Finding Home in America, Part V: Land that I Know
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game–the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
–Field of Dreams
I stopped playing baseball at 13. I left the game swinging–my last time at bat, I ended not only a game, but a chance at a perfect season for my team. Ended a career that had started 10 years earlier in tee ball.
When I became a runner in high school, I questioned everything. There had to be more to life than playing a game in my neighborhood. At least there had to be better and bigger fields for me. Part of it was hormones, but part of it also was being American. We grow restless and search for greener pastures. I hardly cared even when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008–my cross country team was losing. I forgot how much baseball could make me smile.
I forgot until the road trip, that is, when when my friends and I rolled up to Iowa’s famous Field of Dreams. We had taken a dirt road through corn fields and had no idea where we were, then suddenly the corn cleared and that white farm house appeared.
I paid a donation at the box in the gravel parking lot. The sky was blue, the air clean and warm, but with a cool breeze–the best weather of the trip. I ran out onto the field, kicked off my sandals, and touched the grass with shoeless feet.
The guys grabbed their gloves and joined me. We loosened up our arms on the perfectly manicured outfield grass, then decided I had to try my luck at bat. We didn’t have one, so I walked over to the farmhouse stand that served as the souvenir gift shop, and I bought a wooden bat. The price did not matter. I charged to the plate, with a simple backstop, and signaled to the guys. We took turns batting, pitching, and shagging fly balls. I got to hear the crack of the bat and watch a ball sail toward the cornfields. It was a picture perfect setting. It was exactly as I remembered in the movie.
As I played the game I left in childhood, I realized I had left baseball because I wasn’t having fun anymore. I had let the pressure to win ruin my game. But being outside and in the grass was fun. It was simple. It was happiness. In America, you could have a pastime, and it could be fun.
Yes, now, truly, this was America. After weeks of travel, I felt like I had finally arrived.
America is a feeling of childhood happiness and dreams spread over all the land. It is the hopes we held. It is not a place, not even a journey, I realized, but off a dirt road in a cornfield in front of an old farmhouse in Iowa, or in my backyard 20 years ago in a game of stickball.
These were my feelings, as cliche and sentimental as they sound. The faces of the old men and children who came to the field after us were all the same. There was something in our collective memory that yearned not only for these times or places, but these past beings–our former, better, happier selves, before we thought that there was something we had to search out.
The G.P.S. had been a help and a hindrance on the road trip. It took us only where we thought we wanted to go.
We headed to Chicago next, where we saw a rare Cubs night game from the outfield bleachers at Wrigley–against the Phillies no less. At $70 per person, it cost more than all of our other tickets combined. The Phillies got destroyed, but it was worth it. I was happy. I had the privilege to see this game, to be in Chicago, to travel across the country with friends, and knew I had a place to return.
We moved through South Bend, then Cleveland, and then Pittsburgh, where we caught our final game. The city worked desperately to keep the crowds coming to its stadium. The tickets, concessions, and giveaways were cheap and plentiful. The view from our seats showed the bridges, river, and city skyline. There was always something about a skyline–especially one with a sunset–that made me happy and miss Philadelphia. We rooted for the hometown team and this time they won.
The next morning we returned to the city of brotherly love. It went by so quickly, as if the world had shrunk. I wondered if I could even run across it someday. We cleaned out the car and turned it back over to the dealer by the airport. Matt’s and Al’s fathers picked us up and asked about the trip, but for the first time in weeks we all just seemed tired. I hadn’t even realized that Matt had driven all the way. I was grateful to him and Al for bringing me.
The roads outside my house were finished, freshly paved. I got dropped off at my front door, and I waved goodbye. I was home.
The house was the same as when I left three weeks earlier. I looked at my backyard, where I used to sleep in our family tent on summer nights after those childhood stickball games and swims in the pool. Then I looked across the street at the hospital. I had learned to ride a bike, roller skate, and play hockey there, where a parking garage now stood. I hung out there as a teenager. I had stared at sunsets over the apartments and watched fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Most of all, I thought of that hospital’s front little strip of grass. I had played ball there. I had forgotten that. I had played catch with my brother and father. My mother would look out from the front windows or door and call us over to dinner when the sun set.
That little strip of grass, across the busy road–there was America.