An Atlantic League Notebook
On Sunday, July 2?a blazing blue day?a friend and I awoke early and set out from Brooklyn, armed with sunscreen and a sense of possibility. I guess we reverted to that state of childhood purity when the mere thought of sunlight on water's enough to evoke a world, and a belief that the future's worth seeing. Rolled over to Port Authority, jaws hanging open with the earliness of it all, trailing newspaper sections from our bags, sunglasses hanging off big sunscreened noses. Waited around on various queues, some of them the wrong ones, in the bowels of the terminal: whiteboys smiling and bobbing their heads in the underground stink of industrial cleanser and benzene?piling onto Atlantic City buses with the golden-agers and the suckers geared to shove quarters into holes, our bodies tensed with anticipatory energy; squeezed ourselves into the seats among the poor families and the old men, grinning grins. There's that phrase from Wallace Stevens: "The gala sun." That just about covers it.
Once the Garden State Pkwy. rolls you across the North Jersey Rust Belt to the other side of, roughly, Perth Amboy, life gets even better. Even within the sealed and Windexed confines of a Greyhound, you're aware that you're doing something extraordinary. You're participating in the wonderful American ritual of the traffic-crawl toward midsummer water. In fact, the inevitable traffic jam is at least as constitutive of an American beach experience as anything else: shirtless citizens blasting radios and drinking from cans in the automotive snarl, marinating in a coastal olfactory brine compounded of the scents of sunscreen, warm beer, sea-salt, gasoline... In other words, the scent of the American sun, beach variety, in Cape Cod or Myrtle Beach or Long Island or right here, smack in the heart?the beach heart, at any rate?of God's New Jersey. The low-slung coastlands of sun-saturated Jersey: Pygmy pines growing from sand white enough to hurt your eyes, and the salt lagoons gleaming, and the grasses waving you through, and drifting motorboats with sunning girls.
Then you're in the lower-middle-class plains north of Atlantic City, with the billboards and shacks and poles in the tidal plains. AC's a good, typical Jersey place?which is to say, a working-class place with a quaint, ancient, romantic ticky-tacky seaside infrastructure. On a bright day, on the land side of the casinos, it resembles a Third World city: cottages along the canal, kids with soccer balls, dudes under cars. A seedy energy on the wasted boulevards?for example around the huge block of the abandoned Masonic Temple, like the Skull and Bones tomb jacked up to ocean size and stuck in the midst of the tumbledown capital of sunny Bulgaria.
Smear sunblock on your face and walk back toward the highway, though?crossing the drawbridge that stretches across the canal where eateries sell oysters and beer?and then, having spanned the bridge, walk for 10 minutes or so along the clogged access road, with the grass-field Atlantic City airport to your right, and you'll come across a small ballpark called?childishly, as maybe anything associated with minor league baseball will be in this age when minor league baseball is gearing itself toward families, and when families are gearing themselves toward ensuring the mental hygiene of their neurotic, overmanaged l'il sluggers?the Sandcastle.
That's where the Atlantic City Surf play baseball?the Surf being one of the eight teams that comprise the Atlantic League, an unaffiliated minor baseball league that's currently in its third season, playing in cities and towns up and down the East Coast, from Nashua, NH, to Aberdeen, MD.
Not only, though, is it where the Surf play baseball?it's also, some days?or at any rate that day, the day we were there?one of the ideal places to watch baseball, the place where transpired, against the odds, one of the best and most meaningful baseball experiences anyone could ever hope to have.
The Atlantic League consists of teams in (besides Atlantic City, Nashua and Aberdeen) Bridgeport, CT; Newark; Somerset, NJ; Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley; and Central Islip, LI. A Camden, NJ, team is scheduled to start playing in the 2001 season. The league's stated "mission" is "to bring a high level of professional baseball and affordable family entertainment to selected communities not presently being served by Major League or Minor League teams."
This seemed a phenomenon that demanded attention. I was interested in how, in the league's official literature, the "baseball" mostly drops out of the discussion, on the sly, and the rhetoric demeans itself by promulgating the idea of wholesome amusement. Wholesome amusement's fine, but to make a fetish of it is a drag. Wholesome amusement takes care of itself these days in the United States of America. Besides, it's the very opposite of what really needs nurturing, which is in fact good, unwholesome entertainment, which is synonymous with a healthy human race, with humanity in all of its senses, which still, despite the best efforts of many, still has a lot to do with going to racetracks and resenting bureaucrats and drinking malt liquor. (Or rather it doesn't need nurturing. Unwholesome entertainment needs to be left alone, like interesting weeds are left alone to bloom in alleyways, and hallucinogenic mushrooms are left alone to grow on slop piles.)
Anyway, elements toward the Atlantic League's self-definition:
"Each team in the AL will be operated by an experienced, proven minor league owner to assure the highest quality affordable family entertainment to the community..."
"The AL assembles top minor league operators and General Managers with extremely successful track records... AL managers, coaches, and player development all have Major League experience, eg., Bud Harrelson, Jim Frey, Joe Klein [presumably the former general manager of the Texas Rangers, and not the centrist pundit; though the latter, as clean-up hitter for the Permanent Media Shadow Government Softball Team, bats a cool 1.000!], Sparky Lyle, Butch Hobson, Willie Upshaw, Rick Cerone..."
And so pleasant, nostalgic-pastiche ballparks of 5000 to 7500 seats have sprouted?unlike mushrooms, these parks are products of refined calculation?in the pertinent communities. That more than half of these communities, if you count the eventual Camden franchise, are world-class slums?Newark, Bridgeport?or run-down old cities like AC, which in contemporary America are enough to pass for slums and to stimulate orgies of gated community-building within the surrounding 50 radial miles?as I say, that more than half of these franchises exist in locales anathemic to the values of the haute bourgeois family, isn't extraordinary. It certainly doesn't represent a healthy shifting in geographical values?which is what it would be if families actually wanted to go into urban downtowns again. Rather, it's an expression of the way most American cities get used today. Whether we're talking Baltimore with its Inner Harbor or Cleveland with its Rock Hall of Fame, or 20 other towns, American cities are all about offering easily consumed pop diversion interspersed amid desolation. You drive in and do some corny, overdetermined thing in red-brick mills refurbished and reconstituted as museums, brewpubs and, maybe, the gifte shoppes of new Minor League ballparks. Then you drive back to Bloomfield Hills, or the equivalent, before the underclass ghouls stake out their respective corners amidst the rubblefields.
The culture of the city's lost, and hateful, as far as most of America goes. The culture of baseball's a trickier thing to figure. But anyway, I bought a bunch of tickets for Sunday games around the Atlantic League. A month of Sundays.
The first game I attended was in Bridgeport, to watch that city's Bluefish play the Long Island Ducks. Bridgeport's one of the bad places, a metaphor for the urban American nightmare. The mayor of Bridgeport actually got tagged with a bullet coming out of church some years back?no lie. I took the New Haven line up to Bridgeport from Grand Central on June 11, when the heat was just moist enough to make you feel it. I descended from the elevated platform into the wastes of the noonday city, and there I was?on Ganymede, or a distant moon very much like it, and trudging south. Walked to the stadium under causeways as downtown Bridgeport radiated menace.
Next I was outside the small ballpark. Just as I was at every Atlantic League park I saw, I was surrounded by soccer parents. The park's structure was a pastiche of nostalgic elements: turrets, relatively cheap red cinderblock meant to evoke nostalgic red brick, flagpoles...
In the small plaza outside the ticket windows I watched a little scene unfold between a wiseacre suburban dad in shorts and the group of kids accompanying him, apparently the members of a Little League baseball team:
"Okay guys, stop here! Gather around. We have to wait here for Mr. Lombardi. There's a rumor that Mr. Lombardi's going to be playing today."
"Hey, lemme tell ya. Even Mr. Lombardi can play in this league. Heh heh."
I'm not sure that Mr. Lombardi really can play in this league, but it's nonetheless the case that, in watching Atlantic League teams, one's quickly made aware of the elitism of the Major League-level professional. Most fly balls to Atlantic League outfields are of course caught, but each pop fly breeds anxiety in the spectator. Outfielders stagger around under the falling things like drunks on Moscow buses, swatting in the air as the crowd holds its collective breath.
Another place you notice the disjunction between the Majors and the Atlantic League is in the business of throwing out base-stealers. Atlantic League catchers just lack the capacity to do so consistently. Their throws dribble on one bounce toward the shortstop or the second baseman. I was pretty sure that I could steal on any number of the players I saw backstopping for Atlantic League franchises.
Double plays, meanwhile, seem to be a 50-50 proposition. Second basemen, turning the play toward first, fling balls up into the rightfield stands as firstbaggers lunge and grunt. Then, after the play, everybody paces around the infield for a while, scratching their asses and glaring at each other. Or else balls get caught in gloves and don't come out in time, and, and...What the hell, man. What the hell. In the Major Leagues the shortstop is often the cockiest guy on the field. In the Atlantic League he's the guy who can't make the throw, the perpetual goat, the fellow who tends to botch it.
The other salient thing you notice (you certainly don't notice this at Yankee Stadium or at Shea, where the margins between the stands and the actual diamond are so wide?I can't speak for other big league parks, being familiar only with Dodger Stadium, where in 1995 I spent a magnificent Southern Californian evening watching Ramon Martinez pitch a no-hitter from a Himalayan altitude?a beautiful experience, but less one of baseball than of atmospheric perspective) is the violence of the game, viewed up close.
For example. Long Island Ducks outfielder Chuck Carr led off the top of the third inning against Bridgeport Bluefish pitcher Tim Adkins. He immediately drilled a hard grounder toward his own team's dugout, catalyzing the same sort of subterranean scrambling among his teammates?incoming!?that veterans of the Somme trenches would have been familiar with. "Oh, shit," we could hear him say as he shook off his swing, looking over to the dugout with apprehension, anxious as to whether he'd brained his manager.
Next, with an audible grunt and a visible straining of forearm tendons, Carr drilled a base hit between third and short. An audible grinding of spikes and the feeling of the texture of the dirt; the catcher jumped up, and there were manifest vicious speeds the impact of which Major League distance elides: the whipsawing of bodies and precise flinging of objects. There's a spooky intimacy in an Atlantic League park.
All throughout that hit-filled third inning, scoring runners slid into home not more than 15 feet from the front rows. So it was impossible to miss the queasy moment of contact as the runners hit the ground; the grunts of pain; the threat of impact with the hovering catcher as distances shortened; and then the runners were limping to their dugouts with dirt on their pants and their sweaty faces creased with pain.
The ambience of Atlantic League games is defined by a hectic desperation to foment family fun, or maybe I should say TO FOMENT FAMILY FUN! At some AL parks it's worse than at others; under some circumstances it can become oppressive.
The Somerset Patriots' lovely little park is set amidst fields on the outskirts of the affluent central New Jersey suburb the team calls home. During an afternoon game against the Newark Bears, the stands are about filled with a cheerful, white, affluent suburban crowd, a demographic that?either Patriots management or the AL brass or both must assume?exists to be drilled into that state of sensory overload in which suburban kids are raised these days.
Pleasantly dazed by beer and the torrential sun, my father (60) and I (28) leaned back and committed ourselves to the overload, to the process of ENJOYING FAMILY ENJOYMENT. Committed ourselves to the fact that every batter's walk to the plate is accompanied by loud music, for instance (in the case of the home team boys, the music's a special theme song for each player; if I played in the Atlantic, it would come down to either Gaylord Klancnik's "Hi, Neighbor Polka" or the Unband's "Cocaine Whore"). The league's many Latin fellows, no surprise, love the salsa.
And committed ourselves to the constant barrage of sound and video effects. No foul ball could disappear behind the stadium's rightfield wall without a sample of shattering glass asserting itself from the loudspeaker at a nerve-shattering volume; no opposing batter could strike out without there blaring, into the spectator's blunted cerebrum, a voice mewling "BYE BYE," certainly a clip from the dialogue of some movie I haven't seen.
It's there; it's all in your face. The whole experience is an exercise in overdetermination: the pastiche design of the uniform ballparks mandating nostalgia, the sound effects and the music mandating response, the constant barrage of onfield promotions and FAMILY FUN! mandating the bland, wide grin of the recreating American. It starts off kind of cute, but then it starts to feel sticky and creepy, and gums up your synapses. Human beings emerged on the diamond's margins between innings to sumo wrestle in big blowup sumo suits; to run foot races; to play trivia games; to sing inept Schoenbergian atonal frightened karaoke versions of "Hey Jude," which were beamed up over the video screen; to run around the bases with some slacker in a chicken suit, or whatever that creature was supposed to be; to warble "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" over public address systems at stunning volume; to shoot balled-up t-shirts into the stands out of oversized air guns; to spray the children of the punters with garden hoses...
"It's probably always been like this," I lied to myself and my father as we baked in the sweet sun. "Like out in the prairie leagues. You know, they'd raffle off a Packard or something. Or the local apothecary would pay someone to streak the infield with an address branded to his ass. You know?"
Meanwhile, around the Somerset Patriots' gleaming little ballpark, gym teachers in maroon polo shirts and khaki shorts guarded the aisles and perimeters, staring at you from behind cop shades and nibbling at walkie-talkies. Cop Land. My father and I had snuck in a bag of cherries and a bottle of spring water to take an edge off the beer, and I was half-afraid we'd be apprehended and wrestled to the pavement, kicked to death by guys who referee high school wrestling matches in their spare time, just like, in fourth grade, I'd always pictured it would be.
I had a singular Atlantic League experience when a friend and I attended a Newark Bears home game on a cold, dreary afternoon when there couldn't have been more than a thousand spectators in the stands. It was just Tim and me, sprawled lazily over three seats each on the third-base side as a slight flu-giving mist descended. No one was there. And yet the management considered this a technicality, something to be ignored. We sat there chortling, occasionally holding our ears at the sensory barrage directed, in the absence of a crowd, almost exclusively at us. Since the effects tend to be the same from park to park?perhaps the league employs a shadow Minister of Propaganda (Joe Klein?)?I was already familiar with most of this stuff from its being deployed against the Fairfield County kiddies up in Bridgeport, but here it was again, aimed at two grown baseball fans, respectively in their late 20s and early 30s. We guffawed. Sonic violence (SONIC VIOLENCE!) there in a weird place (A WEIRD PLACE!): An EMPTY BALLPARK! on the shores of the Passaic River on the boundary of an underclass war zone either degenerating into, or growing into its future splendor as, a geography of urban kitsch.
We left in the sixth inning, preferring to spend the time between then and the arrival of our train perambulating Newark in the mist.
It is now time to announce my formative baseball memories, in the interests of the hackneyed chump convention that inheres when you're writing about baseball.
So imagine: a kid standing on a seat high in Yankee Stadium's leftfield tier during the early years of the Steinbrenner area, screaming pregonadal curses at struggling Catfish Hunter and waddling Thurman Munson ("He's fast," I remember telling my old man, watching Munson run out a grounder to first. "He's slower than molasses," my father responded, "look at him"?and it was true. The doomed catcher could barely run, and maybe it was that moment of clarity?I'd wanted to be a catcher myself, see?that ended my preadolescent narcissism, a remnant of the mirror stage) in imitation of the rangy and fat and suntanned and hale and dissipated drunks who leered and chortled and groaned and gargled around me.
They loved me. Turned around in their seats to get a load of me. HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW HAWWWW.
Joints circulated, beer sloshed and ebbed and Winstons dangled under the floppy mustaches and bloodshot eyes of the Yankee Stadium working-class in the Year Of Our Lord, 1977: an exhilarated towheaded kid up on a seat, six years old, there in the American sun, learning to be an American. Which is to say, learning to curse, and loudly. There in what's even more obviously now?in the age of comforting, cheesy boomer panderings like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field?the grand American severity of Yankee Stadium in what very well might be your ancestral Bronx, though perhaps your Bronx is somewhere else?Queens or the Lower East Side or Miami or South Boston, or wherever your family began its progress out of the American primordial slop. Yankee Stadium: a vestige of the old, gray, profane city. This is not the same as the vicious, murderous inhuman city that we learned to live with for so long, though those who would slander it in the interests of advancing the already-dominant suburban dispensation would, when forced to, claim that it is the same. It's rather a rough, humane place where there are margins and places to hide and miscegenate, and it's a place where you can get things done, and make things, and spread your limbs, and improvise.
You curse out loud too often at an Atlantic League game, you'll almost certainly be expelled. Seriously. You stand up and cheer too exuberantly, you'll probably be thrown out, too. I'm not kidding. One of those gym teachers will kick you out.
You take your shirt off, the eyes of suburban maternity will turn themselves upon you in their censuring force, just as they once turned themselves on Sister Carrie. Sir, we're trying to have a good time here today, 'kay?
The idea of firemen exerting themselves in drunken celebration at an Atlantic League game is surreal. When I watched the Somerset Patriots play the Newark Bears down in Somerset, I was amazed to find that a small group of Newark fans?guys, or Guys, in their 30s?were chanting "B-E-A-R-S!" at a rather effusive volume. Never have entities been as out of place, as grossly out of context, as they were.
Not long after my visit to Somerset, I watched the Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles on the fine afternoon of Independence Day up in the Bronx. The energy level was, as you'd imagine, high on this Day of summer Days, and the more so when David Justice?the power-hitter whom the Yankees had days before acquired from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for, among others, the promising young outfielder Ricky Ledee?came to bat.
And struck out.
A pause as Justice walked away from the plate to the disappointed crowd's low, malevolent murmuring. Then, from a few sections down from where I was sitting next to a rat-faced young boy, came the gruff, possibly beer-soaked Yankee Stadium inevitability:
"ARRIGHT JUSTICE! THAT WAS A GOOD FUCKIN' TRADE!"
Guffawing and sniggering in the surrounding sections, as the abusive sentiment wafted down maybe even to Justice as he slunk to the dugout.
Because really in America you're not supposed to have family fun?not at a ballpark, not in any conception of the America you'd like to live in, that would be worth living in, that?paradoxically?would be worth raising a family in. The ideal America of the poets?which is different from the America we live in but that shouldn't be, and with the right sort of exertion on our parts might not always be?is precisely that psychic country where firemen can drink beer, and sprawl over seats, and curse and smoke pot in the summer sun, not hurting anybody. That isn't too much to ask. It might even be an expression of a civilization worth preserving, the civilization that Twain and Whitman and Emerson evoked, a civilization that might even be worth something?at the very least, a civilization that would earn the dignity of being called human. It isn't a civilization that's going to find much in common with Clintonism, or Goreism, or Bushism, or whatever they've got planned for us.
There's nothing your six-year-old would be better off hearing, nothing that would be better for his humanity and his values and his priorities and his soul, than a guy buzzed on beer on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, yelling at the millionaire likes of David Justice to either get his act together or go to hell.
No one was at the Atlantic City Sandcastle that day we took the bus down to watch the Surf play Bridgeport. We assumed that the stands would be full, as they had been in Somerset and in Bridgeport, thronged with Whitey At Play In, or Rather in the Stands Around, the Fields of the Lord, especially since the weather was as luscious as you could ever hope it to be: sky so blue that you wanted to grab handfuls of it and squeeze the pure pigment out of it, sun singing choruses, a gentle sea breeze bringing the salty taste of the cool, the profound, the rimey, the organic. It was a perfect day for a baseball game?and in the fat middle of a long weekend, no less.
As small as the park is, it felt lonely. Two hundred people, tops, were scattered around a stadium that must hold roughly 6000. The first pitch was at 4:35 p.m., too, so, as the game progressed, we were treated to a magnificent play of midsummer shadows?creeping blueness, growing toward the east. A grand panorama in watery blue light, the American Surreal: DeChirico translated to the lower-class marshlands on the wrong side, the land side, of the casinos. Vistas receded over cattails and water toward the eastward and northward pines. Over the right- and centerfield walls, the casino skyline rose. Over the left, Atlantic City's grass-field airport stretched far out to the highway. In this expanse of sleepy, watery silence, with the shadows coming down, we settled down to watch the baseball. The whole grassy landscape was kicking back?seedy, timeless, slackboned. Amazingly, a white blimp drifted down into the parched grass airfield, bounced in slo-mo, then bumped and pulled at its tethers when the guys in white coveralls scurried out to secure it.
Meanwhile, the game proceeded in absolute silence. We could hear the pitcher's grunting, could hear the whiff of bats through air, could hear the wordless murmuring of batters as they retreated, between pitches, from the box, could hear the second basemen cursing as double plays were botched (that Atlantic League chicken-arm mojo asserted itself as usual), could hear seagulls cawing on swells of salted air?and could hear, too, the little kid up in the tiny Atlantic League mezzanine screaming, "Swing!" each time the Surf's pitcher dealt to an opposing batter.
It was nice to hear that obnoxious old Little League gambit. Remember it? If you played Little League, then you do. You'll remember playing second base or whatever, and bawling, "Swing!" at the other team's batters until somebody's father yelled at you from the lawnchairs to shut the fuck up. The gambit worked, though, at least 25 percent of the time, which fact constituted an early, cruel exercise in human weakness and instrumentality. (Then your own old man would tell that old man to shut the fuck up himself, and then, praise God, you had it?you had a game of American hardball.) I was glad the little kid was there, in his evil. And each time an opposing batter did swing and miss, you couldn't be sure whether he'd done it by his own volition or whether the child had spooked him into it. I think the boy must have stealthily ruined a number of opposing players' days.
We could hear the sound of hushing cars from a distant motorway; we could hear the foam popping on our beers; we could hear the humming of the fridges back in the concession stands.
Sloppiness set in, a lawless pastoral looseness. Smiling, buzzed guys slouched around empty stands with cups of beer, with their shirts off. There were, like, 50 of us. There were no police, no ushers that I noticed, and even the guy on the sound effects machine up in the control booth seemed to be taking it easy, keeping his thumb off the button, respecting the day's loose logic. Everyone was off duty. Regardless of whether we were paying attention to them or not?and we were, sporadically?the players performed their lightning-flash bits of speed and violence on those vast green fields.
Anyway, I wish somebody would stand up during this campaign season and, even in the face of the populace's general incomprehension, affirm the importance of emptiness and silence. Baseball can sometimes give them to you, can sometimes dramatize their importance. And their importance should be stressed, especially in the face of a bipartisan contemporary American culture bent on obliterating both, which is to say it's bent on obliterating the conditions in which American freedom occasionally?on some days when they sun's going down against Atlantic City, and no one's in the ballpark?asserts itself, for fleeting moments and when you least expect it, on the outskirts of a shabby town. Those moments and places when the noise stops, and you can breathe again.
Remember when you were a kid, when you'd be playing on a field as the sun went down and the evening got big and scary? Walking home over ghostly fields at dusk? You remember those empty, desperate adolescent moments of total anarchic emptiness, potential and desperation, people's lawns buzzing? When, American that you were, you could do anything? Give that kid who you used to be an atom bomb and he might release huge energies, blow the roof of the universe off. Kid at the height of summer, scared by the expanses of empty time both before and behind him, wandering, jobless, smoking cigarettes, dazed by the sun, stoned, drunk, skating through lonely expanses of concrete at the edges of the subdivisions, contemplating the disjunction between his own desolation and the promise of summer, what he's been promised by summer, by the ideology of summer. He knows he's been ripped off.
It's in that disjunction, that space, that you decide to start a band, decide to throw a rock through a window, decide to beat up the kid who messed with your sister, decide to commit yourself to someday waging any number of revolutions?which unless I've been lied to, and maybe I have, are supposed to be birthrights around these parts. Fighting to maintain the slack, anarchic American spaces in which people can spread their bodies around and plan action in the loneliness of American spaces?and sometime you find that whole process dramatized in a little-known ballpark for a silly, little-known league on the forgotten edges of a city people mostly laugh at.
So, after the game we walked along the highway and causeway back to downtown AC, ready to sit for a while by the boardwalk and the ocean, and then maybe go inside the casinos and try our luck?we walked along like two kids, gangling, nothing to do but the patriotic work of waiting for a bus to take us elsewhere?and in the meantime we were thinking that our luck would be good.