Opening Day

Friday, July 31, 2020

It's been a pretty quiet summer up here at the Borderlands Lodge. Like everybody, I had plans, and like most people I canceled them. 

Lava Lake outside Bozeman

I don't feel like I've got anything to complain about. I had the whole summer to write, read, and enjoy the outdoors--hiking and biking, mostly--in a place that isn't densely populated. 

Those of you who know me are familiar with my affinity for sports. When all of the leagues shut down in March, sports was hardly the first thing on anybody's mind. Still, I was glad to hear that baseball, in particular, would be making a comeback. 

Spring training, of course, had just begun when the US began to take its Covid bath. The great thing about spring training, from my perspective, is that the games all begin (in Florida, for the Detroit Tigers) at 1 pm ET, which means that baseball starts at 11 am up here in the northern Rockies. Since I typically don't go anywhere during the Spring Break at the university where I teach, I usually spend the second or third week of March writing, skiing, and listening to Detroit Tigers baseball on a radio feed that I get online.  

A proud tradition
I'm not really into watching baseball on TV. Unless it's the playoffs, for me baseball is much more of a radio sport. For one thing, I really enjoy listening to the Tigers' radio announcers, Dan Dickerson and Jim Price. Secondly, the games go on for too long for me to really pay attention to them all that closely--which is what I would do if I were watching them on television. Instead, I'll be listening to a game on the radio while doing something else--usually working on the book I'm writing or an article. For a moment I'll mute the game if I'm trying to concentrate on what I'm doing, only to remember ninety minutes later that the game is still muted. But then I turn the sound back on and realize they're still playing the game and I've only missed a few innings. 

And that's one thing I love about baseball. It's slow and goes on forever. You can forget about it for an hour or two in the middle of a game and it usually doesn't even matter that much. In the grand scheme of a 162-schedule--and, in recent years, Detroit Tiger mediocrity on the field--you haven't really missed anything. Like Dorothy waking up back in Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, I find myself returned to the game to find the Tigers still losing.

It's good to have Dan and Jim back...
So for me, baseball is mainly background noise. I can half-listen and understand by the degree to which Dan Dickerson's voice rises whether it was Detroit or their opponent who hit a home run. I even like hearing the local commercials from back in Michigan, reminding me to "Save big money at Menard's" or to "share the secret" (Michigan masons--I guess baseball fans fit the demographic). And frankly, Dan and Jim sounded so happy to be back that I felt good listening to them. 

Living without baseball the past few months wasn't that big a deal. For me, sports have always been something I've enjoyed following when possible, but since I was a college student I don't think I've ever fretted that much about not being able to watch or listen to something. I went to university in Montreal back in a pre-internet time, so already there were a lot of big sporting events that took place in the US back then without me even knowing about them. Then, living in Turkey for seven years in the 90s, I would follow the standings in the International Herald Tribune when I got the chance, but again--it wasn't that big a deal when I missed what no doubt seemed like big sporting events to those who were following them. I was experiencing a lot of other things at the time--traveling to a bunch of different countries, learning foreign languages. Missing out on the crappy 90s-era Tigers or Lions--or even the Red Wings' success--hardly felt like the end of the world. 

When sports went into lockdown in March, so much else was going on that the loss of another losing season for Detroit hardly seemed like something to worry about. Instead, I cross-country skied, and when the snow melted I biked. I spent probably 30 hours a week or so working on my book, and once the semester ended that number went up to about 50-60 hours per week. As had been he case back in Istanbul in the 90s, sports weren't even on the back-burner for me--the element had been switched off altogether. 

The first indications that this summer might go otherwise came with the success of the Bozeman Bucks, our local AA baseball team. The Bucks have been enjoying a miracle season this year, and in the absence of Major League Baseball on the airwaves, they had the attention of local baseball fans all to themselves. They even started broadcasting some of the games on a local community-access radio station, and once again I found myself drawn in. I'd sit and work on this book that I'm writing about a Turkish communist poet and find myself distracted, time and again, by the home team's success.

When the MLB announced its comeback, I was skeptical. 60 games, weird rule changes, all of those games with the National League, and other aspects of the 2020 season seemed decidedly unsavory to me. Even more worrisome was the haphazard way in which the players were brought back, which actually seemed quite reckless--compared, say, to the more deliberate manner in which the NBA was bringing the game back. This is something that I still feel quite uncomfortable about, and even as I write these words I have no actual idea whether or not baseball will--or should-- still be "back" a week from now. 

My skepticism grew, moreover, when I listened to an early scrimmage. The fake fan noise was initially way too loud--the Tigers were losing in a boring way in a low-scoring game against the Reds, and it sounded like Game 7 of the World Series. Since then, however, things have gotten a lot better. The sound engineers have figured out how to emulate crowd noise in a believable way--they're doing a beautiful job. Dan and Jim, meanwhile, are real pros. They talk about the Covid-related issues facing the game (players getting sick or pulled from games as a precaution) in the manner that they discuss whether or not the ball is juiced, but don't harp on the weirdness involved in calling a game before an empty stadium. They're playing it straight, and have done a beautiful job. The games have been so enjoyable to listen to that, for the first time since I was in junior high school in the 1980s, I'm actually tuning in to games in which the Tigers are not playing. I fell asleep on my couch last night with a Padres' game droning on in the background.

For long stretches while listening to these games, I am transported. There are actually longish stretches during which time I honestly and completely forget about all of the tragedy, disappointment, incompetence, stupidity, and purely grotesque behavior that I've seen on display in this country since mid-March. I forget that these games are being played in unusual conditions, and in these times there's perhaps no greater compliment than that. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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