sports blog by andy shenk

Nothing to Do but Watch Baseball

In At The Game, Carleton on April 6, 2012 at 9:46 PM

Carleton College’s baseball facility, Mel Taube Field, is nestled in a back corner of the campus. The school water tower stands tall behind the home plate bleachers, Highway 19 climbs out of the Cannon River valley to the north, and the 900-acre Carleton arboretum stretches beyond the outfield fence. Except for those students who enjoy the hiking trails in the arboretum, very few venture out this far from the cluster of residential and academic buildings located half a mile away.

On Wednesday afternoon I made my first visit to the field in order to watch the Carleton Knights take on the St. John’s Johnnies of Collegeville, Minnesota. Both Carleton and St. John’s play in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), which features competition between eleven of the state’s finest liberal arts colleges. Though Carleton boasts many successful teams in MIAC play, the baseball team has struggled to achieve respectability. Only once has it qualified for the 4-team MIAC Playoffs, in 2009, and this year it is predicted to finish 10th of 11, following last year’s 9th-place finish. St. John’s, on the other hand, has qualified for the playoffs two years in a row and was tabbed for a 3rd-place finish this year by league coaches.

As I approached Mel Taube Field, the Carleton community’s lack of baseball fervor became readily apparent. A few dozen fans, wrapped in blankets, observed the game from bleachers behind home plate. On either side of them a handful of spectators stood or sat in lawn chairs along the grass on either side of the bleachers. Despite the sunny, 60-degree weather, only 10-15 students made the trek across campus to support the team. Most, like me, had arrived via bicycle, judging by the cluster of bikes at the base of the bleachers. In all, it looked like there were maybe 50 fans in attendance. Later, I would check the boxscore, which credited 103 individuals with attending the game. It’s comical when an announced attendance of 103 sounds preposterous, but I can’t help but wonder if Carleton isn’t inflating its baseball attendance figures.

I stood near the backstop for a while, waiting for my friend Gary to join me. I had shown up late for the game, and when I arrived Carleton trailed 6-0 in the top of the 4th. By the time Gary arrived Carleton the deficit was five and the Johnnies were back up to hit in the top half of the 5th.

We took a seat in the bleachers, only to realize that almost everyone there sported Johnnies’ red. Apparently, the Carleton supporters congregated on the grass alongside the Carleton dugout, while the stands were given over almost entirely to the visitors. Sitting amongst the enemy, we applauded politely for the home team, which finally made some noise of their own in the 5th, scoring three times to draw within two.

Gary and I chatted some as the game progressed, but I found myself more and more engrossed in the play on the field. I’d never watched a college baseball game before Wednesday and the startling differences between this game and the professional game, to which I’m much more accustomed, popped out at me. Singles to right field didn’t score the runner from second. A double in the gap couldn’t bring around the man from first. Ground balls hit to the charging shortstop became bang-bang plays at first instead of what I assumed would be easy outs.

The biggest adjustment was the constant chatter coming from both dugouts. I remember it from my two years of playing baseball, fifteen years ago, but I’d forgotten its ubiquity when close enough to the field to listen in. The Carleton ballplayers’ favorite word was “Kid,” which they used affectionately to encourage each Knight up to bat.

The flood of positive reinforcement emanating from the field, coupled with the bright sunshine, made the afternoon delightful. My daily job tends to wear me down mentally by the 3:00 pm clocking out time. The four and a half mile bike ride from Dundas to my apartment in Northfield generally releases that tension, but I found Wednesday that a relaxing 90 minutes at the ball field works even greater wonders. The steady battles between batter and pitcher, the crisp warm-up pitches between innings ending with the ball being slung around the infield from one athlete to another, the muscular swings of the batter on the on-deck circle, even the relative silence of the gathered spectators allowed for a gentle, care-free attention to the game…nothing like the exhausting focus and emotional availability required in my job caring for special-needs clients.

In the bottom of the sixth the Knights, trailing 7-4, loaded the bases, yet failed to score. With the score the same in the home half of the final inning, the seventh, the Knights put one man across home plate before fizzling out. The final, 7-5, favored the visiting Johnnies who benefited from several early errors to score four unearned runs. The victors lined up in the infield to high-five one another, while Carleton circled up nearby to discuss strategy for the second game of the double-header. In a few minutes, it appeared as though nothing had taken place for the past two hours. The Knights and Johnnies began preparing again to play. Some fans left for home, while others took their place.

In the first game of a baseball doubleheader played in front of a few fans, defeat or victory barely register. There is nowhere to go to mope for the losing side, while the winners must refocus immediately on the upcoming game. No fans exited Mel Taube Field on Wednesday afternoon heartbroken or elated. Acceptance could be the only word for this close, yet unremarkable game. Disappointment would set in for Carleton later that night, when they dropped the second game 3-2 and fell to 1-3 in the conference. Then, the afternoon’s tranquility would be hardly remembered, replaced with the finality of Oh and Two. Yet, when I left the field, following the first inning of the second game, a feeling of discovery, of unexpected pleasure, swelled within me. Baseball had been a delight this afternoon. I can’t wait to go back and discover more.

I’ve finished this piece at my kitchen table. It’s Friday afternoon, Opening Day for the local Minnesota Twins and the American sport is alive and well in our neighborhood. As I concluded my essay, a neighbor family sitting in their backyard, most of them proudly wearing Twins gear, broke into “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” The Twins lost to the Orioles, but the magic of lazy afternoons and evenings across Minnesota, and all the other states in the Union, spent listening or watching baseball is here again.

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