Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why I Wasn’t There: A Love Letter to the Twins, the Midwest, and Hot Dogs Eaten in Days Past by Darren E. Lone Fight

The Midwest is a bit different than the coasts of this country. The states are huge,1 but the population density is absurdly low.2 Because of this unique geography, sports teams tend to draw from broad, mixed swaths out here, larger than the eastern seaboard in some cases. This geography, both human and territorial, is something difficult to communicate to people who aren’t from the Midwest. It’s just… bigger. Quieter. And yet, also somehow more unified. A Midwesterner anywhere outside the Midwest is something unique and special to another Midwesterner. An immediate connection, an automatic friend, or maybe more like a relative.3 Here in the Midwest, we’re a transnational, networked tribe defying space and time: tricksters on the run.4 And I suppose that goes back to that territorial thing: even in the midst of Twins country, for instance, you’re just as likely to see a cow as another human let alone an honest-to-god Twins fan, so you get used to not seeing them much. And when you do, it’s cause for celebration.

I once followed someone around Western Massachusetts because they had Minnesota plates on their car. I did this for 15 minutes before they finally stopped for coffee, at which point I jumped out of my car and ran up to them, pointing excitedly at my Twins hat. The look of terror they gave me through their window made me immediately realize my mistake. Something was wrong. These were not Midwesterners.5 And, I was correct. They were New Yorkers in a rental car, who, upon cracking their window ever so slightly, realized my irrational exuberance was purely due to their state plates. A look of confused interest crossed their faces. Why would I be so excited to say hi to someone who simply happens to be from a state NEAR the state I’m from? What is this madness? Were they missing out? They were, and this madness, dear reader, is called “Midwest Nice,” and it afflicts many of the fairest states in our beautiful country: they call it Minnesota Nice in Minnesota. In my home state, they call it North Dakota Nice. I’m sure they say call it something similar in Montana, South Dakota6, and in Wisconsin. In fact, it likely shares the same basic syntactical formula because it is, after all, the same basic thing.

I still remember the 1991 World Series clearly, and after a particularly rough skid for the Twins this season (realistically that “skid” is just “this season,” but more on that soon), I re-watched Game 7 on YouTube. To this day, my favorite Twins moment is when second-baseman Chuck Knoblauch snagged a Terry Pendleton laser-shot out of the air and threw a perfect strike to the shortstop Gagne at second as he ran up to cover the bag. The Atlanta baserunner, Lonnie Smith, froze. What was going on? He hesitated a few precious moments to consider the situation before realizing that Knobby and Gagne were actually playing a game of shadow catch; the ball had made it well past Knoblauch and was, in fact, still in transit to the deep outfield right-dead in the gap when he had made his “throw” to second. Knobby had never come close to touching the ball as it went screaming over his head; he was throwing pure hot air. Nevertheless, “if you will it, it is no dream,” and in that deceptive moment, Smith’s hesitation was enough to keep him at third rather than making it easily home as should have been the case. In a Game 7 that ended with the Twins on top 1-0 on the final pitch of the game in extra innings, that silly little play became the emblem for me of good Twins baseball, and that game, that whole series in fact, became the emblem of what good baseball is in general.7 The baserunner needed to be held off from home, and, ball be damned, the Twins were going to get it done. The way Gagne came up to catch the “ball” and snapped his glove closed without hesitation showed me that a good teammate will back your play, even when that play is pure phantasm.

As of right now, the Minnesota Twins have managed to amass 50 losses before any team has earned 50 wins. They’ve been putting it together the last couple of games, but they are still historically bad. Of the games played so far this year, I have watched around 60 of them. I took a long layoff from the Twins. Not quite all the way back to 1991, but after the 1994 strike, I lost my passion. Up to that point, I was a little-league playing, baseball-card-collecting, stance-imitating, have-a-catch-having baseball fanatic. I had lived in Virginia for some of my childhood, though let it be clear that my family is from North Dakota8 through and through, and I grew up there, and we lived there both before and after the Virginia dalliance. Nevertheless, I had also grown up watching the Orioles due to our east-coast detour and, of course, the Mariners (what kid didn’t want to be Ken Griffey, Jr. in the 90s) in addition to the Twins. However, after the 1994 strike, something had disappeared for me. I watched baseball off and on, but never with the same passion I’d had before. I’d keep an eye on the playoffs, as most people who “follow” baseball do, and in my undergraduate years in the 2000s, I would eat hot dogs with stupid-spicy hot sauce on them and drink cheap, Midwestern beer to put out the fire in my mouth with my friend Carl while watching the Twins on hot, sunny afternoons. But I didn’t make a point to follow any team religiously. I watched the Red Sox storm back against the Yankees and eventually break the curse in 20049, two years before I moved out to “Red Sox Nation,” and I followed with some interest their seasons once I moved out here. But, I was never fully committed. Baseball is wicked regional that way; there are so many games, and until the advent of MLB.TV and other internet devised means of catching out-of-area games, you really could only follow the local team if you wanted to watch the live games. I know baseball is obsessed with statistics, but statistics alone were never enough for me when it came to appreciating the sport. So, I had learn about the team out here. I learned to ask people who was pitching and what was the rotation, how was Papi10 hitting, and so on. And I owe something to the Red Sox, because it was Boston’s team (and their fans) that brought me back into the Twins fold. In the summer of 2015, the Twins were having a surprisingly decent year, and they were going to play a three-game series against the Sox at Fenway. My friend had stumbled upon some incredible seats for super cheap, so the four of us went: Casey11 and Brent12—friends and local-yokel dynamic baseball duo—and my wife13. We’re Midwest transplants, you see, and that’s it matters. I ordered my wife a hat and a woman’s Mauer shirt which arrived the day before we planned to go. We were geared up. I slapped on my stinky, discolored, broken-brimmed Twins hat, and the four of us set off down the scenic Mohawk Trail through Concord and Lexington (or close enough for the purposes of this article) on our way to Beantown. Get ready, Fenway. Here we come.

Fenway is something else completely. It’s a stereotype of a baseball stadium. Or maybe an archetype. It’s some sort of type though, of that I’m sure. The crowd is dedicated, crabby, and intense. The stadium is old as shit. The seats are uncomfortable. The jeers are loud and inappropriate. And it might be the best baseball experience a person can have. It’s wholly unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Filing into the stadium, every Twins hat I saw got an immediate high-five. I even got a backslap and a “Go Twins!” from a random Twinkies support while I was in line for the pisser who then immediately disappeared into the crowd. I still wonder to this day where he went. Anyway, during the game, Brian Dozier smacked a laser to left field over the Green Monstah, and I started excitedly waving my homer hanky, but then I stopped and looked around. What was going on? The resounding silence of the park made me think it was perhaps a foul ball, and there I was looking like some damned idiots waving around the homer hanky I had fashioned out of a white, inside-out Red Sox shirt I bought at the park for my wife. Suddenly I was Lonnie Smith holding up at second. I could literally14 hear the crunch of Dozier’s cleats on the infield dirt as he rounded the bases, and it was only then, as he rounded second, that I realized my ad hoc homer hanky had actually taken one from Red Sox Nation. It was only then the kid behind me in the upper row started yelling at me because of my Twins hat, my Twins shirt. Maybe my Twins sensibility. And it was only then that I realized he was insulting me. So, I did what any true Midwesterner does: I turned around and thanked him for making it a true Fenway experience. “Thank you!” I screamed at him, “Fuck you!” he replied, and, when in Rome, I barked back, “Fuck you too!” with a huge grin on my face. As we filed out of the game (the Twins took two of the three games, but the one I was at, they lost), the kid that had yelled at me ended up filing out of the stadium at the same time. We exchanged glances, and then he broke into a huge grin and said, “Good game!” I gave him a playful rib check with my elbow, grinned back, and said, “Yup!” I like to think that it would have gone the same way if the Twins had won, but let’s not dwell on that possibility too long.

Let me be blunt: I wasn’t there for a lot of reasons. I think baseball requires more maturity from the viewer than other sports. It requires attention and appreciation to detail. Suddenly I’m thinking of a scene from a TV show that I like called Sports Night. In it, the newly hired assistant producer Jeremy is cutting down his first baseball tape for the nightly sports highlight program (think SportsCenter only actually entertaining). The co-host, Casey, tells Jeremy as they go over his tape, “okay, this section here where the batter taps the dirt off his shoe and spits four times…” to which Jeremy replies, “We can’t cut that! The storm clouds are gathering.” This goes on for several minutes, each seemingly pointless scene being questioned by Casey, and Jeremy’s rejoinder always basically the same. What I came to realize is, at issue here is really what baseball is and what baseball isn’t. What it isn’t is a shallow gladiator game, although, like any sport, it is spectacle. But it doesn’t concede its own dullness to the vapidity of advertising or the desire for a faster, more streamlined commercial experience. What it is is obsessed with minutiae, with details, with small differences that amount to the fundamental composition of human distinction. Which is to say, what it is is human, and like humans, sometimes it’s boring, and sometimes it’s exciting, but most of the time it’s just there. But really and truly there. For 162 games a year. Opening day in the Spring. The boys of Summer. Mr. October. It’s alive, it has seasons, and, like a bear, it hibernates only in the Winter. Maybe that’s why I lost my way for a bit. I’m a winter person, from a winter people, from a winter place. But that’s a cheap cheat, because the simple answer is, I knew what I was looking at, but I didn’t know how to describe it, and that is why I wasn’t there.

When I was young, I loved baseball for non-discursive reasons, things that I never felt I had to communicate. Once I had to explain my sports preferences, I couldn’t figure out why baseball was likeable. I was the kid who hated “art” in college because it was “stupid,” even though as a child I liked nothing more than water- or finger-painting with my hands, face, my knees, my whole body. Which, I suppose, brings me to the 2016 Twins. They’re historically bad. And I don’t just mean Twins history, I mean MLB history. And that did something to me as I followed almost every game in this, their most horrible year. I had to figure out what I liked about baseball that wasn’t a gaudy statline or score. That wasn’t about two world series titles in five years. That was about people, faces, bodies. The way Mauer scratches the dirt to divine his next swing. The way Núñez wears a helmet one size too big so it blows off his head as he gets up to speed rounding first towards second. That eye-glinty grin of Dozier’s when he snags a catch out of the air. How Danny Santana always looks surprised, as if he still isn’t sure he’s actually in the show. Byung-Ho’s calm confidence in the batter’s box. How Phil Hughes always looks disappointed. Sano’s raw, youthful power (and pure excitement when it works). Michael Tonkin’s slight figure, robust beard, and left-leaned stance before he throws. Ervin Santana’s strangely quiet delivery until the explosive release. Buxton’s joyful determination and absurdly long stride when he’s in a full sprint. Berrios’s pure excitement and incredible stuff (I want him brought back up). The smiles shared after a victory. The patted backs after a loss.

A friend of mine once said, “Failure is actually the cognition of the possible”15, and I think it was Picasso who said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” There’s a certain resonance for me in those sentiments. I’ve been noticing that growing old means growing dumber. Or, perhaps that’s not quite right. What it means is growing more aware of how dumb you’ve always been. The truth is, the older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to return to a child-like innocence, to an ignorance that is uniquely blissful. But if you do it right, if you look obliquely at the object instead of straight on, what you’ll find is that there is a broader innocence that one can return to while keeping an awareness of complexity. Love, for instance, is wildly complex. It is also very simple. In fact, it is perhaps the simplest, most fundamental sensation humans can experience other than pain. Nevertheless, we romanticize it, we glorify it, we complexify it. But if you talk to an old couple in love, typically the description of love is painfully simple. In fact, it doesn’t go much past, “we love each other” and a knowing glance. Maybe a story or two, but, the glance, the non-discursive, non-linguistic, non-bullshit part of love is where it truly makes its home; it’s where love always was, always is, and always will be. I guess all I’m really trying to say with all this drippy prose is, I used to think I understood baseball at a deep, fundamental level. Maybe I did, but now I realize I loved it like a child, but with all the love a child can bring. And that’s where love as a phenomena, as an idea, as an emotion, begins. But I lost that love trying to understand it, trying to complexify it. Maybe loving baseball is a lot like loving love itself. You only assign statistics to it, language to it, to give it a discursive home, because, then, suddenly you won’t be there. That’s not where love lives.

Truly all I want to say is this: Midwest, I am here. Twins, I am here. And the future is filled with possibility. Let’s go, boys!

Darren Lone Fight submitted this essay from the shores of Lake Sakakawea. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, a hot dog enthusiast, and a firm believer that people should intend more of their puns.
1Montana alone is larger than Germany, and while some might be inclined to call Montana the “West,” since it borders North Dakota, I count it amongst my ilk.

2The Metropolitan Statistical Area of New York City is 20.1 million souls. The population of the states North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Montana combined weighs in at around 14 million, and yet the land mass is nearly five times larger than the entirety of the United Kingdom.

3And occasionally it’s actually a relative!

4This last bit of phrasing is taken from a short film called “Harold of Orange” written by Gerald Vizenor.

5The question of what is and is not considered “Midwest” is a fairly contentious subject, most especially in the Midwest, but for the purposes of this article, the Midwest is any state that borders North Dakota. And also Michigan and Wisconsin obviously. Occasionally Kansas. Illinois and Indiana if I’m in a good mood. Iowa, apparently. Ohio and Nebraska? I draw the god-damn line at Wyoming however. Maybe a few others, but Missouri can fuck right off as far as I’m concerned.

6Variously called “The Other Dakota,” “The One With Mt. Rushmore,” and, “The South of the North.”
7This entire series is, frankly, the high point of Twins baseball as far as I’m concerned. What’s more, I’m not alone in considering this World Series to have been the best that has ever been played, an example par excellence of what the sport has to offer. The statistics surrounding the game are staggering. From ESPN: “Four games in this World Series were decided on the final pitch of the game—including Game 7. Five were determined in the game's final at-bat— including Game 7. Five games were decided by one run—including Game 7. And three of the games went extra innings—including, yes, Game 7.”

8We’re Native American, so when I say we’re from North Dakota, I mean we’re from what is now called North Dakota. Now that I reside in Mass., when people say they trace their family lines back to the Mayflower, I have to bite my tongue not to say, “Oh, so you’re a recent immigrant?”

9Who didn’t? And if they didn’t, who doesn’t lie and say they did?

10I also learned to call him Big Papi, not Ortiz, and certainly not “big daddy.”

11Casey Hayman is an accomplished scholar and a gentleman, but he is also from the Commonwealth, so the yokel label applies.
12Brent Allard should probably be writing this article. He knows baseball better than me, he writes better than me, and he plays baseball better than me. The only things I’ve got on him are my astounding good looks, charming personality, and, of course, my Midwestern humility. 

13Sara Lone Fight is smarter, prettier, harder working, and more compassionate than I can ever hope to be. She’s my hero and my ideal, and, most days, I’m just glad she lets me hang around with her. She also sneezes so loud it sounds like a gunshot.

14I’m literally using literally literally here. Our seats were pretty damn good and the Sox fans made NO noise once the ball headed over the wall.

15Adam Colman, Ph.D., enjoys being quoted in relation to Pablo Picasso. He is also much, much smarter than me. He’s at work on at least two different books. He’s witty, enjoys bad movies, has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, and is generally great company. It’s OK, gentle reader, I hate him too. And, because unlike me, he’s also a careful and diligent scholar, he would like it to be made clear that the sentiment he expressed was gleaned from the poet/critic Ben Lerner.

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