Cleveland was alive on Saturday night. The streets were filled with pedestrians, the highways were lined with traffic, and the hum of excitement filled the air. It only took multiple concerts, a cinema on the square event, a black tie fundraiser at the local YMCA, and three simultaneous sporting events for the Mistake on the Lake to feel like a real city.
“That’s just adorable,” said Chicago.
“Teach me,” pleaded Detroit.
I was right in the heart of it, wading through an unhealthy mix of beer bellies and Native American protesters to my seat at the Indians game. One of our nearby manufacturing plants had an extra ticket as part of an employee appreciation night. They gave it to me under the condition that I bring my camera and take pictures, most likely to be used as evidence should someone at the site one day say, “You never do anything nice for us.”
“Oh really?” Their HR manager would exclaim, pulling out a file folder of glossy, 8 x 10, color prints. “I do believe this is you enjoying our company seats with a free hot dog hanging from your mouth. Is it not?”
Among the attendees was Samantha, my British friend and colleague who had never experienced a real American baseball game. Since she moved here almost a year ago, introducing British people to American events has become a new joy of mine. It makes me feel like I’m on the Titanic and I just snatched a first class passenger from their tea party to come hang below deck where beer drenches the floorboards and everyone has gonorrhea.
As we made our way towards our section of the stands, the atmosphere was just right. Modern country music blasted from all around while spectators gorged themselves with nachos and over-priced beer. There was a free hot dog and barbecue buffet for ticket holders from our company, but I decided to pay for a sausage sandwich. It’s a personal baseball tradition. Had my Jewish father been there, he would have crucified me.
We took our seats just as the national anthem began to sweep through the hearts of everyone in the stadium. I was pissed because I had just gotten situated with my food tray and beer.
“You people really take this stuff seriously,” Samantha exclaimed.
“Shhh!” I hushed as I dropped my food and placed my hand over my heart. “I’m trying to show my respect.”
In reality, I had once seen a fat man in a trucker hat give the death stare to a crying baby while the Star-Spangled Banner played at a local football game. If an infant can be labeled terrorist scum in the mind of one angry patriot, I didn’t want to think of what a crowd of Midwest sports junkies would do to us.
“Play ball!” Yelled a random voice over the microphone once the singing subsided.
The first two innings gave Samantha a chance to get into the game. I forgot to warn her that we were watching a Cleveland sports team until the first foul ball soared directly over our heads. After that, the most common shouts from our section were “popcorn,” “peanuts,” and “duck!”
Fortunately, enough action happened for Samantha to develop an understanding of how everything worked.
“It’s just like rounders,” She explained.
Rounders is apparently a British game that’s also played with bats, balls, and bases. Imagining this was easy. A player runs the bases, shouting “excuse me” as he rounds each corner before sliding into home and apologizing profusely to the catcher for getting dirt on his shoes. The umpire wears a bowler hat and any bad call he makes is responded to with calm-yet-brutal rhetoric from the coaches.
“Get your tea here!” Yells a vendor from the stands.
From that point forward, Samantha became one with the rest of the crowd. And I came to the conclusion that I knew much less than I thought about baseball when she started asking me questions.
“Isn’t Carlos Santana a music artist?” She asked.
“Um…” I responded when I saw that it was also the name of a player. “He must have retired from music to play pro ball.”
The truth is that I know as much about sports as I know about math. If I had to calculate the percentage of Indians games I’ve watched this year it would be…i guess one out of …. if there are 162 games in a season then… oh fuck it.
I love games as much as the next person so long as they are played on a board or with a controller. And if I want exercise (which is never) I run and lift. I can appreciate the thrill of cheering a team to victory. I can feel the excitement of intense competition. I even have a Red Sox chair in my office as a form of Massachusetts pride, but I had to fold it up as soon as people saw it as a chance to talk trash to me.
“Yeah well…your team is stupid,” became my response of choice.
When people talk sports around me, I usually get really quiet and fade into the background, hoping there’s a sudden shift in conversation to something I’m an expert on like hamburger toppings or how to collect enough quarters to do a load of laundry without going to the bank.
Watching baseball with Samantha was a fresh change of pace. We knew the basics of the game, but neither of us had any stake in it. Regardless of whether the Indians won or lost, we would walk back to our cars the same way. But it never got to that point because we left shortly after the eighth inning out of boredom and an inner desire to beat traffic. Had somebody tried to stop us, I was ready to play dumb…
As we walked to the parking garage, we had already moved onto another topic of discussion and forgot the reason why we were in Cleveland in the first place. There were 100,000 screaming sports fans behind us, but they were too focused on their teams to notice us outsiders. A couple of foreigners as out of place as they came, but not bothered in the slightest.