Monday, August 4, 2008
Belushi At The Bat
I love movies. I love baseball. And I love movies about baseball. But movies during baseball? Not so much. I’ve long felt this way, I think, but it was on a recent get-out-of-Dodge trip to Pittsburgh – to see two baseball games between two abysmal teams at one glorious ballpark – that my scattered irritations coagulated into an undeniable glob of annoyance-filled certainty.
I was sitting along the third baseline at PNC Park on a perfect summer evening. The bottom-feeding hometown Pirates were losing to the positively subterranean San Diego Padres by 1 run going into the bottom of the 9th inning in what had been an unusual game: fan whipping boy Adam LaRoche had flummoxed his critics by homering twice (though he also drew their ire by striking out with the bases loaded) while the respected Xavier Nady had been pulled from the game prior to his first at-bat due to a pending trade with the New York Yankees.
Nady’s trade hadn’t been announced over the public address, but Pirates fans – all too familiar with seeing talent traded away – deduced the situation quickly. Sure, the considerable number of Steelers jerseys on display and the roughly 14 attempts to start “The Wave” that night reminded that Pittsburgh is first and foremost a football town, but these fans knew their baseball, too. That much was clear. That’s why it was all the more irksome heading into the last half inning when PNC Park’s gameday entertainment crew called upon a tonally incongruous yet all too typical figure to deliver its last-chance rallying cry: John Belushi.
If you’ve been to a Major League stadium in the past 10 years, you can probably guess what I saw. Up there on the video board normally reserved for highlights, bloopers reels and between-innings dance-offs by fans was Belushi’s Bluto delivering his “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” speech from Animal House. Per design, the clip succeeded in capturing fans’ attention. But that’s just another way of saying that it took them out of the game at hand. Belushi’s voice at a ballpark was as out of place as a guy hawking peanuts at your local multiplex. Immediately, I thought of those AT&T commercials in which Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese promise not to interrupt our phone calls, and I wished Animal House hadn’t interrupted my baseball game.
Like movies, great ballparks have moods. PNC Park’s primary offering is intimacy: a less than 39,000-seat stadium dwarfed by the modest yet striking cityscape standing proudly just behind right field and across the Allegheny River. But Animal House broke that mood. It wasn’t just the disorienting presence of Belushi amidst the tranquil expanses of green and brown that offended, it was the way the clip made it feel as if I could be any park in any city across the country, rather than in one of the gems of professional sports. Though the Belushi clip was new to me, I’ve seen similar movie scenes used as crowd rousers at other stadiums – here in Washington, in Phoenix and in Milwaukee, to name a few. Over the years I’ve seen the rally clap scene from Hoosiers, a pep talk from Gladiator and the training sequence from Rocky – each of them on jumbo screens in massive stadiums that made the memorable cinematic moments pathetically small by comparison.
As the Animal House clip played in a suddenly stale environment, I found myself not loving baseball or movies. It was sad.
But then maybe I was just bitter. Full disclosure: A few innings earlier, Pirates centerfielder Nate McLouth had lofted a high foul ball in the general vicinity of my section that looked destined to carom off the upper deck just above me. But didn’t. The ball missed the overhang and kept traveling downward, targeting the seat just to my left. In response, I stood too late but quickly, and while the guy next to me cowered to protect his $7 beer I reached up my left hand to pluck that beautiful white orb from the sky. Down the ball came, striking just at the base of my index and middle fingers. Yet before I could squeeze it, a reaching fan behind me inadvertently bumped my hand forward and out from underneath the ball.
It was like the scene at the end of Parenthood, where the pop-up challenged kid of the coach played by Steve Martin has his glove knocked away from a sure catch by that pudgy bully of a first baseman. Almost in slow motion, I saw the ball flip up and then appear to hover in the air. Briefly I made out the blue MLB logo stamped on its leather covering. And if this had been my triumphant movie moment, I would have made good on a second chance to snag the ball, like little Kevin Buckman. Instead, the ball dropped from view. On instinct, I lunged forward, throwing my hands underneath the seat in front of me and coming up empty. That’s when I heard the surprised voice of the woman sitting there. “I’ve got it!” she squealed, having “caught” the ball between her back and the seat. I was crushed.
It was the closest I’ve ever been to catching a foul ball, the baseball fan’s equivalent of scoring a hole-in-one in golf. Instantly, I knew that I might never get that close again. At the next night’s game, the neon green parrot mascot would walk up behind me and shake his, ahem, tail feathers against the back of my head for the amusement of the dwindling crowd, but that wasn’t the low point. The low point was missing my chance to bring part of the game home with me – my failure underlined by the knowledge that the woman who caught the ball would likely feed it to the family dog the moment she got home, if she didn’t lose it on the way to her car.
As I watched her grubby kids have their pictures taken with a ball they were too young to appreciate, an older kid behind me tapped my shoulder. “Did it hurt?” he asked earnestly, trying to imagine what it must feel like to have a baseball pop into bare skin.
Only my heart, kid. Only my heart.
My chance at glory was over.