Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Greatest Baseball Fan I Know

I met John Russell during the summer of 2003, my first as a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame library. I was stationed at the downstairs desk, the library's public area where scholars and fans alike congregate to explore and share baseball history. Some visitors make appointments; some make annual pilgrimages (like another great fan, Toronto's Rudy Gafur, who didn't miss an Induction Weekend for a couple of decades); some drift in without seeming to know where they are or what they'll miss if they don't take the trouble to ask someone what they shouldn't miss; and some purposely arrive unannounced.

John Russell is the king of the last category. He entered the library one afternoon, walked purposely to the Reference desk, and waited patiently until I finished assisting another visitor. As I recall, he said something along the lines of, "Well, I've made it. I didn't want to come to Cooperstown until I felt entitled to the privilege." There might have been something about completing a quest, but one thing was clear: this was one of the proudest moments of his life. That alone caught my interest, and before he left the library that day I had learned quite a bit about him. I have learned much more during the steady correspondence we have maintained ever since as well as time spent together on his second Cooperstown trip several years later.

World War II was a grim time for England, and one of the few sources of hope was the presence of American soldiers at bases all over the country which might be saved only by them. For relaxation, the Americans, naturally, played baseball. So it was that a young English lad named John Russell saw the game being played on his native soil. The game intrigued and attracted him during his limited exposure to it. When the war ended, the exit of American soldiers left young John without anyplace to watch baseball being played.

In fact, he went nearly half a century without seeing a ballgame. During that time, he grew up, turned his active fandom toward football, and enjoyed a successful career as a taxation consultant. He also maintained his interest in baseball, listening to it on Armed Forces Radio whenever he could. For many years that consisted solely of the World Series. That became tougher after Bowie Kuhn sold out to television and began the transformation of the World Series into prime-time fodder in the early 1970s. In 1971, as a student in London, I listened to the World Series on Armed Forces Radio--with thenight games starting around 2 AM. You have to be dedicated to stick so closely to a game you only glimpsed as a child.

When John retired in the early 1990s, he determined to put his savings to good use. He hatched a plan to see every major league team's ballpark. This alone would be a more ambitious plan than most rabid American fans would care to undertake. I've been to about 25 parks in my lifetime and know some people who have seen 40 or 50 over a period of decades. The flip side is a handful of published accounts of more recent whirlwind tours, such as the couple who saw all 180 or so major and minor league parks in one season.

John had a different plan. He decided he would take an annual trip to The States, each time seeing a few parks, until he had covered all 30 teams. Scheduling and travel logistics were in his blood and his resume, and he relished the chance to map out and execute this series of pilgrimages. He did, and he did. It took him ten trips to see 30 parks, and when he had fulfilled that mission, he headed for Cooperstown, his reward for perseverance. Being acknowledged by someone at the Hall of Fame was like the conferring of an honorary degree, and I was delighted to be the one to award him a Doctor of Fandom degree.

The past decade has seen an explosion of new ballparks, and John has dutifully returned year after year, attending games in each new one in its inaugural season--sometimes even in its inaugural game. That was the case in 2009, when the two New York ballparks opened. He had been a Mets fan since the inception of the franchise (because listening to "The Giants win the pennant!" had made him an early New York Giants fan who abandoned that team when it fled to California, and the Mets were playing in the Polo Grounds, where Bobby Thomson's home run had galvanized his youthful enthusiasm for baseball) and wanted to see the first game at Citi Field. In order to be guaranteed a seat for Opening Day, he purchased a season ticket. He went to nine games there and gave most of the other tickets away, but the money didn't matter (he paid $300 for a $30 to the opener at Yankee Stadium). In the space of 33 hours, he saw four games--two each at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.

That brings up one of the three amazing things about John Russell's approach to ballpark pilgrimages. He has attended a complete three-game series at every park--and the ballpark will be up 41 as soon as he sees his first game in the new Miami venue. Often he'll spend a whole week in a city, using the ballpark magnet as an excuse to explore everything else the city has to offer. He provided me with a complete log of every trip, ballgame, and final score which I put in the "Fans" file at the Hall of Fame library. It's a remarkable document. (It is also not the only John Russell artifact at the Hall of Fame. When the new park opened in Washington, he also bought a season ticket, which brought with it an invitation to the inaugural luncheon ceremony, a recording of which he proudly donated.) He's a museum hound, an opera buff, a train aficionado, an amateur photographer, a de facto restaurant critic, and a tireless walker.

That brings up the second--and to me the most--amazing thing about John's travels. He does not drive. He uses only public transport and his feet to get around. Trains are his preferred mode of travel, but he'll make use of planes, buses, trolleys, and taxis when needed. He doesn't need them for any place within a walkable distance, and this retired gentleman reminds me of what I did when I was 28 years old. I spent nearly four months crisscrossing Europe on a Eurailpass; at a price of $400 for three months, I could ride first-class on virtually any train in Europe, and I slept more than 40 nights on trains. At one point I was in a different country six days in a row. I would arrive in a city around 8am, spend the entire day walking, exploring, touring museums, cathedrals, castles and the like, sample the local cuisine, observe the natives, and mosey on back to the train station to catch a train around 9-10 PM to another city.

I think it's the best way to travel, and so does he. You don't miss much that way, and other people do all the work. Which brings me to the third thing that amazes me about John's travels. He has written about them, detailed accounts that are not only day-by-day but also logistic-by-logistic--and he does it all from memory! He'll get home from a two-week tour of several parks and summon up the details of every encounter, travail, detour, triumph, and treat. I am one of a limited number of people privileged enough to read these accounts, titled Best Available because that is his standard request when buying game tickets. Last year was the 18th edition of this annual account. I have urged John to try to publish (last year McFarland published some other Englishman's ballpark travelogue), but he seems determined not to.

I enjoy Best Available very much. He is as meticulous in his narrative as he is in his logistics, and pointed in his opinions, whether they concern seat location, food, fans, schedules, and games. His game descriptions have become more sophisticated over the years, as he has learned more about the game's rhythms, skills, and atmosphere. That is, he came to baseball without preconceptions and is therefore more open to its aesthetic character. For instance, the thing that impresses him most is how little time it takes outfielders to track down extra-base hits and get the ball back to the infield. It amazes him when a right fielder can chase a slicing line drive into the corner and somehow prevent the baserunner--hundreds of feet away--from advancing past second base. Americans would simply say, "nice play," but John's untrained eye sees the speed and symmetry in this athletic effort.

Good for him. He loves baseball and ballparks. He fills in off-days and other gaps in his schedule by going to minor league games. Of the six times he has seen two games in one day, three have involved minor league games: he saw the Mets and the Long Island Ducks in one day; the Phillies and the Camden Riversharks; and the Orioles and the Wilmington Blue Rocks. "All by public transport," as he reminded me in a recent e-mail.

"Will it be the last?" he asked in the announcement of his itinerary for Trip #19. There is a new ballpark this year in Miami around which the trip is built, but there are no new openings on the baseball horizon unless the Oakland A's drift 50 miles southward to San Jose. Will he find an excuse to return after seeing park #41 this spring? Will he keep coming back anyway even without an excuse, perhaps to explore the classic minor league parks or return to favored major league cities?

Who knows? But keep an eye out for a proper-looking, affable Englishman who knows much more about baseball than his accent would lead you to suspect. He plans to attend four games in Miami, two in Baltimore, four in Washington, and three (with the Mets visiting) in Philadelphia. He is contemplating a return to New York later on ("for The Met as well as the Mets") and Cooperstown as well, now that he has earned his graduate degree. I hope to see him then, but in the meantime, if you're lucky enough to sit next to him at a ballpark, give him my best. He deserves it, as the greatest fan I know.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Pilgrimage To the Past

Baseball is all about connections. Players make connections with teammates that extend beyond the playing field and beyond their careers. Management links combinations of people whose connections strengthen the collective effort. As fans, we connect with teams, players, and events, and each of us accumulates a rich fabric of memories, favorites, and unfulfilled wishes. Every baseball experience enriches that sense of connection not only with our own past but also with the history of the game we love.

The forging of baseball connections is at the heart of Deadball: A Metaphysical Baseball Novel by David B. Stinson, a self-described "recovering lawyer" (published by Huntington Park Publications, at $15). Its central character, Byron Bennett, is a former minor league third baseman currently stuck in a low-profile minor league job but mainly obsessed with the game's past. As such, he is a baseball Everyman, part insider and part fan. As Stinson writes, "It doesn't matter where the game of baseball is played, nostalgia is an essential component--a place where the past and the present exist side by side, commingled amongst the fans with the memories of their youth and the athletes playing in the shadow of those came before them."

Bennett takes this "nostalgia" to extremes--in the view of his friends and ex-wife. When his boss cautions him to "stop obsessing about the past," he protests, "I'm not obsessing about the past. I'm a historian! That's what we do. If you loved baseball like I do, I'm sure you'd feel the same way." How many of us have said that to our friends and family! But we can't help it. We can't watch a game without noticing that the pitcher doesn't have command of his curve the way we've seen before, or that the batter's stance reminds us of someone else's, or that the trajectory of that home run is the highest ever. These observations and echoes seep into our consciousness and enrich our enjoyment of the game. It's only a short step to pursuing these connections actively rather than waiting for them to come to us while we watch a game.

Bennett, a lifelong Orioles fan who played and now (in 1999) works in their farm system, is intrigued by Union Park, the home field of the glorified Orioles of the 1890s. Visiting Baltimore, he wanders the neighborhood of the long-vanished park and catches glimpses of the past. He also meets Murph and Mac, enigmatic, ghostly figures who feed his curiosity about the old parks. He feels compelled to visit Tiger Stadium for the first time before it is torn down at the end of the season. En route, he checks out the former site of Forbes Field, where he meets a man who identifies himself as George Grantham, a long-dead infielder for the Pirates in the 1920s. That disconcerts him but also spurs him forward. He senses some connection between Grantham and the Murph/Mac duo from Pittsburgh, but can't pin down anything tangible. He can't even find Murph and Mac agan back in Baltimore. Returning to the eating place where he met Mac, he finds that it has been boarded up for years.

So goes Bennett's pilgrimage into the past. The bulk of the novel concerns his several trips to cities that housed the old parks--New York, Boston, Cleveland--with side-stops along the way. Most of what he finds is inconclusive; he can get close enough to the past for brief glimpses, but they don't add up. Passing through Ohio, he finds himself not far from the birthplace of Cy Young and detours to check that out. The result is enigmatic; he sees an apparition of Young sitting on the front porch of his old home and goes up to talk to him, but is deflated when the baseball immortal utters only the un-immortal words, "Son, your headlights are on," before disappearing inside the house that soon also disappears.

This odyssey is frustrating for Bennett, and by extension for the reader. We want him to find something definite, but it eludes him. He is being tested, it turns out, and only his steadfastness in the face of such prevailing uncertainty makes him worthy of the final discovery that concludes the novel. The reader is tested, too, by what reads at times like a travelogue, complete with the names of every street traversed by Bennett. Stinson's style is straightforward and casual, as if he's just along for the ride, too, not even in control of what happens next. Midway through I found myself thinking, "The payoff had better be worth it," and following Bennett as he scours the baseball landscape for clues.

Is the payoff worth it? Yes. Absolutely. Read it and discover the connections for yourself.