THE OLD BALLGAME
Nkosi Ife Bandele
The last time I attended a professional baseball game I was about the same age that my daughter is now, ten years old. I grew up in Philly in the 1970’s, and in those days you could hang out in the “nosebleeds” for about two bucks, so during the summer, when my friends and I didn’t spend the day at the public pool, we hopped the sub and went to “Veteran’s Stadium” where we mostly rambled about. Only once and a while did we ever watch the game, and never all nine innings.
That final time I attended as a kid happened to coincide with the airing of the “Roots” television miniseries, a time in U.S. society when racial tensions intensified beyond their everyday extremes.
Granted, my friends and I were regularly reminded that we were black boys attending a predominately White, and in those days, generally working to middle class venue, our official reminders coming via security guards, (who were sometimes Black), asking to see our ticket stubs and then directing us to sit our butts down somewhere.
We also received our fair share of looks from the white fans, (looks that ranged from exasperating to threatening), which informed us that our mere presence ruined their otherwise easy-going time at the old ballgame.
That group of friends and I shared no real feelings or concerns about any of this. In those days, we were more Jackson Five disciples than NWA.
On that final day, the day when our experience became conflated with “Roots,” we had actually taken our seats, midway up the nosebleeds. Our ring leader, a fourteen year old named Terry, the coolest and toughest kid in the neighborhood, beloved by our parents for his impeccable manners and feared by gang members, (even), because of how he could “hold hands,” insisted that he felt tired that day, and that we should just watch the game, all nine innings!
As we sat sprawled out in our seats in a relatively empty bleacher section, uniformly bored out of our minds, I remember getting doused with a splash of a liquid—a cup of something had been hurled at us from the uppermost nosebleeds. When the cup collided with seats above us, its contents ricocheted onto me in particular. It felt like being spit upon.
My friends and I jutted up, and as we tried to make heads or tails, all manner of curses were then rained down upon us, the most prominent being called Roots’ star “Kunta Kinte!”
As I’ve already admitted, we were not a particularly tough group. I specifically recall feeling scared and ashamed.
The white men assaulting us looked twenty-something, and they did look rather formidable. Thinking about it from my vantage point now, with a more learned and politicized mind, I’m currently recalling images of vainglorious white faces posturing at lynching parties, mobs of white parents menacing black children for merely attempting to go to school, and in my own specific case, as a young adult, an incensed white cop berating me while wagging his baton in my face because I challenged his illegal search of my college friends and me.
As the assault at the ballpark continued, my friends and I turned to Terry for his leadership. He had saved us so many times before; specifically, thoroughly beating up the neighborhood gang leader as a clear message to them all; thoughtfully explaining to our neighborhood’s hysterical dad, Mr. Dave, that we did not intentionally step on his freshly cut grass or brush against his newly-polished Oldsmobile, and that we really meant him no personal injury; and for me once at a ballgame, when I had foolishly spent part of my subway fare on a treat, coming up with the extra quarter that I needed to get home that day.
Terry looked up at the men who continued to gesture wildly, in effect daring us, and after casually plucking a random speck from his substantial Afro, grimaced slightly and shook his head to let us know that those creeps weren’t worth it, and then and he turned to us and stated flatly, “We out.”
That was my last time.
My daughter started bugging me about going to a baseball game a couple of years ago. Even though she’s not into the sport, or any other sport, she likes drama, and apparently the Mets/Yankees debate rages on in her 5th grade classroom.
“Yanks all the way!” declares my daughter, and I privately seethe because I know she can’t name one player, past or present. I want to wound her pride by quizzing her on the obviousness of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or Joe DiMaggio, (or, for Christ’s sake, Derek Jeter!), but of course it would be so absolutely petty of me to misappropriate my anxiety and own wounded pride as such. After all, my daughter’s not the one who called me Kunta Kinte, (and she knows nothing about that).
For the whole two years, I put her off, citing scheduling conflict and/or expense, and I got plumb lucky on two yearly occasions when the PTA ran out of “subway series” tickets so quickly.
She finally got me when friends, who happen to be White, offered my wife and me their corporate tickets to a Mets game, and somehow she managed to overhear despite her earplugs.
Not missing a beat, she yelled out, “We goin!” before I could concoct my latest excuse.
My irrational resentment turned into my irrational sulking the week before the game—mad at my daughter for not empathizing with my, again, unstated position; pissed at my wife, whom I’d actually confided in so many years ago when we first met and more frequently swapped stories of our personal racist injustice and who was suddenly insisting that I “get over it”; and downright disgusted with those white friends who, like too many well-meaning Whites, remain absolutely oblivious to the potential of such happenings to their black peers. Oh, how happily they offered the tickets!
I remained intensely silent during the long subway ride to the stadium even though it was then that I started to notice how things perhaps had changed in forty years or so.
My fellow subway riding white Mets fans seemed calm, pleasant even, not the screaming, racist maniacs whom, indeed, I may have recalled from my youth, or whom I may have cropped together from TV images or haughty discussions with otherwise sympathetic anti-sports peers.
I found myself fairly relaxed by the time we arrived, so much so that I admitted my measure of relief to wife and daughter who hated when I gave them the silent treatment. In response, they shot me looks that complimented each other, a mixture between “told you so!” and “what a jerk!”
My ride of pleasant surprise continued onto the stadium as the attendants gleefully welcomed my family and me in a way not only counter to my preconceived notions but atypical of hard-boiled New Yorkers in general. I thought about the movie “Get Out” (even though I could only bear to watch the advertisements) and feared a set-up for gruesome acts to follow.
At that point, I relatively came to my senses and more thoughtfully considered, (albeit suspiciously), that maybe the attendants greeted fans so graciously due to the great expense of today’s ballgame. I didn’t know for sure how much tickets cost in general, but I had heard that “good seats” ran into the hundreds, and that the more luxurious ones could cost in the thousands.
Indeed, the stadium inside reminded me of a great outdoor opera house, architecturally splendid, seemingly not a bad seat in the house, and, at that, our good corporate seats provided the best view of I ever had at any event anywhere.
Upon my daughter’s insistence, we ate hot dogs and popcorn, I gulped a huge beer, and by the “seventh inning stretch,” I felt way too comfortable to stand.
As I smiled and bobbed my head along with the bouncing ball that spelled out on the big overhead “take me out to the ballgame,” while so many others sang exuberantly, Ice Cube’s wholly ironic “It Was A Good Day” (because he didn’t have to use his AK) popped into my head, and I tried to figure out what it all meant.