I am — I know — not alone in having sat at a ballpark on a cold April night watching a game that was already mostly meaningless. Not alone in having sat through a rain delay, unavoidably soaked through. On days like that, you can look around and see the others like you. We are, all of us, like the little old ladies making their way to church on a cold February morning when the sun doesn’t want to come up and there is every reason to stay in the warm house.
An empty ballpark — even a minor league park — echoes like a church. I remember a home run on an empty night in my hometown minor league park last year and how it echoed off the aluminum bleachers. How the sound bounced like speech in some old empty cathedrals I’ve toured. There was something grotesque about it. Something exaggerated.
On those empty nights, you look around at the scattered few and know that in this one way, you are all the same. Score cards are plentiful. Childhood memories and the stats that go with them.
And all of those people who sit with you on cold, rainy April nights capitalize Opening Day. Today, the ballparks will be full everywhere. In Cincinnati, school will be out. And those of us who will still be there on rainy nights can take comfort. For now, we are the little old ladies on Easter or at Christmas. The pews are full and the human heat warms the chilled space all on its own.
It is comfort we feel, isn’t it? Comfort instead of resentment. Resentment would be justified. I am here always and you come only for the spectacle. But that’s not what we feel on Opening Day. What we feel is a kind of comfort. That we are seen by others. That others understand at least a little.
In one of the stories from Winesburg, Ohio, two teenagers — nearly grown — stand alone together on the fairgrounds the night after the fair has ended. “In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought, ‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing that was felt.”
A ballpark — a big, empty ballpark — can be awfully lonely. That echo. The too-easy walk to the concession stand. On Opening Day, the crack of the bat is singular. The echo absorbed by thousands of fans wearing team colors and cheering. Most of them will still know when to cheer, even if they pay too much attention to what the scoreboard tells them to do. They know when a big play happens or about the importance of that last strikeout. If it goes well for the home team, the individual cheers will bend together into a mass of noise that seems impossible on the more deserted nights. If it goes poorly, the stadium may go quiet, but even then it is a soft, hushed quiet and not the sharp echoing silence of metal and concrete.
And in that crowd — in the cheers or the soft silence — is understanding. There is the knowledge that we are not as isolated or as different as we fear. I am grotesque. But so are you. I will sit in April in the cold and rain when it is not a special occasion and I will watch baseball. And you won’t. But you are here now. Watching and cheering. And if I took the time, I would find that there is something you would sit through a bleak April night for. More than one thing, probably. And that is understanding.
Today is Opening Day and today the world looks at all of us grotesque baseball fans and it comes to a game and makes us feel that the exaggerated aspects of ourselves are not so exaggerated. Opening Day tells us we are, in part, understood, that we are seen. And we can imagine the comfort of the day when our team is great — maybe it is that day for you — and the stadium is full every night and there is still buzz in the winter and we can talk about baseball at any time and no one will look at us as though we are grotesque.
But in the meantime, Opening Day can sustain us. In a few weeks, we will need it. And so let us gather it in.