By a stroke of sweet fortune, I happened to be born into a family that happened to live a mere eight blocks from Wrigley Field, which happens to be the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
Naturally, my father, having spent his own boyhood pursuing the vagaries of bat against horsehide, drilled his love for the old ball game into my impressionable heart. We spent a lot of time playing pepper in our tiny back yard, during which time I learned three basic notions: keep your eye on the ball; use both hands; hustle.
Later, when he judged I was ready, my father took me to Wrigley Field to see a game. The Cubs played the Cincinnati Reds that day, and lost. But losing was something you expected from the Cubs back then, and somehow it didn’t really matter. What did matter was the glorious experience of being there, sitting in your green-painted, wood-slatted grandstand seat and watching the flags atop the scoreboard crackle in the Lake Michigan breeze.
Attending a game in that park was a visceral, sensuous, nerve-humming event. The odors of popcorn and beer and cigar smoke all washed together and gave you the smell of True Baseball. The green ivy climbing the rust-red brick walls, the puffs of dust raised by the infielders’ spikes, the bright stripe of yellow mustard slapped onto your hot dog all conspired to paint a lasting image on the brain.
The game was played on good green grass under various weather conditions ranging from perfect to rained out. The weather itself was part of the game, just like it is in real life. The wind flung fair balls foul, raised goosebumps on your skin, and corkscrewed pop-ups over from third to first base. Fielders had to judge the behavior of bouncing balls skipping over dry ground or plopping limply into puddles.
As the afternoon wore on, shadows moved out from the first-base line and became a real and tricky presence on the field.
We spent many a wonderful afternoon in that park, aware of a tiny human drama played out beneath an ever-changing sky. Then I got older and moved to Minnesota, and so did the Washington Senators, who became the Minnesota Twins. The timing was such that I got to see a couple games in the old Met Stadium, cheering on such notables as Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew before disaster struck and the Twins moved into the Metrodome.
Make no mistake. The Dome, for all its flaws - and, in part, because of them - gave our beloved Twinkies some significant benefits. Visiting players were forever losing track of fly balls as they visually melted into the overarching white ceiling. The hop of hard grounders against the unforgiving fake grass produced many an infield hit. And the fact that the fans’ lusty cheering stayed captured by the Teflon roof and often attained the decibel level of a jet engine gave us a genuine home-field advantage.
But baseball isn’t bowling or pingpong or poker. It’s not an indoor sport. Baseball belongs outside. Since the Twins made the move to Target Field, the game has regained its rightful place under the open sky, and fans can shiver in the spring and fall and sweat a bit in summer, and take delight in the sight and sound of flags snapping in the breeze.
At a time in history when adults as well as youngsters struggle to tell the difference between that which is real and that which is digital, I think the more time we spend outside, the better.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.