink with a couple at the center-field bar who showed me the pictures from their friend’s recent New Orleans wedding. (The theme was the death of the bride’s single life, and they were elaborately turned out in hoop-skirted, lace-edged black costumes.)

 I was almost ready to leave when I heard the little girl’s daddy explaining situational baseball. The home team was clinging to a 2-1 lead that would soon become 4-1, but she didn’t know that. Odds are, she didn’t care, either, but one day, she might. She might care so much so that her friends think her a little strange and Vin Scully’s voice, after a long, silent offseason and a bitter winter, makes her burst into tears.

There is, as it turns out, crying in baseball after all.

I watched the little girl for a few minutes, until the mayor ambled by and stopped to pose for a picture with her. I thought of my girl child, my critter, the teenaged corner of my soul who has taken such root in my life in five years. I thought of watching her stand at the plate in her softball uniform, of being the one to actually muster the courage to swing at those 60-mph pitches like I was always telling her to do. I missed her with a wind-fed ache and started walking again, so as not to disprove the no-crying-in-baseball axiom in public.

The rocking chairs along the left-field fence come in both adult- and child-sized.

The rocking chairs along the left-field fence come in both adult- and child-sized.

As work went, it had been a great night, a Harry Potter-drinks-the-lucky-potion night where things just fell into place and everyone I talked to had an interesting story to share. Happiness and heartbreak.

When I got home, I turned on the heat to ward off the chill coating my bones after hours spent under cloudy, 60-degree skies. I climbed into bed, pushed some buttons on my phone’s screen, and fell asleep to Vin.

The game ball was delivered via parachute, the operator of which fought a stiff wind.

The game ball was delivered via parachute, the operator of which fought a stiff wind.