Saturday, March 26, 2016

The National Pastime

George Mason University has a sprawling campus in Fairfax, Virginia, about 10 miles west of Washington, D.C.  For most of Virginia history, not very many people lived in this part of the Commonwealth, and the state officials figured that if you really wanted to go to college, you weren't that far from Charlottesville.  So it wasn't until after World War II that they started a Northern Virginia "branch" of UVA.  By the mid-1960's, this had become George Mason College, and since then, Mason -- like NoVA itself -- has grown like weeds.  Now Mason is the largest university (by headcount) in Virginia, with over 33,000 students in its various programs.

All that growth naturally required lots of building, and Mason now has a vast and almost incomprehensible campus -- I always get lost out there -- in and around the ancient city of Fairfax.  Because Mason grew so quickly, its buildings almost all reflect the late-20th century style of academic architecture.  It looks like a ginormous version of Paducah Community College -- all vaguely modern/but also somewhat traditional brick buildings, hidden amongst the sort of really tall, skinny trees that dominate those parts of Fairfax County where almost no one lived before, say, 1970.  (To see big, beautiful trees you need to go to the parts of NoVA where folks lived in the 19th century.  Those people chopped down the original forest to build their houses, thus creating room that later allowed massive individual trees to grow.)

But this post isn't really about Mason -- except indirectly.  It's about baseball.

The folks who built Mason were true Northern Virginians.  They were great believers in the future, in science and technology, in multi-culturalism and computers, in prosperity and immigration.  And Mason reflects these priorities.  It tends to be particularly good in things like economics, computer science, and business -- the sort of things that set hearts a-flutter in Fairfax County.  But where does baseball fit into all of this?  Well, it would appear that the folks who built Mason didn't have much faith in baseball.  They built a baseball field, of course -- Northern Virginia has lots of baseball fields, mostly built during the Brady Bunch era, at various parks and schools.  And Mason's field is quite nice, once you get to it.  But it is stuck in the far back corner of the campus, just across the street from one of those big housing developments that went up in the last housing bubble.  You have the impression that when the Mason people built the park, back in the mid-1980's, they didn't expect to see too many folks going to the old ball game.  In fact, knowing Northern Virginia as I do, it wouldn't surprise me if the Mason folks expected that baseball would have died out by 2016.

But free people have a tendency to hang onto traditions that the experts think should go ahead and disappear, and so Mason baseball is still going strong.  In fact, the team has reached the NCAA Baseball Tournament seven different times, most recently in 2014.  These days, Mason plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and today they were hosting Rhode Island.  So I decided to go out to Mason -- it's about 15 minutes from my house -- and take in a game.

The whole thing proved to be quite an adventure.  Because of the odd location of the park, I almost couldn't find it at all.  I found myself in a vast recreational complex -- it looked like the ultimate dream of a P.E. teacher from 1980 -- lots of fields, and fences, and bleachers.  I saw a softball stadium (with lots of cars parked nearby, for a double-header was in progress), tennis courts, basketball courts, and a big stadium for lacrosse and soccer.  And finally, off in the distance, I could see a long green fence with an American flag hanging nearby.  I thought that had to be the baseball field.  But I literally could not figure out how to get there by car.  Eventually, I parked in one of the East German-looking parking garages and walked.  Mason isn't really designed for walking, so it took about 25 minutes to get there.  And when I did, they were out of hot dogs.

I didn't really mind.  The score was 0-0 in the top of the 2d, and it was a perfect spring day -- bright and clear, with just enough breeze to justify a windbreaker.  Mason's field is called Raymond H. "Rap" Spuhler Field, after the team's first coach, and it sits in a little valley on the edge of campus.  There are tiny bleachers down the first and third base lines, and a bigger set of bleachers behind home plate.  Here I found some two hundred or so people, sitting in clumps of two or three, watching the game.

I knew from past experience that amateur baseball crowds tend to consist largely of family and friends of the players, and this one was no exception.  Many of the patrons were plainly people who have watched their sons, nephews, and grandsons play hundreds of baseball games.  Almost all of them were wearing baseball caps -- but you didn't see too many Nats caps, or any other cap you would recognize.  These were the sorts of people who have lots of baseball caps, and who think carefully about which cap to wear on a particular day.  So there were a lot of minor league baseball caps, and caps for various military units, and caps for high school baseball teams, and caps for colleges not around here -- like Stephen F. Austin or the University of Kentucky.  There were a smattering of Mason caps -- and Mason regalia generally -- but it was almost always specialized, high-end Mason gear -- more interesting and more sophisticated than what you normally see at the local Dick's Sporting Goods.

Of course, not everyone there was of the age to have sons on the team -- the ratio of old people and children to the crowd as a whole was almost exactly what it would be at the typical Baptist Church on Sunday morning.  There was one woman who spent almost the entire game following a girl toddler, who wandered here and there with an ecstatic grin on her face.  There were also about 10 or so boys of 12 or under, who spent almost all of their time hoping that someone would hit a foul.  Every so often this would happen -- a high, looping foul ball that would soar out of the field of play, landing on the grass surrounding the field -- or, in one case, bounding into the nearby road.  Every time, no matter where the ball landed, boys would soon start moving toward it.  I watched one boy dash out into the (empty) road in order to get the ball that landed out there.  The Mason folks would occasionally seek to retrieve the balls themselves, as is common in amateur baseball, because college teams can't afford to give away too many balls.  But they weren't too strict about it, and by the fifth inning or so almost all the boys who really wanted a ball had one.  You could see the boys standing behind the Mason dugout, playing long games of catch.

There were also specialists of the type you need at a college baseball game.  Someone did a great job running the scoreboard, and never made a mistake on the count or the score -- which is impressive, given that the Nats took several years before they figured out how to do that.  There was a lone guy running a concession stand out beyond the left field fence, who told me that the hot dogs would be ready about 15 minutes after I arrived.  They were, and they were delicious, although the buns were a bit stale.  There was a guy with a camera in the top row of the bleachers, filming the game for a webcast -- Mason is obsessed with technology, so you can watch the games on the Internet.  There was a bearded, slightly overweight student under the bleachers, watching the game on a series of computer screens -- presumably he was doing play-by-play for the webcast.  Or he might have been the person who served as the P.A. announcer, and who played an endless series of songs between innings -- and as walk-up music for the various Mason batters.  This music consisted almost entirely of the same mix of country and hip-hop music that you seem to hear at almost all amateur sports these days, along with the occasional classic rock song thrown in from time to time.

Having taken all of this in, I was able to enjoy listening to the fans.  I noticed that no one was keeping score, but it soon became obvious that none of the people here needed to keep score.  They were baseball experts, and I have no doubt that the fans themselves could have put on a credible display of hitting and fielding if given a chance.  Amateur baseball fans at this level are, if you think about it, an elite class.  Almost everyone's child starts playing some sports when they are five or six, and most of those children are terrible at every game they try.  These were the parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents of children who were great.  Just think how talented you have to be play D-1 baseball for a school like Mason.  These are the parents whose kids were stars in Little League, Babe Ruth League, and high school -- whose kids played on travel teams, and participated in endless tournaments across the Mid-Atlantic.  And so these folks knew a lot about baseball -- much more, certainly, than I will ever know.

If you think about it, it's not all that easy to sit through hundreds of baseball games where your son is one of the best players on the field.  It's not like football, or basketball, where the games are so loud -- or the other team's fans so far away -- that you can yell with all your might.  Baseball games tend to attract small crowds -- and the other team's parents may be sitting nearby.  Many of the friends and family had developed a habit of sitting through games in almost total silence, except for the occasional comment to their neighbors.  But those parents (mostly mothers) who did want to cheer had developed the traditional baseball chatter in a way that allowed them to constantly give encouragement to their own side, without ever saying anything about the other team.  It was as though they were rooting for their kids against baseball itself.

So when a Mason batter came to the plate, you would hear fans here and there calling him by name or number:  "Come on, Mike!  Come on, seven!  Need to reach here.  Need to get something going."  They had specific phrases for almost any situation.  "Don't make it easy!" if they were afraid the batter would swing at a bad pitch.  "Work through it!" if the team was victimized by a bad call.  "Way to watch!" if a Mason batter drew a walk.  It went on and on.  But they never criticized the other team, or even mentioned them at all.  Nor did they complain about their own team's coach or his strategy.  The only person they ever criticized was the umpire, who they always referred to as "Blue" even though he was wearing a black cap, a black shirt, and gray pants.

I was particularly interested in the number cheers.  If a player had a single number, like 7 or 8, that was easy:  "Come on, seven!"  "You show 'em, eight!"  That was simple enough.  But with a number like 29 or 18, we would get cheers like, "That's the way, two-nine!"  "Throw it in there, one-eight!"  I thought this was interesting, and I was curious to see what would happen if a player with a double number, like 11 or 33 came to the plate.  I just couldn't see referring to a player as "one-one" or "three-three" -- it didn't sound formidable enough.  And they had figured this out, too, because when number 11 did come to the plate, they referred to him as "ones," while number 33 became, of course, "threes."

But the number cheers were only part of the story -- we also got lots of name cheers.  The fans invariably referred to each Mason player by his first name.  I never heard any last names, but a whole series of the boys' names that were so popular in the suburbs back in the 1990's:  Mike (of course), but also Tyler and Trevor, Zach and Ryan -- all the names I remembered when my own sons went to kindergarten, now grown up and playing baseball.

And what enjoyable baseball it was.  There is an enormous difference in quality between the typical high school game and a game between schools like Mason and Rhode Island.  Mason has a good size park -- 320 down the lines, 375 in the power alleys, 400 to center field.  The pitchers for both teams had a variety of good pitches and excellent control.  I saw some really good defensive plays and only one error in the whole game.  Baseball is so difficult to play that it can be frustrating for the fans when the players keep making mistakes.  But this was a crisp, well-played game.

It was an important game for both teams -- the second conference game of the year.  Mason was 6-16 overall, and Rhode Island was 7-10 -- but that's not necessarily a big deal, because they had been playing tough non-conference schedules.  The key at this level is to win your conference.  Rhode Island had won yesterday's game, and Mason did not want to be 0-2 in conference play.  So both teams had strong incentives to win.

More importantly, both teams got great pitching.  Mason went with Joe Williams, a left-handed sophomore from Battlefield H.S. in Haymarket, Va., and he was on his game.  ("Come on, Joe!  Way to pitch, nine!")  He would give up roughly one hit per inning, but he almost always got out of trouble.  In seven innings, he allowed only a single run.  Unfortunately for the Mason fans, the Rhode Island pitcher was doing even better.  His name is Steve Moyers, a left-handed senior from East Longmeadow High School in East Longmeadow, Mass., and he was on fire.  He didn't allow any hits until the bottom of the fifth, and he still held a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the 7th.

But in the bottom of the 7th, with the cheers from the Mason patrons growing someone more anxious, the Patriots put together a rally consisting of a walk, a fielder's choice, and a two-out double (only their second hit of the game).  It wasn't much, but it was enough to keep Mason alive.  As both teams turned to their bullpen, the Mason fans were relieved to finally be on the scoreboard.

The game had started at 2 P.M., and it was now close to 4.  Clouds had blown in front of the sun, and the afternoon breeze was getting stronger.  New fans showed up -- some of the Mason softball players, who had finished their double-header with Rhode Island (they split).  The games of catch had mostly petered out, and the boys were spending more time standing close to the fence nearest to home plate, hoping to see some action.  The Mason fans were growing increasingly patient with the home plate umpire, who had an annoying habit of calling a wide pitch a strike, and then later calling another pitch -- in the exact same place -- a ball.  "Come on, Blue!"  "Call it both ways, Blue!"  "Pay attention, Blue!"

Neither team would back off.  We went through the eighth and ninth innings, still tied at one.  The between-innings music was turning toward AC/DC, growing more intense as both teams battled for the win.  Finally, in the bottom of the 10th, the sun came back out for one last time, and the patrons rallied themselves for another effort.  Mason got a runner to second on a walk and a sacrifice, and then got a single to right that I thought would score the winning run.  But the third base coach held the runner -- giving me a bad feeling, as I reflected on all the times the Nats have abandoned a runner at third.  However, there was still only one out, so I was hoping for a sacrifice fly.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island pulled up their infield.

It ended very quickly.  Mason's coaches, having apparently lost faith in their offense, called for a squeeze play -- but the batter missed the bunt and struck out.  Now the Mason runner was in no-man's land between third and home, and the Rhode Island catcher saw a chance to end the inning by doubling him off.  As the Mason runner scampered back toward third, the catcher zipped the ball to the base.  But the Ram third baseman had been pulled out of position by the attempted bunt, and he still wasn't in the best place to catch the ball.  For 10 innings both teams had played flawlessly in the field, and good pitching had kept the bats mostly quiet.  Suddenly, however, the ball went flying down past third base and into left field -- and the Mason runner reversed course and raced home with the winning run.  George Mason 2, Rhode Island 1 (10 innings).

Huge cheers from the Mason fans, and a great feeling of an afternoon well spent.  On the way out, I heard some of the more active fans talking about their plans for a post-game meal for the team and its parents.  Apparently the game had ended at just the right time, given the timing of the food delivery.  I thought again about these parents, and about how often they must have sat through rain delays, or lightning, or tornado watches, or double-headers, or blow-outs, and I thought that a 2-1 victory on a bright, sunny afternoon should count as a pretty good day.

As I went home, however, I thought about it some more, and I realized just how lucky those parents have been.  We call baseball the National Pastime, but I think that for many Americans, the National Pastime is parenting.  Let's face it:  freedom isn't easy, and most of us spend a lot of time doing things we don't want for the sake of our children.  How many of us get to spend years and years cheering for our kids as they get to do something that they are really good at?  Wouldn't it be fun, I wondered, if the liberal arts worked like baseball -- if the teachers would work with our kids in practice, but the tests would all take place in public?  Would the parents sit there and cheer for their kids the way the baseball parents do?

"Come on, Timmy!  Solve for x!  You've got this!"
"It's Shakespeare, Mary Beth!  You know Shakespeare!  Show 'em what you can do!"
"An EIGHTY-FOUR, Teach?  You only gave that paper an eighty-four?  Did you even read the paper?  Get your head in the game, teach!"

I realize that there are problems with this approach.  But we parents love our kids so much, and we care so deeply about how they do, and sometimes I think it's a shame we don't get to do more cheering in public.  The baseball parents do get to cheer, and I'm happy for them.


  1. I held off reading this until I had time to sit down and read a hard-copy printout. It was totally worth the wait--thanks for taking the time to write it. I tried to write this mood of college baseball about a half-dozen times when doing blowout-game stories about WKU in the early 1990s, and I never got close to pinning it down.

  2. I will add that probably seven of the 10 coldest experiences of my life were at college-baseball games. Hundreds of times, I've been in environments with lower temperatures. But there's something about the college-baseball game where you get tricked by the sunny spring afternoon, have clouds and dusk roll in, maybe some wind, the sparsely populated aluminum bleachers, iced drinks, maybe extra innings ... whew-wee, it can get you.