Last month, my wife and I traveled from our home near Boston to visit Washington, D.C. By a happy coincidence, we arrived at the same time as the Atlanta Braves, my hometown team. I watch nearly every Braves game online — they keep me tethered to home and to my dad, and they help me fit in as a Southern transplant in baseball-crazy New England. But this game was my only chance this year to see them in person.
For all the marvels of television and the Internet, there is still a certain magic to being in the stadium. The magic is part sensory — the crack of the bat or the thrill of a runner stealing a bag — and part story — the personal circumstances of those who step between the lines or the narrative of an individual game unfolding pitch by pitch, inning by inning. These stories zip across the grass and dirt, buttoned up in fabric that bears the names and emblems of our homes, tied to sounds and images that have a way of sticking in our memory.
Plenty of storylines ran onto the field that day in gray Atlanta uniforms, but one stood out: penciled into the cleanup spot was a 26-year-old rookie who had battled substance abuse, depression, and existential crisis to muscle his way into the major leagues. After high school, he had journeyed around the country in a truck that was about as beat up as he was, searching for answers to life that he hadn’t been able to find through baseball. Somewhere amid stops as a pizza guy, a ski lift operator and a janitor, the itch to play ball returned.
He found his way into the Venezuelan Winter League and emerged with a nickname to match the buzz gathering around his feats of strength on the field. When “El Oso Blanco” finally arrived in the majors this spring, he homered in his first game, and his legend was still growing seven games later when the Braves landed in D.C. Only the day before the game I attended, he had taken a 96-mph fastball thrown high at the letters of his jersey by one of the game’s best pitchers and, somehow, smashed it into the left field bleachers.
I had seen El Oso Blanco — The White Bear — hit before, but I was not prepared for my first live sighting. He is a large man — 6 feet 4 inches tall and 230 pounds — but at the plate, he stretches his feet impossibly wide and sinks his thick legs deep toward the dirt. The stance looks uncomfortable, tense, even painful. But El Oso Blanco is used to swinging from down there. As the pitch neared the plate, he swiped, and the ball screamed toward the ballpark’s outer limits. It slammed off the wall, scoring a runner from second, and El Oso Blanco stood calmly at second base.
For all his exploits, it was El Oso Blanco’s batting stance that snared my imagination; watching a man sink into the dirt only to burst forward strong, renewed, with clear purpose when the pitch arrived — this was the memory I carried from the stadium that Sunday afternoon. Baseball is full of odd artifacts, souvenirs from moments when the sensory and the story intersected right in front of us. A reverence for these seeming minutiae connects baseball fans; it helps us understand that in every team, game, and player, we’re all looking for the same things.
But when the game itself becomes trivial, what place is there for its minutiae?
The following day, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Still in the South, I followed the tragedy on a screen, relying on news coverage and text messages to carry my mind to the place where my heart had instantly raced. I felt the physical distance, the ache of not being there. As the search for answers stretched into the week, I recalled another story, that of former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil. Much of Buck’s career as a player, manager and scout was spent in the shadow of segregation, yet his love for the game never wavered. “I keep going to the ballpark,” Buck said, “to listen.”
When El Oso Blanco — real name, Evan Gattis — rose from his stance and knocked in that base runner, I stood to cheer. And I noticed, scattered across every section of the ballpark, other Braves fans stood, too. Together, we cheered for the run he had knocked in, for the story he continued to write, for the place he represented.
On April 20, the Red Sox returned to Boston for their first home game since the blast. I couldn’t be at the stadium to listen firsthand. But even through a small set of computer speakers, I could hear the roar of a proud city, sunk low into the dirt but ready to come up swinging. And though far away, I knew I wasn’t the only one who stood to cheer with them.
Jerry Logan is the academic programs coordinator at Gordon College. He and his wife live in Beverly.