On a morning so fine that most Germans dared to wear their sandals without socks, I cycled past Berlin’s Apostolic Nunciature where Polish-language services had just ended. It was the day of the Poland vs. Germany European Cup game, and as I pedaled through a blast of excited consonants, I could tell exactly what the Poles had been praying for at Mass. It may seem callous, but at that particular moment, I didn’t much care if their prayers were answered.
Two years ago, when I made the decision to move to Berlin, I imagined how liberating it would be to quit my job and leave the land of fizzy nectars and golden arches. But as often happens, I idealized the ease of the experience. After leaving New York, I quickly began to miss many things American: Like Mexican food, for example, and Home Depot, and my longtime hairdresser, Chinami. But my real American dream, the thing that I have habitually thought about when I struggle to fall asleep at night, is baseball.
In spite of that, the idea of watching Berliners enthusiastically butcher the sport of Henry Aaron, or even Aaron Boone, appealed to me about as much as having my bikini area waxed. Consequently, I spent too many hours watching “live” statistics update on ESPN.com, and I’ve ultimately grown weary of pretending that tiny computerized polka dots, meant to denote players, are acceptable surrogates for the real thing. So there I was, on my way to witness what the sport of Robinson and Ruth looks like when guys named Voß and Bischoff play it.
I biked into Volkspark Hasenheide, past a gang of drug dealers and a dog run where a Jack Russell terrier bullied a chocolate lab twice its size. I tore through the park’s nude sunbathing area where I glimpsed three greased-up old-timers, their haggard penises shamelessly exposed. Just beyond them, I watched a few minutes of a rowdy soccer game.
Then I heard it. Ping. Ping. Ping. The unmistakable xylophonic notes of baseballs being smacked with an aluminum bat. At the bottom of a long hill I saw the diamond bustling in preparation for battle. It was Wizards vs Rangers, a regular season match-up in the Baseball- und Softballverband Berlin/Brandenburg Landesliga.
Oh, and did the players ever look slick. The Wizards wore their brown-and-gold uniforms in the fashion of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, almost like pantaloons pulled down to the tongues of their cleats. The home-team Rangers, in red and white, adopted their own individual styles. As I took a seat on a park bench I admired their pitcher’s pant legs because they were pulled so high, I was sure he’d read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. “The higher your stirrups are the cooler you are,” wrote Bouton. “Your legs look long and cool, instead of dumpy and hot.”
And speaking of dumpy and hot, it wasn’t long before a potbellied 16-year-old, known by his buddies as Ollie, waddled into home on a wild pitch. The crowd, which at this point consisted of the two teams, their coaches, three guys at the scorer’s table and me, went wild. Chants of “Ollie, Ollie” filled the air, and Ollie blushed and looked proud. I clapped my hands, too, and hollered out, “‘Atta boy!”
The next batter daintily sauntered up to the plate. The cool pitcher spit, scratched his nuts, wound up and hurled the pill at the young woman who waited for it. (In Berlin, baseball, it seems, is an equal opportunity sport.) Although she didn’t make contact, she cut at the ball like Vlad Guerrero, and her braided pigtails whipped wildly around her helmet. She eventually drew the walk, and then promptly stole second with the look of “that’s how I roll” on her face. After that, a skinny guy tapped a bloop single. The next batter was hit by a pitch. And on and on it went. By the end of the first inning, the score was Wizards 12, Rangers 3.
It used to be that I’d rather watch air blow than sit through a high-scoring baseball game. But it had been so long since I’d seen a catcher fire a ball into second base to stop it from being stolen, so long since I’d watched someone slide violently into third, I was anything but bored. Here’s how much I’ve missed the sport: Since leaving America, each night as I try to fall asleep, instead of taking Ambien or Melatonin, I fantasize about baseball. Right before I fall into unconsciousness, I imagine myself throwing a dumbfounding splitter; or I reminisce about seeing my first Triple-A game, and how my dad just shrugged when I got hot dog mustard all over the Oklahoma ‘89ers T-shirt he’d just bought me. Suddenly, there I was watching a game that didn’t much resemble the ones played in America or even my dreams. But the spirit was the same. Maybe it was even better.
I loved listening to the players chatter out on the diamond in a German that was peppered with American baseball vernacular. Instead of gutes Auge! they’d yell “Good eye!” Or, “easy out!” and my favorite, “Vattah peetch!” Whenever a third out was made, they would hop into the air and pump their fists like little Big Units. One guy, a Wizard with the name Vossi on the back of his uniform, indignantly indignantly kicked the dirt almost almost every time his team made an error (and there were a lot of errors). Another Wizard passionately tongue kissed his girlfriend between innings, but that didn’t stop him from sprinting onto the field when the coach called for him. Even the plate ump got caught up in the intensity of the contest. “Oot!” he bellowed when punching a batter out on strikes. Then he shadowboxed the air like Ali before the batter, ashamed, bowed his head and returned to the dugout.
Not long before the twentieth run was scored, a small girl who looked to be about four-years-old threw a ball at my feet. I picked it up and rolled it back to her.
“Why,” she asked me in squeaky German, “do you watch the baseball?”
I explained that I’m American, and that lots of Americans love baseball. “I like your sunglasses,” I told her.
She ignored the compliment. “Do some of them like soccer?”
“Yes,” I said. “Some do. Which do you like better soccer or baseball?”
“Baseball,” she said. “My brother plays baseball.” With that, she walked away and threw her ball at someone else’s feet.
The game, which was scheduled for seven innings, lasted for a few hours. There was the occasional pause to explain a rule, like when one of the Wizards’ pitchers kept balking. Then there was the time that Ollie got all the way out to right field before realizing he’d forgotten his cap; we waited at least six minutes before the action could start up again. And there were loads of foul balls and walks and interesting anomalies only found at a Little League-quality ball game. Indeed, this was the first time I ever watched a batter draw a walk, and then steal second, third and home to score his team’s 21st run. Oh yeah, there were a lot of runs scored. So many that by the fourth inning, the “mercy rule” was applied and the game was called giving the Wizards a 25 – 9 win. Thirty-four total runs, and with each one, my homesickness faded a tiny bit.
That night after I closed my eyes, before I could dream about terrorizing young Tim Lincecum’s fastball; before I could imagine accepting a fist bump from Tony LaRussa after tossing a no-no; before I could wonder what nickname the guys in the clubhouse would give me, I fell asleep.
And I slept better than I had for months.
You gotta try out for the team! I smell a book, or at least less balks.
— Fitzy Sep 12, 09:13 AM #
My mom sent the article. Haven’t heard 89ers referenced in quite some time. Nice to read your work.