In my teen years, life became a fairly brutal affair on a lot of fronts. Aside from the fact that I was the fat kid who smelled like a chimney and didn’t know it, my home and school life were also a psychological disaster area.
When I was a Junior in high school, I received my license to drive. I was forced to wait until the spring of 1991 to receive it due to my birth date (I graduated when I was 17, so I was running a squidge behind the cut off, age-wise). Lucky me: one more thing that made me something of a social pariah.
The first weeks of driving alone were phenomenally empowering. I recall borrowing my Mom’s dark blue, Nissan Sentra Fastback (with sunroof!) and just driving with no particular destination in mind. It was more about the enjoyment of the act itself and, as I became more adept at it, I experienced a cathartic moment when I recognized the sort of freedom that I was now permitted to enjoy for the remainder of my days on this planet – hypothetically, anyway, barring the unforeseen act of God or stupidity. I relished the simple beauty of this significant epiphany.
As the school year came to a merciful close, I began hanging out in earnest with one of my friends from Boy Scouts. It all began with free tickets to a baseball game.
I had known my friend Jesse for quite a number of years from our shared time in grade school (he was a year ahead of me) but it had been more a tenuous acquaintanceship than anything else. I don’t recall the specifics of that first evening’s trip to the ballpark, but we ended up taking my Mom’s Sentra – which was so much fun to drive – to the game.
At the time, the Rockford Expos (who played at Marinelli Field on the Rock River) were experiencing a high point in their tenure in the area. Rockford had just experienced its first, bona-fide, superstar in Delino DeShields, who had made the move up to the majors where he went on to make some serious noise as a star player in his first couple of years in the big leagues. So the proposition of seeing the ‘next big thing’ was more palpable than ever for the hometown crowd. Sure the Expos were a farm team for Montreal. We didn’t care. We were a viable part of the great American pastime’s inner workings and we’d developed a taste for it.
Now, let me be overtly glib for a moment: I hate sports. I don’t follow them, I don’t watch them, and I just don’t see the draw. Be that as it may I was, for a few contiguous years, a fanatical follower of the game of baseball. From 1988-1992, I could tell you everything about everything as I built a massive collection of cardboard images of all the greats, past and present. For me, baseball started as a late-night, inexpensive escape on television. I loved to open up the house on a summer night, while my Mom and brother slept, and watch the late games on ESPN. It was as close to being there as I could get, and it relaxed me.
Back to the summer of ’91:
Jesse and I made plans to use aforementioned free tickets to head on down to Marinelli. My memory is hazy but I surmise that I mentioned to folks at the Boy Scout meeting that I had some freebies but that there was also no way in Hell that I was going alone. At which point, he must have expressed an interest. A fateful decision, it would later come to light.
As we found our way to the cheap seats that first evening in the ballpark together, we felt the warmth of the setting sun settle over us as the air began to cool and blow over the river. I expected that we’d get bored soon enough and probably leave after a few innings. I mean, it was bottom-bracket, farm team ball that we were watching. We didn’t even know who the players were.
The night wore on, as did the game, and we found ourselves not so much engrossed in the action, specifically, but in the experience as a whole. The weather, the fans, the game, the energy: all of it played a role in creating a gestalt experience that we were, somehow, spellbound by. We stayed for the entire game and – inexplicably – had a hell of a good time.
As the spring turned to summer in earnest, we found ourselves attending more and more home games. By this time, we had made the acquaintance of a pair of girls who were also regulars. If memory serves, I think that their names were Chrissy and Jody – Chrissy being the older, and Jody the younger. What I didn’t realize, but should have, was that Jesse and Chrissy were soon sizing one another up. Jody, being several years younger than I, often ended up just chatting with me, as a brother and sister might, while Jesse and Chrissy – to my way of thinking – awkwardly played romantic chess. The funny thing was, they were a good match for one another. I think that both Jody and I came to that realization after only a few meetings. For her age, Jody had something of a precocious intellect. I had no designs on either girl, so I just enjoyed the company of the group as we shared something that liberated us from the world we otherwise knew for a few blissful hours at a time.
Perhaps the most striking recollection in all of this was that, for the first time, I felt like I could be myself. Jesse, and the girls, didn’t care whether I was cool or not. Didn’t care if I was fat or not. Didn’t care about anything except a mutual love of the experience of just being there. I felt at ease and that was not something that I had felt often – if at all – in the past. Often the game ended up being ignored as we just talked amongst ourselves about anything and everything for hours at a time. It wasn’t so much about the sport for us, I don’t think, as it was the tranquility and freedom of the venue.
As the summer wore on, I think we all caught at least one ball. Mine was hit by a fellow named Randy Wilstead, who I suspected was on the team as a veteran placeholder until he was no longer a viable commodity in even that capacity. I knew that he’d most likely never see a game above this class of play. Nevertheless, I still felt compelled to have him sign that ball. I still have it. To this day, every time I see it, it brings back a flood of precious memories of the summer that I shed my child’s skin, and embarked on a new journey to become something more; something new, and vibrant, and singularly liberated.
Thanks for those memories, Jesse. I hope that yours are as fond as mine.