Welcome to Summer

Watching Manny Ramirez try for his 500th home run.

The heat thickened, held, and broke in sheets of sudden gray rain that had us squinting warily at the horizon. By the time we met up with everyone in Baltimore, though, the storm had passed, leaving only warm remnants puddled in the seats at Camden Yards.

And what seats! Third baseline, three rows back from the wall. Close enough to see the freckles on the teenage batgirl. Close enough to call out to Manny Ramirez as he stood in the outfield, tucking his dreadlocks under his blue and red bandanna.

Today’s the day, we yelled, as if saying it could make it happen. A few rows back, six or seven Dominicans cheered him on in Spanish. The half-hearted heckles of a few local fans were mostly drowned out by the catcalls of those like myself, who had crossed multiple state lines to see if Manny could score his 500th home run.

“We might as well be in Fenway Park,” one stranger said to me.

What people won’t remember about that game is Manny’s poor performance in the outfield. Twice he chased balls in our direction, and twice he failed to catch them. Also forgotten will be the first three times he came up to bat and swung, to the pulse of flash bulbs across the stadium night like stillborn stars, only to have his balls fouled away or caught in the outfield.

All that remains will be the seventh inning, when he swung at the first pitch and sent the ball 410 feet into the seats behind the right-center outfield. Before the ball even came down, we were on our feet, yelling and laughing. I hugged my father and brother, kissed my mom and my girlfriend, exchanged high-fives with people I didn’t know, all because the moment seemed to give itself to expressions of illogical joy.

The next day, on the train back to Connecticut, the bartender in the dining car pointed at the worn red “B” on my sweatshirt.

“You know,” he said, “the guy who caught Manny’s ball is on this train.” His comment was overheard by a group of travelers playing cards at a nearby table.

“He was probably putting one over on you,” one of them said.

“No sir,” the bartender said. “It was the guy. Says they took him back after the game, offered him autographed bats, tickets to Fenway, a free room at the nearest hotel. So he gave the ball back to Manny.”

By this time, others had leaned into the conversation, and the bartender’s words traveled down the length of the car.

“I wouldn’t have traded that ball for anything,” one man said.

“Hell no,” agreed a tattooed girl in a Red Sox jacket.

“It’s the right thing to do,” an older man said, though he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. The debate went on, and was carried to other parts of the train along with the soda and hot dogs cradled in the arms of hungry passengers.

“One thing’s for sure,” the bartender said. “That guy will never again pay for a beer in the town of Boston.”

I found a seat near the window and watched as the backyards passed by, newly flush with green growth. I felt a funny sense of something I hadn’t experienced in a long time — something young and naïve.

Baseballs can still be lobbed into myth, into stories told on trains, I thought. Maybe those kinds of things don’t change. Maybe we’re still alright.

Article © 2008 by Dennis Wilson