By J.A. Walsh
Note: This essay partly recounts a trip through Japan my ten-year old son and I took with the JapanBall tour in 2016. The experience left an indelible impression in my life, and my son’s. On the tour, we met fellow baseball fans who became new friends, and enjoyed JapanBall’s invaluable – and yet totally unobtrusive – guidance through Japan, its sights, and its baseball culture. The care given to Japanball’s approach is obvious. Game tickets and transportation? Covered! A rigid sightseeing itinerary that may or may not appeal to everyone’s tastes? Not needed. JapanBall was a dream! And now, I invite you to enjoy The Home Run Dream!
September 14 – Tokyo, Japan
“What do you mean?”
“It’s crazy!” I tell my son. We are standing in the bathroom – the tiny bathroom – of our hotel room in central Tokyo. With a mouth half-full of toothpaste, I continue. “Think about it, even if he went to 250 games a year, that’s 100 years!”
We go to a lot of baseball games. This season, we have been to more than 50 live baseball games. No particular team or league season, call it April to September, at all levels. Major League. Minors. College. When I tell people we watch a lot of baseball, and they ask how much, and I say we have been to 50 games this year, their eyebrows invariably arch. “50?”
And here, on our second day in Japan, for a tour of Japanese ballparks with more than 30 other American baseball fans, my son and I are debating whether it is possible the man we just met downstairs could possibly have seen 25,000 live baseball games, as he told us he had.
If my son, who is ten, kept up the pace we set this year – the eyebrow-arching-inducing 50 games – and he lives to be 90 years old, he will tally a grand total of 4,000 games. Assuming he can keep up the pace when he starts to work summers in high school, and during college, and when he is young and broke, and when he is newly-married, and when he has really young kids who don’t handle ballparks for hours on end well.
It assumes he can keep up the pace on long, cold April nights in lousy ballparks, watching two crummy teams who seem to barely care they are playing and certainly don’t care if anyone is watching. It’s easy to spend a night at the ballpark in July. But he’ll only have 2,480 July nights.
It assumes he’ll do extreme things like take his own son on a trip to Asia, a thirteen hour flight of more than 6,500 miles, to a place exotic and different from our small southern town, to a place teeming with more than 13 million people and resident of more than 2,500 years of history. And it assumes when they get off of their flight, and trudge to their hotel, and take a quick nap, and start to adjust to the jet lag, the first thing they will do is head off to a ballpark – indistinct in many ways from any of the hundreds at home in the US – and watch a baseball game. And then, get up the next day, and do it again.
He’ll have to do crazy things to get those 4,000 games in.
I started to explain “hyperbole” to my son as we lay in our adjacent beds, their size proportional to the bathroom. We needed to get to sleep. We had a game to go to tomorrow.
I have but one recurring dream. In it, I hit a big league home run. Not just any home run, but a towering home run. The word a lot of baseball books use for this kind of home run is “clout,” but I have never liked that word, so I always think of it as me “smacking” a home run. But in the dream, I don’t just smack any towering home run, it is a clutch home run, which is to say it comes at an especially important moment in the game. The setting is never quite clear in my dream, but I know it is an important home run. It might be a game winner. And it is not just any game winning, towering home run, but one the announcers marvel at because I should not have been able to hit the pitch. Not at all, much less for a towering, clutch home run. And because of this, I spend a lot of time in the dream talking into cameras, explaining exactly how I hit the home run.
“I saw it was a two-seamer,” I say. A two-seam fastball. I am a right-handed hitter, and to a righty the two-seamer will have late movement, looking like a pitch over the plate and then handcuffing the batter and inducing weak contact, in on the handle of the bat. Well, sort of. That is the premise in my dream anyway. In order for my analysis to be correct, the pitcher must be a right-handed thrower, for the two-seamer’s movement, when thrown well, will have “arm side run,” meaning it will move toward the pitcher’s arm side. And, generally, down. Some pitchers throw the two-seamer as a variant of their sinker. Or vice versa. But, none of this matters much. Not in my dream. The pitcher is not extant there. There is a pitcher, certainly, but never has he been in the dream. I don’t know if he is a righty, but I think he must be because of the analysis I give to the cameras.
“I knew it would run in on me. He’s got great two seam action.”
Certainly, the disembodied pitcher is a closer. The closer is a team’s final pitcher of the game, the one meant to seal victory by pitching the final inning, when his team is in the lead. When they do this successfully, these closers achieve a statistic called a “save.” When they do not succeed, when the opposing team overtakes the closer’s team during his time on the mound, he has “blown” the save, and may even earn the statistical loss. The pitcher who threw the ball I smacked for a towering, clutch home run earned one of the most ignominious blown saves of all time.
“But I thought if I could focus on getting my hands through the zone, and my bat head out front, I could hit it well,” I add, humbly (it’s easy to be humble when one is as awesome as I clearly am in this dream). You see, it is not his fault. The two-seamer is a good one. A great one, even. As I have said, I had no business hitting it over the wall. Clouting it. There, I said it!
“His arm action disguised the pitch excellently.”
It always does, for he is a great pitcher, a legendary closer – and the pitch looked just like his four-seamer, or the common fastball, which is straighter than the two-seamer but which arrives at 96 or 97 miles per hour. On that arm action alone, he should have had me fooled, swinging early. And then there is the movement. The pitch starts over the inner half of the plate, meant to make me think that while it might not be a great pitch to hit, it will be a strike and I had better get my barrel around fast. But then the pitch makes its arm-side run. Moving to the pitcher’s right, and in on me, a righty batter. My swing has begun, my barrel is moving through the zone toward that place on the inner half where I should be expecting the ball to be, but it won’t be there, and my bat – if it hits the ball at all – will make contact with the narrow part, down near my hands where it will cause the ball to dribble weakly down the third base line. And I will jog down to first base half-heartedly, in the way big leaguers do when they know they are out, shaking my head ruefully, maybe even audibly cursing, because this was a big game, a big at-bat, and I was tricked.
Only I’m not tricked.
September 17 – Tokyo
The trains were packed after the games. After two of the games, especially. Before arriving in Japan, I listened to Haruki Murakami’s book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. It amazed me how almost all of the gas attack victims he interviewed not only knew which train car they were riding in on the day of the attack, but noted they “always rode in that car.” In the book, one subject reported that on the day of the attack, he “boarded the third car from the front,” specifying this was “[t]he one I always travel in when I have to buy milk.”
It wasn’t until I was in Japan that I saw the train platforms, which – unlike subway platforms in the US – are very specifically marked not only to show where the boarding door of each car will open, but also where passengers should queue to board each car. No mass boarding. No hoard of people pushing past each other like salmon in a stream. Orderly. Even after a baseball game. And the trains then were packed.
The train ride back to central Tokyo from the Seibu Dome in Saitama is long. The ballpark is about 30 km west of central Tokyo. Built into a hillside, the dome’s half-bowl of seats peak behind home plate and taper progressively down the lines toward the corners, ending in a semi-circle of a dozen rows ringing the outfield as bleachers. To someone familiar with American ballparks, it resembles Dodger Stadium, but for two significant differences.
First, the Seibu Dome is a dome, which the American ballpark aficionado knows Dodger Stadium is not. And yet, Seibu Dome is not a dome in the sense Tampa’s stadium is, or the old stadiums in Minneapolis and Houston were. In Saitama, the ballpark was originally built as an open air stadium in the 1970s. In the late 1990s, a roof was installed in two phases, spanning two seasons. The finished result is what one of the tour group members described as “a ballpark with an umbrella on it.” The sky is closed off by the roof, but there is nothing – perhaps there is architecturally, but not visually – connecting the roof structure to the original ballpark bleachers and walls. A home run, hit at the right trajectory, could theoretically escape the dome. So the Seibu Dome is dome-light.
The second difference is the entrance. One of the great pleasures of entering Dodger Stadium is that fans enter from the very highest ground surrounding Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits. From that vantage point, making your way through the gates and then the concourse, the field sits below like smoothest green jade at the bottom of a pool. The half-bowl-shaped seating concourse rises behind home plate and if you are sitting in a high section, you descend vertiginous stairs to a perch that feels as precarious as a ledge in the scrubby brown San Gabriel Mountains massing toward the sky beyond the low-slung outfield bleachers. The better your seats, the farther down you move, progressing to field level using the elevators or escalators within the concourse.
Not in Saitama. The Seibu Dome’s main gate is behind centerfield, close to where the train station lets out hordes of baseball fans on game nights. Fans wend their way from the train station through a makeshift boulevard of food trucks and souvenir stands to the long lines at the gate. Standing here, shuffling toward the entry, the uniqueness of Seibu’s dome is already apparent. From the queue, you can see into the stadium and across the top of the field to the press and club seats stacked highest behind home plate. Instead of being muffled by the umbrella dome, the sound from the stadium’s already chanting crowd rushes out, unable to diffuse into the already dark Japanese night. And then comes the trek.
Japanese baseball stadiums reserve the outfield sections for fans very much like those known as “ultras” in global soccer. These are quasi-professional fans of the team. They are not professionals in the sense that they are not paid to be fans. In every other way, they approach their duties professionally. They chant incessantly. When their team is batting, they stop chanting only to cheer a hit. That is the only spontaneity observable, in fact. The remainder of the time, these fans play musical instruments, sing songs, and chant rhythmically to the beat of players’ names: “Na-ka-jima! Na-ka-jima!” If they are aware of the actual details of the game: the score, the count, whether the situation might call for a bunt or hit-and-run, such awareness is not in evidence. They are focused on their one job. They are professional. Perhaps as a consequence of these expectations, our group never sat in these outfield sections. Our tickets were in reserved sections, often right behind the dugouts or behind the plate. Great seats, unless you are in the Seibu Dome and you don’t like walking uphill.
On the other side of the world, the way of things at Dodger Stadium is inverted. In the Seibu Dome, the better your seats, the more climbing you do. Because the stadium seats taper toward the outfield, once through the centerfield entry gate, the climb begins. It must be a 6 or 8 percent grade. Two days prior to leaving for Japan, I ran as part of a 12-man team in the Blue Ridge Relay, a 208-mile foot race from Virginia into North Carolina. The course meanders across and along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and the race directors describe a handful of the legs as “Mountain Goat Hard,” based on the altitude gain. Seibu Dome’s concourse had mountain goat familiarity.
I enjoyed the climb. Then again, I volunteered to run the 208-mile relay, so take that for what it’s worth; but, the field is immediately visible to the right and stays in sight for the whole climb. If arriving close enough to first pitch – as we did – I think most baseball fans would be moved to excitement by the combined crescendo of noise from the pro fans, the view of stadium seats rising ahead, and the adrenaline-raising walk. The game was enjoyable enough, too. I found genuine waffle fries at the concession stand. A home run was hit. And, the home Lions defeated the Rakuten Eagles 3 to 1.
It was time to head back toward Central Tokyo. And the trains. Even the most wonderfully-organized boarding system cannot offset the jarring impact of hundreds of people trying to board a train with a few dozen seats. And after the ballgame at Saitama, these are less trains than cattle cars. Station after station, the train lurches to a stop, everyone swaying in accordance with the requirements of momentum. Physics gives no quarter on the Seibu-Sayama Yellow Line.
And we are tired, my son and me. Our bodies have not adjusted to the 13 hour time difference yet, and I had to drag him out of bed at 4 pm, two hours after what was meant to be a brief afternoon nap, to get him to the game. And he was a gamer, cheering the Lions and reveling in Japanese baseball’s traditional 7th inning balloon launch. But, the train ride is a bridge too far. And because Saitama is such a long way from Central Tokyo, the Seibu-Sayama line gives way to the Seibu-Ikebukuro line, which in turn gives way to the Yurkucho Line, which in Tokyo’s absurd multiple carrier subway system not only requires a connection, but a new ticket issued by a different carrier. And then we are at Iidabashi station, and then we walk to the hotel, and then we fall into bed, and the last thing I can imagine tomorrow is doing it all again, just to see a baseball game. I’ve already seen 50 of them this season.
In the dream, my bat head invariably comes around to find the ball where it actually is and not where everyone else thought it would be, and where they thought I thought it would be. My hands shoot forward with unconscionable quickness and the bat head rotates through the zone with astonishing speed and power. In spite of expectations – and, unlike a packed Tokyo subway car, in spite of physics – the fact that the ball is moving so powerfully in toward my body coupled with the incredible speed, power and accuracy of my swing launches the ball in an improbable arc.
This is the most vivid part of the dream. The ball leaves the bat on a heading for the upper deck in left field, heading well into foul territory. That is where it is headed.
A reporter asks a question using a declarative sentence the way sports writers do.
“You seemed like you knew it was fair.”
I smirk. “I didn’t know if it was fair.” Of course I knew. No one else knew, but I knew. I’m not sure if I knew the first time I had the dream. I don’t know if I was as confident then as I am now; but, now, without a doubt, I know.
I follow the trajectory. At that moment it becomes clear I am in the Oakland ballpark, where the Athletics play their home games. The place has changed names a half dozen times since the first time I had the dream, but everything remains the same in the dream. Always the same sun-soaked afternoon in the Oakland ballpark. Or, at least, the Oakland ballpark of my television memories and unconscious creation, for Oakland’s is one of the 13 major league ballparks I have never seen in person. Why my dream does not take place in one of the 17 ballparks I have seen in person, I cannot say. But the ball is arcing against a sea of green and yellow seats, toward what I now understand – after checking a seating chart on Google – to be Section 331. The backdrop in the dream is quite different from the home plate vantage point in photos online, so maybe it is not actually Section 331, but that is a good enough approximation to allow understanding of what happens next. It is the physics-defying part.
September 18 – Tokyo, Osaka, and Places in Between
“Pack everything up,” I say with exaggerated exuberance.
My son is bleary-eyed. Groggy. After the train ride back from Saitama to our Tokyo hotel, and a quick FaceTime call home to his mother and sisters, and a cursory brushing of his teeth, he rolled into bed at about 11:15. Wake up was 6:30 to meet the group downstairs by 7:30 in time to catch an 8:30 train to Shin-Osaka Station, some 300 miles to the west.
“It’s a bullet train, bud!” This has something like the desired effect. A small upturn at the corners of his mouth and a brightening in the eyes. I don’t mention we will first need to lug our suitcases downstairs to the lobby, and then into a cab to Tokyo Station, and then through this station. This last is no small feat. Tokyo’s subway stations make the London Underground’s stations look like little more than rabbit warrens. Never have I seen stations sprawl so far or wend so deeply.
Twenty minutes later, we are in the station, boarding at the clearly delineated spot for car #6. In Osaka, we will see the hometown Hanshin Tigers face off against the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants. This will be our second encounter with the Giants, who we saw on our first full day in Tokyo, in their home Tokyo Dome. We are living a bit like ballplayers on this trip. As another in our group said, “On this trip, the baseball schedule sets the pace.” Not sightseeing. Not sleeping in. First pitch in Osaka is 2 pm. We’ve got a train to catch.
We returned to the states later that month, just in time to watch Vin Scully make farewell remarks from a raised platform on the infield of Dodger Stadium on the occasion of his retirement. Scully broadcast baseball for the Dodgers for 67 years, and claimed to have loved the sport “without wavering” for 80 years. That’s a lot of late nights, and hotel beds, and bleary bag-packing mornings, and taxis and trains.
As part of his remarkably humble and succinct speech, in which Scully distilled 67 years of labor into just over six minutes of oratory, Scully said, “I have tremendous respect for every single man who ever wore a major league uniform. I know how hard it has taken (sic) you to get where you are. And I know how hard it is to stay where you are.”
I looked it up: “Every single man who ever wore a major league uniform” amounts to 16,000-some ballplayers. Scully’s compliment to those ballplayers immediately kindled a spark of recollection in me, as it harkened so closely to something I have said repeatedly to my kids over the years, on those days when we are lucky enough to be at the ballpark early to watch batting practice and warmups. Those are the times when I am afforded the opportunity to make baseball something more than a game for them, for it must be more than a game, to make me come back 50 times a summer.
Scully’s words had so often transported me into Dodger Stadium, but on this occasion they brought me back to a sun-dappled April day in Atlanta, early in the same season that took us to Japan. We were sitting in the bleacher seats, my son standing near the centerfield railing in hopes of catching a home run or a throw from one of the ballplayers shagging; my oldest daughter, sitting next to me a few rows back.
“Think about it,” I tell them in my paternal voice, the one that means Listen good, now, this is something meant to be remembered. “These guys are the best in the world. The very best. The top 0.01% of people who have ever played baseball. 25 x 30 is what? 750? These guys are among the 750 best in the world at what they do. And they do it every night. Night after night, they play. They get four or five at-bats. And then what do they do the next day? They come out here, and they practice. They take a hundred swings. Or more. They’re already the best. But, they come out and practice more. Trying to add a little bit more. A little bit to make them succeed seven times out of 20 instead of six.”
The kids are staring now, respectful, but bewildered. They may even be embarrassed, for in these moments I tend to forget the peanut vendor lingering behind us, or the handful of other kids up by the railing. One of the things that amazes me about baseball is its ability to captivate us, to draw our focus so completely that a stadium of 40,000 somehow seems private. Think about a playoff game: a high stakes, high stress, October baseball game of the 12 pitching changes variety. Imagine watching it on national television. Inevitably, you see those tight zooming shots of fans in obvious emotional distress. Even the TV image tends to make the excruciating moments seem solitary, one man in his jersey and ball cap, chewing on his fist. Alone, among 40,000. But, the inspiring moments seem much the same. They seem to be our own. And so it is when I start speaking to the kids. I might be giving this speech at our dining room table instead of within earshot of a few dozen Greater Atlantans.
“Just imagine how fine-tuned their practice is! They take 200-300 reps a day, trying to improve marginally on something they already do as well as anyone in the world.”
That is during BP. We eat nachos during the 3rd inning. Hot dogs in the 6th. Ice cream comes later, if we make it that long. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t. Whether we do or not, when leaving we invariably face the drive home. In darkness. Late summer darkness, with a slim shred of orange hanging over the western horizon, glowing like a distant forest fire over the tops of the trees along the interstate. The energy of day is gone. The kids loll their heads in intermittent sleep, my speechifying during BP a memory. But, I drive.
Maybe we are coming home from a big league game in Atlanta and the drive is four hours. Maybe it’s a minor league affair, and the ride is only an hour or two. Four hours, or more, of roundtrip driving for three-or-so hours of baseball. This is my private moment, this really is the time set aside for profundity, for deep thinking.
”And I know how hard it is to stay where you are.” Scully said it best. And so much more succinctly. Ballplayers, even major leaguers, have never “made it.” And so, every day, they take another 200 swings. Like the ballplayers’ goals themselves, the game is iterative. There is nothing definite. In Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn writes that what made baseball so special was that unlike the movies, no one dreams up the story of a game. What will happen didn’t happen before, somewhere else, and then make its way to us through celluloid. The same is true whether you are gnawing your hand in the bleachers, or watching the game – and the cutaway to the guy gnawing his hand in the bleachers – on TV. Just because we have seen one game, or 50, we haven’t seen them all. Not the next one. And so I turn on the radio to find a West Coast game.
My son and I settle on the train and pass through a foggy morning out of Tokyo and down the coastline past Yokohama and through a terrain of rising green hillocks. The idea of seeing another ballgame does not just start to settle in, it starts to gnaw, as if at my hand. And by the time we get to Osaka, jet lag is a mere nuisance. Last night’s train ride is a trifle. I am ready. Ready for another first pitch. Ready to hear the leather snap of ball into mitt. The crack of a bat. The roar of a crowd. Another game. Another sublime day at the ballpark.
Date Unknown – Oakland, California, USA
The ball is clearly high. Towering. But, it is foul. It is the kind of ball that, when I was a kid, would have caused someone behind me in the ballpark to yell “Straighten the next one out, now!” at the hitter. The foul pole down the left field line is a natural waypoint. It not only defines the boundaries of the field, but it gives what can otherwise be a difficult-to-scale stadium some dimension. This is a long pole. Thin, but tall. I can imagine standing next to it. I can fathom its height, unlike the height of the upper deck or the stadium lights. And relative to the foul pole, the ball is high. It passes over third base steadily rising. Rising toward Section 331. As it approaches, it is clearly well above the height of the pole. And then it begins to bend. In the dream I explain – or perhaps the announcers do, this part of the dream is more of a backing monologue and it’s not clear when I wake up who was speaking, but it is someone with the weight of good authority – my hands came around so quick, and caught a ball that was spinning in such a way that when I hit, it caused the ball to do things. Aerodynamic things. Things related to the same principle that caused the pitcher’s two-seamer to move because of the friction created by the pressure placed on the seams by his fingers.
And the ball curves. Not curves, but bends. Not the ball, but its arc. Its trajectory. And I watch, from the perspective of the batter, as the ball – impossibly – turns back toward the foul pole. Back into fair territory. And when the ball lands, it lands out beyond the left field wall. It’s not entirely clear whether the ball passes over the left field pole in fair territory, which is what is required of a ball to be a home run. I never actually see that part, because I have begun a home run trot. But I am sure it does. Somehow it does. Because everyone after the game is talking about how amazing the home run was. How it was unlike anything anyone has ever seen. And how it means – how it must mean – I am a uniquely gifted baseball player. Once in a generation. DiMaggio. Mays. Aaron. I don’t think they mention any of the steroid guys from the 80s or 90s. They might, I don’t know. But certainly they are not implying anything by it.
Sunday, September 18 – Osaka
When I got back to the states, I was interested to see what other travelers to Japan thought of Osaka, and to compare my own perception and memory. Reading some travel blog, I came across the following: “Osaka, meanwhile, is just downright ugly, and looks like the backdrop to Blade Runner.” Further research reveals, at least according to some people on the internet, the city actually was Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the film’s scenery. The comment was meant as a criticism, I read it as one, and I think it is valid. Except if I were going to describe Osaka to someone who had never been there, I would ask where they had been in Eastern Europe and see if I could find an apt comparison. To me, there was as much Warsaw as Blade Runner.
Partly this must be because of the rain. We alighted from the shinkansen (bullet train) at Osaka Station and made the short walk to our hotel in misty rain feathering off the business section of a typhoon that loomed over Japan for part of our trip. Because many Japanese baseball teams play in domes, Typhoon #16 had little impact on our baseball itinerary. But, the Hanshin Tigers play in the 90-plus year old Koshien Stadium, which is an open-air stadium, and in spite of my renewed interest in spending another day at the ballpark, the game was called on account of rain.
Koshien is Japanese baseball’s shrine, their Fenway or Wrigley. The stadium hosted Babe Ruth and a team of traveling Americans in 1934. The Babe also played at Meiju Jingu Stadium in Tokyo on his trip, meaning Japan has the same number of pro ballparks that hosted Ruth as remain in the American big leagues (the aforementioned shrines in Boston and Chicago). More significantly for the Japanese, Koshien hosts the semi-annual national high school invitational baseball tournament, the Japanese equivalent of March Madness. Throughout the country, people drop everything to watch or listen to the tournament games, and the stadium takes on even more significance as the birthplace of stardom for many Japanese pros.
In spite of the rain, a detachment from our group took the train over to Koshien. But, I didn’t go. Not with a ten-year old in tow. The rack time could do him some good. And, after a couple of days spent sparring cautiously with yakitori and beef tongue, my secret ulterior motive was that this unexpected opening in our schedule would afford me the opportunity to find a western-style restaurant and gorge on something familiar. Besides, the typhoon not only meant there would be no baseball that day, but also any effort to visit the hallowed ground of Japanese baseball would require a decent train ride and a medium length walk, in the rain, all to see the outside of the ballpark. Later, I would see what emerged from this junket: photos of the custom Koshien manhole covers, the iron entry gates, and posed snapshots in front of signage.
Still, it didn’t seem crazy to me that some of our number would make this trip. After all, we had traveled thousands of miles already, for baseball. And on the one day we would have an opportunity to see Koshien, we were stymied by the typhoon, and who knows when any of us might be back. The rain helped me to establish the order of things a little more clearly.
Our tour group was composed of three distinct tiers. In the first tier were those interested in seeing Japan who thought a guided tour centered on baseball would be a fun way to do it. I can’t say for sure, but the members of tier one probably don’t go to 50 live games a year.
The second tier was ours, and it was composed of those who were baseball fans first. Turning the first tier’s motivation on its head, we traveled to watch baseball, and the fact it was being played in Japan was a nice bonus. We had favorite teams back home that we struggled to keep up with using spotty Wi-Fi on the trains. We were season ticket holders. We raised people’s eyebrows when we told them how much baseball we watch.
And then there was the third tier. Many were on this trip around Japan not for the first time, nor even for the second time, but a third time. Or a twentieth. In this tier were people who had been to more than 400 ballparks in the US, and cared enough to keep accurate count. They watched pro ball from the majors to the minors. They went to independent league games and summer league games and college tournament games. They went to spring training games and to the Arizona Fall League. They went to Koshien in the rain that day, and photographed the manhole covers. They seemed – disproportionately – to be named Bob, but don’t ask me why.
Celtics Fan Bob scored every game. This is no mean feat when you consider we often arrived at the ballpark just in time for first pitch. That might not sound like a big deal, but regular keepers of baseball scorebooks will understand how late arrival can complicate the process of recording lineups, names, numbers and positions. And, all the information mentioned in the preceding sentence, when delivered, was in Japanese, which Bob did not speak or read.
Bob took his score sheets home to put them into binders, where they would join the sheets from every other ballgame he had ever seen. We sat next to Bob often, he was very kind to my son, and I mentioned to him that while I wasn’t scoring the games on this trip, I liked scoring games because it helped me to stay focused on the action. I liked knowing, come the later innings, that a certain hitter had flown to right field twice already. I asked him why he scored games, and he told me he always scored the game, and he told me about his trove of binders back in the States.
Then pausing, he added, “My uncle taught me how. I use to listen to games with him on the radio and we kept score.”
Date Unknown – Oakland
The dream is roughly the same every time. There might be some differences, but I couldn’t identify them. And often, after having the dream, I will think about it in the shower. I will discourse on it, in inner monologue, maybe even out loud. I’ll be me, telling the cameras. I’ll be the announcers, telling everyone else. The discussion of that hit could go on forever. It usually goes on until something shakes me from the reverie. One of the kids, or a conference call. Or even just some minor distraction while dressing – Where is that other gray-striped sock?
But, it is my only recurring dream. And it has never gone away, even as the likelihood of its occurring has gone from infinitesimal to impossible. I am a 40-year old man now. A man who does not play baseball. A man who has not played baseball since my career peaked at 15 or 16.
Honestly, my career ended at 15 or 16, but it probably peaked much sooner. Maybe even as early as 8, when I was a dominating player in the “farm league” reserved for 6 to 8 year olds. So dominating was I then, my Dad put me onto a proper Little League team, for 9 to 12 year olds, and it caused something of a stir in our town, resulting in protested games and what I understand was a very contentious meeting where adult men argued over whether I should or should not be able to play with kids older than me. There was nuance to it. Both sides had an argument.
But, it wasn’t controversy that ended my dominance. It was my play on the field. A particular play. A pitch, actually. Probably the only pitch I specifically remember throwing. Certainly the only pitch I remember as vividly as the two-seamer in my dream. I remember the field. I remember the day, the sun, the air, my uniform, my mitt.
And I remember the sound. The hollow plunk of my pitch hitting the batter’s helmet.
Sunday, September 18 – Osaka
The night of the rainout, we reunited as a group for what was described as a Korean barbecue dinner. It is incumbent upon me as a North Carolinian to note this meal bore no resemblance to pit barbecue, and to make at least cursory reference to the continued superiority of my native barbecue tradition to all other types, foreign and domestic, so help me God.
We piled into taxis, in groups of four, for our ride to the restaurant. I will not call taxis in Japan strange, because to do so can only reflect culturally normative judgment, but they are different from taxis everywhere else I have been in the world.
First, the upholstered seat in a Japanese taxi is covered – without exception, in my experience – by white lace. Something like a doily. This, I think, is in the grand tradition of taxi seats being covered by unique and interesting things, like the beaded mats once so prevalent on the driver’s seats of Manhattan taxis.
Second, the passenger is not expected to operate the rear door through which they enter the taxi. This novel convention was presented as a customer service everywhere I read about it prior to arriving in Japan, as though somehow the taxi-traveling public the rest of the world over are being unduly burdened by the need to open and close the door of the vehicle.
My son did not comment much on the automatic doors. For him, the doilies were more interesting. I suspect this is because a 10-year old boy is used to being told what to do by other people. Parents have control. Teachers have control. For control, I became certain, was what the automatic doors were about. On every ride I took, one of our group inevitably tried to open the taxi door manually, by force of habit. This was always met with annoyance from the driver. None of the various fellow travelers who rode in a taxi with me during our trip to Japan had a good explanation for the automatic doors.
I heard they were intended as a customer service, a sort of chauffeur touch offering attentiveness, but since the taxi driver could not be expected to jump out and run around the car in the middle of traffic the automatic door was substituted. I found this to be substantiated by the notion – which was true – that local people in every city we visited were welcoming and deferential to us as visitors.
I heard automatic operation prevented the door from being broken by passengers. This seemed absurd and based on a mistaken notion of a fantasy among the Japanese livery community that people from off their islands are brutish and freakishly strong.
I heard the automatic door was intended to ensure passengers boarded and disembarked from taxis strictly on the sidewalk side of the vehicle. This seemed most plausible and sensible, but was never independently confirmed.
For our part, we disembarked safely on a narrow street with seedy businesses that, in spite of what they were selling, still gleamed in the cleanliness and orderliness that are the hallmark of Japanese cities. Down a covered alley, filled with neon signs, the restaurant required diners to remove their shoes and settle into tables recessed into the floor. We sat on long, flat benches, our legs underneath a rectangular structure that served double-duty, its top surface in use as a table, and its trunk a ventilation system for the small, gas-powered hibachi grills built-in, three to a table. There were four or five baseball fans to each grill.
Meat and beer were served all-you-can-eat style for 90 minutes. This was a novel concept to me, although upon reflection I imagined what American diners could do in a timed, all-the-meat-you-can-eat format. We made small talk over dinner and we placed hunks of raw meat onto the grill and then directly onto our plates. Beers were refilled before they were drained. But, not Tom’s.
Tom is a Tiger fan and a vegetarian. And Tom doesn’t drink alcohol. The rapport within the group was strong enough by this point that someone ribbed Tom, “You don’t eat meat. You don’t drink. You must have some vice! What is your addiction?”
“Baseball,” Tom said. And everyone laughed. Except Tom. He wasn’t kidding.
Little League Field, Circa 1987
My pitch hit the batter just behind the ear and it hit with force enough to squeeze the helmet over his ears and off of his head. I remember the helmet landing in the dirt a few feet behind home plate. I remember him crying out and then, for a moment, everything was silent and still. Like after a car wreck. And then a coach broke the silence with an irritated, “Jesus!” And everyone started moving.
Coaches and parents swarmed around the plate. His teammates lingered around the edges of the adult swarm. My catcher, my childhood friend Chris, walked to the mound. He was holding the ball, but not in his glove. He had it in his hand and he was looking down at it, examining it for blood maybe, or signs of complicity.
He handed the ball back to me and said, “Were you trying to kill him?”
Sure, he was only nine years old himself, but it is instructive that Chris thought it could be intentional. I threw that hard and I pitched that well, even at eight or nine. And my pitching career was effectively over before I reached double digits (in years of age, not wins).
I never hit well. Babe Ruth League is a league for 13-16 year olds, when – really, if you were any good – you should be playing for your junior high or high school team, or maybe an early American Legion team. Babe Ruth League is the first opportunity kids have to be washed up. And like hobbled old Kirk Gibson, who hit one of the most memorable World Series home runs of all time, a home run which will be shown endlessly – alongside my blast in Oakland – on video packages recounting the greatest home runs in history; the last great clout I hit was in Babe Ruth League.
I hit a high pitch, a pitch almost at eye level, about 300 feet, into the great green lawn that served as the outfield for ours and the three adjacent fields at the park where we played. There weren’t even any fences at the Babe Ruth fields, and I only legged out a triple. And, if you want to know the truth, I had my eyes closed when I swung.
And so my greatest hit came with my eyes closed, and it was only a triple. Triples are exciting, but they are not poetic, like home runs. I have already registered my opposition to the word, so I am no expert on its use, but I don’t think anyone “clouts” a triple actually. But, I keep having the dream.
Every other dream I have, being eaten by sharks or having something horrible happen to my kids, is more likely to come to pass than the home run dream, because the home run dream is actually impossible. But, I still dream this dream. When I got back to the states, and watched Vin Scully’s remarks, he used the imagery of a dream, and it brought my home run dream vividly rushing back.
“I had a child’s dream, and the grace of God not only gave me the fulfillment of my dream, he gave it for 67 years,” Scully intoned, his voice remarkably steady.
67 years. 67 x 50 = 3350. Even if I kept up my pace for as long as Vin did, I’d only make it to 3,350 games. Even Vin Scully, who called – more or less – 162 games a year for 67 years only has a little more than 10,000 games on his scorecard.
25,000? Could it be?
Sunday, September 18 – Osaka
The hibachi grills were novel for a few minutes, and he stayed awake long enough to suck down two Cokes, but my son was tired and eventually his head lolled drowsily toward the table. One of the members of our group, one of the shutterbugs who was never without a camera around his neck, got a snapshot of Ben nodding off. We were no match for all-the-meat-you-can-eat in 90 minutes. We were the first to climb back into a taxi. Leon – he of 25,000 games! – joined us.
Vegas would set the over/under on Leon’s age at 70. I didn’t ask. But, I know he served in the Army around the time of the Vietnam War. We not only shared an Army background, but Leon worked in intelligence as I did. Veterans are good at making connections with people, but especially other veterans. I attribute this to both sides of the interaction having honed the skill of meeting a person, developing a quick and easy rapport, and building off of that rapport as needed. This is the essence of esprit de corps: the more quickly we connect, the more quickly we can share the same parturition. Shared hardship bonds people.
By this time, having traversed several major Japanese train stations together, Leon and I were as close as if we had come ashore together at Normandy. Leon was grandfatherly with my son, having taken an obvious interest since first we met. He lives near Phoenix and he promised my son tickets to a Suns basketball game if we wanted to come visit. He also has passes to the Arizona Fall League, where professional baseball’s up-and-comers play three games a day over a 45-day period from early October to mid-November, and Leon made my son welcome to those as well. Fall League games are played in the same ballparks where big league clubs in the Cactus League play spring training, and Leon offered spring training passes, too.
As our taxi navigated misty Osaka streets, I could see little through the windshield. But, suddenly, the baseball season stretched out infinitely in my mind’s eye. February: pitchers and catchers report to spring training. November: The big-league regular season has been over for a month but the World Series – and Arizona Fall League – is just concluding. Many players head south for the winter to play in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other places that have winter leagues with season schedules in December and January. These leagues culminate in the Caribbean Series, played in early February. And by the time the Caribbean Series is decided, it’s time for pitchers and catchers to report again.
Back at the hotel, we stepped out of the taxi in light rain. If someone touched the door handle, I don’t remember who it was this time, but I know Leon paid the taxi driver. I watched him and it occurred to me I had been looking at things all wrong.
Baseball is not confined to the season I observe, during which getting to 50 or so games is hard work. Baseball is the 162-game slog Scully had broadcast for nearly seven decades. Baseball is Arizona in November, where several games a day are played in the same ballpark. Baseball is Havana and Caracas and San Juan in January.
Baseball is Bob’s collection of score sheets, accessible from his kitchen table anytime he decides to open one of the binders. Baseball is my triple, alive only in my memory. Baseball is my home run, which lives only in my dreams.
There is never a time when there is not a game. Always, players are taking swings. Practicing. Every day they might go 0-for-4. Any week could string together a few of those 0-for-4’s, and suddenly everything is in doubt. Everything has changed.
Now you’re not fine-tuning, now you’re questioning. Questioning everything about your technique, everything about your body, everything about your ability. Everything about your life and who you are and what’s important.
Or, any day you could go 4-for-4, with a homer, or even two. You are seeing things so well that the pitches look like a beach ball, and you square up every swing and hit the ball right on the screws and it always drops in.
Eventually, either kind of day has to end. And in the end, the result is the same. I can’t wait to get them again tomorrow. And that’s why there is always another game. There is always another dream. And whether the tally is 50 or 25,000, that is what everyone on the trip shares; and, it is what we share with the ballplayers themselves. It is why we love baseball. It is what brought my son together with Leon, a ten-year old boy and a seventy-year old man, on the same journey.
In the mist, Leon patted my son on the head. He told him it sure was late for a ten-year old and he did a great job at dinner. And he said again, “You come visit in Phoenix and we’ll go to a Suns game.” And my son said “Thank you.”
We went upstairs to bed because tomorrow there is a game to go to.
J.A. Walsh worked in intelligence and counter-terrorism after the 9/11 attacks and has been advising the U.S. military on energy security strategies since 2014. He has degrees in Russian, English literature, and Environmental Law.
Purpose of Evasion, released in 2019 (4.5 stars on Amazon), was hailed as “a great spy book…timely and entertaining.” The Real Book Spy said “Walsh’s book isn’t quite like anything else in the genre…authentic characters…original plot…authenticity bleeds through each and every page.”
Out of Kindness, due in 2021, is an international crime thriller for fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Ian Rankin’s Jon Rebus, and the novels of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell.
All of J.A. Walsh’s novels feature plot elements related to the author’s own interests. Careful readers will pick up references to baseball (especially the Dodgers), soccer, marathoning, and whisk(e)y.”
All of J.A. Walsh’s work can be found at his website, www.jawalsh.com