The Ball Field Blues

McBride, British Columbia, population 616, is a town that has lived and died by the railway. Nestled in the Robson Valley, in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies’ highest point, it is a town that draws life from the railway. And when I stopped there, as I did last week on my way home from the wilderness, it was the features of the railway that immediately drew my focus. There was the train station, which was also the cafe, which was also the gift shop. An antique caboose with a bright new red coat of paint sat outside — a plaque from the person who donated it, a longtime railway worker, described the caboose as the subject of a lifelong dream. There were the train tracks, and on them, the trains, all ringing bells and screeching wheels, thousands of gallons of gas in tanks heading south.

But just across the street from all of that, something else caught my eye: a ballpark. Of all things for there to be in this town, there was a ballpark.

The grass was dry and weedy, and a lone crow picked at the infield dirt. Tall, shiny fences loomed along the outfield, and along the baselines were two wooden dugouts for the absent teams to shelter in, blue-roofed and mesh-windowed. Behind home was a small set of wooden bleachers, the same chipping blue as the roofs of the dugouts. A sign with the flags of B.C. and Canada, rippling in the alpine wind, announced: BILL CLARK MEMORIAL PARK.

I stood there under the sign for quite a while, just me and the crow and the memory of Bill Clark. A thousand kilometers away from home with no one else in sight, baseball can still find you in the form of a field and an arrangement of dirt.

***

The blog Ballparks Around the World posted its first image in July of 2016, a picture of Dodger Stadium. Since then, it has accumulated 202 pages of content. Essentially all of the blog’s posts follow the same format: an unsourced image of a ballpark, followed by a caption including only the ballpark’s name and its location.

The blog operates in strange little bursts of energy, often posting several pictures in one day before going silent for weeks. Its images range from screencaps of current major-league aerial shots, panels of white light shining into the night sky, to barely-legible black-and-white scans of parks that disappeared long ago. The ballparks are dirt fields and coliseums, tiny and expansive, abandoned and carefully-tended, worth millions of dollars and worth nothing — all their differences flattened by their uniform adherence to the image-name-location format, their lack of context, the distant angles from which they are most often captured. The ballparks are often empty, though not always. But when there are people in the shots, they are most often faceless, static, so far away from the camera’s lens that they might not be people at all; they could be tricks of the light, little bits of movie magic added in post-production.

What makes Ballparks Around the World so compelling is that it’s the ballparks that take precedence, the endless sequence of ballparks — ballparks that, for all their variance, all the different cultural contexts that went into their design, all the diversity of people and players who visit them, are ballparks, in the end.

From the Ballparks Around the World archives.

There are few spaces quite like a ballpark. A standard rectangular sporting field can be used for so many things; with some exceptions, it doesn’t lend itself to the development of a strong identity. A ballpark, though, is necessarily an odd bit of engineering. The infield dimensions are set, but the edges are blurrier, leaving room for idiosyncrasies that belie a fundamental similarity. It is a place of harmonious contradiction.

Paul Goldberger, in his book Ballpark: Baseball and the American City, theorizes the American ballpark as a synthesis of the urban and the rural: a space simultaneously engineered for dense, lively social interaction and for pastoral calm and isolation, a gently-tended garden in the middle of a towering man-made behemoth, blades of grass rooted into the earth and concrete beams reaching into the sky. The ballpark needs these contradictory elements to exist; they are yin and yang, in constant tension and perfect synchronicity. Goldberger writes:

The exquisite garden of the baseball field without the structure around it would be just a rural meadow, bereft not only of the spectators themselves, but the transformative energy they bring. And the stands without the diamond and the outfield would be a pointless construction.

And it’s not only the structural elements of a ballpark that are contradictory in this way. Ballparks are often privately-owned spaces, but they exist, at least in theory, for the public, without which they would be truly “pointless constructions.” And for many people, despite the fact that a privately-owned ballpark is not their home, it can feel like one in a way that a rented apartment or a suburban duplex might not. Perhaps this conception of ballpark as public good is illusory, but if it is, it’s an undeniably powerful illusion. Being at a game, feeling the energy of the crowd and the power of their collective experience in contrast and harmony with the actions of players down on the field, imbues ballparks with the “transformative energy” Goldberger writes about — the sense of memory, the sense of potential.

It’s this energy that haunts the pictures Ballparks Around the World posts. It’s this energy that lingered at Bill Clark Memorial Park, that I stood there hoping to soak up somehow. And it’s this energy that one misses in this fanless season. The strangeness, I’ve realized, doesn’t come from the simple fact that the ballparks are empty. It’s that the balance of contradictions has been thrown off. The ballpark can’t be a site of public experience anymore, no matter how many MLB.TV ads with dramatic music over shots of empty seats tell me that JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT HERE… DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T BE HEARD.

The games, sure, can be publicly disseminated via TV and radio and various online platforms (blackout restrictions apply). But with the community of spectatorship impossible, there is no transformation. There can be no real connection to memory, to the others around you, to the futures that might yet happen inside this place. Cardboard cutouts and uncanny computer-generated fans clipping into players’ faces aren’t a substitute. The ballpark is a structure bereft of its purpose.

And unless there are some very dramatic, very unlikely changes in the state of the pandemic in the United States, to allow fans back to ballparks this season won’t mark a restoration of that purpose. Yesterday, The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrantz reported that the Reds are moving toward having fans at the Great American Ballpark at some point. They sent an email to their seasonal workers asking them to confirm, by August 12, whether they would be willing to come to work should local authorities give the all-clear. Should fans indeed return, is the experience they will have worth the risk to these workers? Is it worth the risk to themselves? And who, ultimately, will benefit from that risk?

That has always been there, this pull between the profits of few and the enrichment of many. It is hard, looking at the resources poured into immense structures full of nobody while a country struggles, to see anything other than the profit.

***

The dugouts and the stands at Bill Clark Memorial Park were hand-built by volunteers 20 years ago. They sawed the wood and applied the paint: the once-bright blue, the contrasting white. Untreated wood can only last so long in the elements, though, especially in the Rockies. One of the stands that those volunteers built is already gone, too damaged by years of summer use and winter weathering. The ones that remain need replacement.

The park, in a normal summer, would be used almost daily: by youth softball and baseball groups, and by groups of adults, too. It would be the host to tournaments of teams from around the valley. Even this summer, it is a gathering place, the site of fireworks displays and socially-distant car bingo. The need for maintenance of such a vital community space is obvious. But money is hard to come by. A 2015 article in the Rocky Mountain Goat assessed the cost of the needed upgrades to the field as upwards of $30,000. Maybe the upgrades are on the way; maybe the funding is still being searched for.

Of course, I knew none of this as I leaned over the fence at Bill Clark Memorial Park. I swatted away the mosquitoes, let the morning sun warm my face, regretted forgetting my glove back in Vancouver — there would be no final game of catch there before my brother went back to America, back to an uncertain future. And almost without trying, I imagined what a game there would be like, filling in the blanks of the empty field. A foul ball, hitting the netting. A cheer and a smattering of applause from the stands. The crack of a beer can. A new pitcher emerging from the angular dugout doors. The sun, passing behind the shadow of the mountain. Someday, I thought. Someday. But it was time to go home.

We hoped you liked reading The Ball Field Blues by Rachael McDaniel!

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Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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This article was a hanging breaking ball and it hit me right where I have lived for the past 70+ years. Since that first trip to Fenway in 1948 or watching Bridgeport play Port Chester in the Colonial League or Portland play Manchester in the New England League going to different ballparks has been one of the great pleasures of my life. The last, number 65 on my life list, was Segra Stadium in Fayetteville and who knows if there will be another. Here in Conncticut two very usable ballparks, of Double-A quality, are grossly underutilized and with contraction many more will disappear nationwide. There is even the terrifying possibility that minor league baseball will not be able to survive whether because of financial burdens or the greed of the major league teams who seem to want to cluster their prospects at a single location. The fiasco that is trying to pass for a season is a joke. These are sad days for all who are reading this because we share a love for baseball.