The Gateway Arch rises from the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, implausible and angled and silver and alien, instantly evoking in me memories of The White Mountains, a favorite childhood book about extraterrestrials come to subjugate Earth’s youth. Designed in 1947 by Eero Saarinen (he of the TWA terminal at JFK; Washington Dulles Airport; and the “Tulip Chair.” Like on Star Trek. You know the one) and built from 1963 to 1965, it is as wide at the base as it is tall, and it’s the tallest monument in America – at 630 feet about 80 feet taller than the Washington Monument and almost twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Here I met a days-old college grad, on his way from Pennsylvania to California to be a back country guide at Yosemite; spied a cigarette smoking and Diet Coke drinking Amish couple; and chatted (listened, mostly) to a uniformly khaki and polo-dressed couple from St. George, Utah, returning to the Arch twenty years after their honeymoon (“the trees have grown so big!”).
You can stand on the ground, immediately under the Arch and staring upwards with your head rocked back so far it’s impossible to keep your mouth closed, or you can ride to the top in surreal, miniature and plastic sterile pods, folded up in a windowless egg with a man about my age wearing a flannel shirt, too-tight jeans and a Donald Duck wristwatch. It truly is a marvel, and standing in the 17’ wide top of the Arch, looking down on the flooded river and surprisingly sleepy downtown, provides the proper motivation to think bigger than you really are, or should be.
So on my way east, in the beginnings of an off-and-on three day rainstorm and mulling over my doctor friend’s posit that “veterans and heroin addicts are impossible to kill,” I called the Cincinnati Reds office and asked them for a press pass for that night’s game. I am a writer, no? No, no, not a “blogger.” A writer. A reporter on life, just taking a little baseball and hotdogs and apple pie (and Guantanamo, and bailouts, and the False Reports of the Secularization of America! and right-to-life and Iowa Negotiated Hog Report and the Fairness Doctrine – the Midwest has a lot of a.m. radio) middle-of-America trip and thought I’d stop by your nice little stadium and then write a story about it. I have, like, 60 readers. Or so.
An optimist would assume the worst one could say is “no,” but Josh from the Reds, he no optimist, offered a much, much more thorough response. “We don’t credential bloggers. And you’re coming tonight? You wouldn’t just show up at someone’s house and expect to be let in, would you.” Not a “would you?” less Josh indicate an interrogative and an opportunity to respond, but would you as in who do you think you are and who do you think you’re talking to? And we don’t credential BLOGGERS.
Not credentialing bloggers is good policy, no doubt, but advance warning is necessary? Seriously? Are there no Mormons in Cincinnati? No Jehovah’s? No Girl Scouts, no Little League, no Amway? I would – do – expect to be let in if I just showed up at someone’s house, and most people I know would probably let you in. But lesson learned: prior to watching Bronson Arroyo give up 9 runs in three outs (that’s called karma, Josh from the Reds), I emailed the White Sox and changed my approach. Not a blogger, but a writer for a website, and here’s my link, and I’m seeing five games in five nights, the last night in Des Moines (Des Moines!), and I don’t want access to players but maybe hang out with real writers and see what they do and how they do it and it would make a good story and there’s a war on, don’t you know?
I did not, in fact, invoke the “war clause,” but it was unnecessary, as Ray Garcia and Scott Reifert are not only optimists but are also Major League Baseball’s finest Vice President of Communications/Coordinator of Media Services and Champions of the Little Man and . . . they gave me a ticket. And a media package, and access to batting practice where I could size up Carlos Quentin (he’s big) and A.J. Pierzynski (bigger) and even stand next to Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the White Sox and the Chicago Bulls and the 52nd richest man in America. And I paid them back by ruining Mark Buehrle’s Perfect Game.
Not “perfect game,” as in the sun is shining but it’s not too hot and it’s not crowded so we can hang our feet over the seat in front of us and the beerman knows us by name and we can see perfectly Ichiro’s laser throw to third holding the runner at second and there’s a beautiful human being at your side and we just can’t stop smiling but perfect game as in Perfect Game. As in
and no walks and no errors and not even a sniff of Detroit’s batters figuring out Buehrle’s speed and timing and location.
Athletes in general are a superstitious lot, baseball players particularly so, and a Perfect Game is an untouchable, an unspeakable. It has happened just 17 times in the 132 years of the sport; they are magical and to see one, to be in the presence of greatness, of such infinitesimal rarity would feel like that first time you were twelve was it? maybe eleven and jumped off a cliff, it seemed so high and you were so scared but you jumped anyway and plunged into the water, kicking like a madman to get to the top but doing your best to appear nonchalant, so nonchalant when you yelled at your buddy still on the cliff it’s easy don’t be a baby – just like that but better and I know I shouldn’t but I had to send a text to a friend anyway to let him know i’m in chic watching a perf game thru 6 and he rightly, rightly responded you just effed it up go get a beer.
But it’s a text! A text is not spoken, a text should not violate the rule, but the very next hitter hit the ball on a rope to the first baseman – he caught it for an out – and the next batter hit a double into the gap and then Buehrle walked two batters and the bases were loaded. And I ruined Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.
Major League baseball stadiums are cathedrals and Perfect Games are unspeakables and Jerry Reinsdorf is the 52nd richest man in the United States but if it’s Middle America that you seek, you need go no further than the High Life Lounge in Des Moines, Iowa. There are decent chain restaurants in just about every city in America, chain restaurants with good service, and good food, and a good atmosphere, places like The Rock Bottom Brewery or Old Chicago’s, but chains are, after all, by nature impersonal.
But there are also pseudo-chain, shadow-chain back-alley, dark corner, cracked sidewalk establishments in every town, disconnected commercially but a veritable network emotionally, spiritually, celestially, where it’s not that you don’t want to be seen, but rather don’t want it to seem like you want to be seen yet relish that moment when you can just let it slip out that you’re in the know: let’s meet at _____ and it’s that much richer if the invitee needs directions. Bob Dobb’s in Tucson and the Cap Lounge in DC and the Beach Tavern in Tacoma and – you know the one in your own town.
The High Life sits on the corner of 2nd and Market in Des Moines and the $2 PBRs taste like holy water after shelling out $8 for keep the change beers at Kauffman, Busch, Great American, and US Cellular stadiums. There is shag carpet on the floor and dirty brown formica covering the bar and black naugahyde stools pushed up to it. It has eight taps visible, one each Old Style and Pabst Blue Ribbon, two Lite, three Miller High Life and one Guinness, off by itself at the end of the bar like an accountant at a teamster’s party. The décor is late 70’s and the clientele not much later, and I wish I could tell you it’s been a Des Moines staple for that long, but it’s been around since . . . 2005.
Yet, it was a good beginning to the Iowa Cubs, because if the Cubby Bear on Addison puts you in the proper mindset for Wrigley, the High Life Lounge puts you in the proper mindset for AAA baseball. Though just one step down from the bigs, and for many organizations just an hour or two down an interstate, the atmosphere at AAA baseball is closer kin to your kid’s little league game.
This is truly a family affair. I heard a little girl in line next to me tell her mommy that man is wearing a purse (it’s a man-purse, honey, and don’t point at the man); bought a $12 ticket that let me sit anywhere in the park (even the cheapest $4 tickets are within foul ball souvenir territory); envied old couples bundled up in shared blankets; and watched eleven – eleven – First Pitches: two small children, a local congressman, three people appearing on behalf of the local ALS, a local boy-makes good with the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, and four others who threw out their First Pitches so quickly and anemically I failed to either hear their names or write them down.
And all of them, every last one, even the little girl who took a full two minutes and the announcer’s public encouragement to just throw it to the man in blue standing behind the plate, everyone of them was applauded roundly. Is this baseball? Or is this Iowa or anywhere else in the Midwest or America for that matter? Every half inning had a contest, a throw-it-through the tires or musical chairs in the oversized blow-up baseball gloves or a scholarship raffle or little kids racing wearing huge, baggy clothes and both t-shirts and hotdogs shot out of a compressed air gun – hot dogs, and more hot dogs and more hot dogs and this is America.
All American sporting events start with the Anthem, but it is endemic to baseball. It is usually performed well, sometimes especially so. But occasionally, I think, it is superlative, and if done correctly it can do to you what that Perfect Game does to you, what that first post-cliff dive gulp of air or that random where did that come from? memory of that first really, really good kiss can do to you. On this day, a cloudy, windy, slightly cold night in Des Moines, Iowa, a young fellow – challenged, I think; touched, exceptional, mentally retarded – played the American anthem on his Casio keyboard. And it was beautiful. And no one, not a soul, not a breeze, not a flap of flag or drop of cup or cough or awkward laugh escaped during this mistake-ridden rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and I, after five days of baseball, and America, and occasional loneliness, just felt good.