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.


Allison said...

That was one of the best pieces of writing I've read in a while.

Great post Jason!

As usual.

Fox said...

Dude... I don't know what's worse... that you were at a Pirates/Padres game, or that you lost the ball?? :) (Just kidding... my team, the Astros have been bottom dwellers all year too. You gotta laugh when it hurts.)

But what I have always found funny about foul ball/home run souvenirs is the total breakdown of common courtesy and etiquette whenever a $2 ball comes in the direction of a crowd (which becomes a mob). People - myself included - absolutely go ape crazy. All hesitation goes out the window. People will elbow children and step on grandmas to get to that ball.

And like you said... when you get your chance and you miss it... it ruins your whole night. I know you've replayed that moment in your head 100 times now.

Mark said...

I too love baseball and movies but not the combo at the ballpark. I don't even like movies about baseball, including (especially) anything with Kevin Costner. Although I like "The Natural" okay; I'm a sap.

My closest call to a foul ball came at a spring training game in Arizona about 20 years ago. We were sitting right behind home plate and a tall popup came over the screen, right toward my fifth-row seat. As it came down though it was aimed directly for the old lady sitting to my left. I could have reached over and grabbed it, but I would have had to bump into her and it just didn't seem right. The ball bounced, caromed off the seat in front of her and her husband grabbed it. I've thought about it a lot since. I could've taken her and her old husband.

My comical foul ball story came at Safeco here in Seattle, probably in 2000. I had season tickets in the upper deck along the first base line. My first game of the season, M's vs. the Yankees. Jeter pops one up in our direction. A guy seated three rows behind us with a toddler on his lap reaches up with his right hand and snags the ball on the fly, without even standing. Two pitches later, Jeter hits it in the same place and the same guy made the same play.

That's just not fair. But more inspirational to me than any dozen Belushi/Gipper/Chariots of Fire clips.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Yeah, I replayed the incident in my head 100 times. And that was just over the next inning.

"The MisPlay" stuck there all weekend: Why didn’t I stand sooner? I could have reached with two hands! I should have reached with two hands! I’m left-handed, does that mean my one-handed odds were better with my left hand (strong hand) or with my right (glove hand)?

Not long after the incident, I texted my brother, telling him I had just “dropped” a foul ball. Looking back on it, “dropped” was too harsh. But, as I told him, “It hit my hand; you gotta make that play.” The rest of the conversation unfolded like this …

Bro: Still, pretty cool though.
Me: Ah, what a nice brother. I hate myself.
Bro: I guess that means I’m still the only member of the family to catch a foul ball.
Me: Asshole.

The irony is that my previous close call with a foul ball had come a season earlier in a Washington Nationals game against … the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had a seat close behind home plate. Freddy Sanchez popped one straight back that I swear must have bounced off of 20 hands, skipping down the rows, before it suddenly landed in the seat directly behind me. I lunged for it, but a guy in the neighboring seat snatched it.

Still, that wouldn’t have been so cool. That would have been collecting a foul ball, not catching one. But as my dad noted, perhaps I should follow the Pirates around the country.

Over the rest of that game and the next day I made myself feel slightly better by noticing that not one foul ball was caught by the first fan to touch it. But that was just over a week ago. And now I read Mark’s note about the dad snagging two Jeter foul balls from a seated position and I want to break a bat over my skull.

Oh well. I have baseball trips to New York and San Francisco coming up later this month. Never know.

P.S. Mark, how can you not like "Bull Durham"? What's wrong with you, Meat?

Mark said...

I'm waiting for the Tarantino remake.

"... That's just some shit I used to say to a motherfucker before I struck his ass out. But you caught me in a transitional period ..."

Jason Bellamy said...

Well played.

And it got me thinking... A few of the lines in "Bull Durham" would transition well into QT's world. Presuming we added some f-bombs and references to obscure pop culture (is that mutually exclusive?).

"Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you're a slob."

Richard Bellamy said...

I know that it's every kid's (and adult baseball fan's) dream to catch a foul ball at a ball park.

I'm not a baseball fan, but I'm a devoted enough father that I took my young son one day to Fenway Park. Of course, we got really bad seats - and Fenway might have the Green Giant (is that the right name?) and it might have real grass - but it sure has sucky seating.

We got seats under an overhang, behind a steel girder. Thus - zero chance of even catching a flung drink container. Boy was downcast. But then the Sox hit three homers in a row and even though you had to follow the ball from home plate, lose it behind the girder, and judge where the ball would come out the other side to follow it to the wall, those three homers made the experience worthwhile.

Jason - I KNOW how bad you felt losing that ball!