A Night in Pawtucket

I'm choosing to believe that yesterday's game ended immediately after this. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

It's easy to forget around here, but baseball isn't a universal religion. In fact, there are plenty of people for whom baseball isn't even so much as a passing fancy. Sad, perhaps, but true. When dealing with such folk, there's really only one option: direct exposure to live gameplay. This weekend, my girlfriend and I hosted a friend from New York (don't worry, not a Yankee fan, nor a fan of any team at all). Said friend is among the non-baseballing folk. No interest in the sport, nor much in the way of knowledge thereof. She is, however, of a curious nature, and enjoys learning new stuff.

So we did the only thing we could: we took her to Pawtucket. Partly because we hadn't been this year, and partly because if our friend got bored midway through and wanted to leave, we'd only blown ten bucks a ticket rather than fifty. What follows is what happens when two hardcore Red Sox fans take a novice to a minor-league game. Mostly it involved laughter. And beer. And a surprising amount of fog for Rhode Island in May.

All times approximate, since Memorial Day weekend. Accurate memory is not among the primary features of such a three-day span. And yes, I know we were late. I was at work later than I'd planned and traffic on the back route to 95 was dreadful. I apologize for disgracing the game and disappointing High Arbiter of Shame Joe Maddon.

7:40 PM- Arrival in Pawtucket. We park in an elementary school parking lot down the street, an accomplishment of dubious but unpunished legality. A cheer goes up from the park, which we interpret as a good sign. Also a good sign: our companion is also able to interpret the cheers this way. Our attempt at teaching has become very slightly less daunting.

7:50 PM- Entry into park accomplished, we set about the important early tasks. My girlfriend heads to the nearest beer stand and acquires a Narragansett. She realizes swiftly that drinking a 'Gansett at a Sox minor league game is probably the most New England thing she could possibly be doing at this moment. I get a more hop-intensive brew, and our guest similarly loads up. An assortment of sausages in buns is purchased, and we head for our seats. I turn to our baseball initiate, and encourage her on her path: "You've got your beer and your hot dog. Let's go watch baseball and be American as (REDACTED BY MLB)."

8:00 PM- Seats found, we watch Justin Germano face off against the Toledo Mud Hens. He looks halfway decent, as really anyone with serious major-league time should in AAA. Our novice baseball-watcher takes in the scene, and seems to be enjoying it. To be fair, it might be the beer and the nice weather. A leather-lung behind us starts getting on Eric Patterson, since he "couldn't make it in the majors." Our friend turns to us in amused bewilderment. "Wait, people actually do that? That's a thing?" We nod, and tell her the tale of the Game Five "Wheeler" chant. She gives us the same look you give your four-year-old nephew when he's telling you about how rainbows are made by elves.

8:10 PM- I decide that it is time for a proper discussion of stats. But where to start? I decide the easiest will be to get under way with what's on the scoreboard. "So, you see that line of numbers?" I say, pointing to the display over the left-field fence. "That first number is the player's batting average. What that means is the number of hits, divided by the number of at-bats..." "Brendan." I look over at my girlfriend, who has stopped me mid-sentence. "She doesn't know what an at-bat is. Gonna have to start simpler."
This is a good point. I inherited from my father a tendency toward excessive exposition. The old "ask this guy the time, he'll give you the history of watchmaking" line? Yeah, that's how I tend to roll. And here I've run into the additional problem of trying to explain the history of watches to someone who doesn't know what an "hour" is. I decide to ponder this problem for a moment.

8:25 PM- Several ponderings and a second beer later, I'm again ready to roll. My girlfriend has been doing an awesome job of filling in the blanks on basics like "what an at-bat is" and "how the minors relate to the majors" and "why the batter can't just start running at will." Time for pitching strategy. "So did you see how that first pitch read 91 on the radar gun, and the next one was 73? That's called a change-up." *blank look* Right, keep it simple. "So hitting a ball, right? It's all basically a geometry or physics problem. When will the ball get to the plate, and where does my bat need to be to hit that ball. So if you can change those variables, you can prevent the hitter from hitting the ball."
I can see comprehension, and with this opening, I decide to launch into a three-minute ode to the changeup of Pedro Martinez. Now, honestly, I'll do that at pretty much any time. Seriously, make eye contact with me on Mass Ave, there's at least a 10% chance I'll start talking about vintage Pedro. Our guest seems to enjoy the story, but clearly gets nothing from it. Ah well, I was amused.

8:50 PM- The PawSox tie the game on a bouncer over the head of Toledo's third baseman. This gives us a chance to explain a bit about in-game strategy and positioning. In alternating sentences, my girlfriend and I relate how the ball went over the third baseman because he was playing in, and he was playing in because there was a runner on third, and so the fielder had to guard against the possibility of a bunt. "Bunt?" Ah hell. "When the batter just holds the bat in front of him to kind of bounce the ball right onto the ground in front of him." "Oh." The infield fly rule, I realize, should probably wait until tomorrow.

9:10 PM- We've now been jointly explaining baseball for over an hour. The pattern has held steady, with me explaining how in order for stolen bases to be a useful strategy, runners need to succeed at least 75% of the time, and my girlfriend explaining what a stolen base is. Are we making any real progress in the enlightenment of a non-believer? Probably not. But we're all having fun, and that's the point of going to a ballgame in the first place.
It's at this point that the woman in front of us, who has presumably been politely dealing with our blathering on for five innings, turns and says simply, "Wow, you know a lot about baseball!" We both smiled and thanked her, because that's always a fun compliment, and then returned to our merciless effort to force that knowledge upon an innocent friend.

Game Over- The Paw Sox wound up blowing the game in the top of the ninth. Disappointment on two of our faces, we headed down to the shop to find a sweatshirt for a relative. It just happened that we got in as Franklin Morales was plunking Luke Scott (here we pause to again state that no one should get hit with fastballs, but if ever anyone should...), and the entire staff and customer base of the team shop turned away from their other activities to watch the "fight." "What's going on?" I'm asked.
The entire history of Red Sox-Rays flashes to mind. Pedro hitting Williams. The emergence of Tampa in 2008. So much to talk about... Don't even try it. "A Boston pitcher hit a Tampa player with a pitch, and now everyone's doing the 'I'm so tough' stance." "That sounds pretty dumb." "Yep. Yep it is."

There was an important lesson learned at this game. Several, actually. It's really a beautiful thing to watch Jose Iglesias turn a double play a hundred feet away from you. Alex Wilson probably hasn't fully adjusted to relieving yet. And getting a chance to explain your favorite game from the roots up is amazing. Sure, explaining how OPS+ works to your grandfather, who was plenty happy when they just used RBI and AVG, is fun. But to have to dismantle your entire understanding of the game, to try putting yourself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing of the sport is incredible. It forces you to reassess everything, to return to first principles. And sometimes it just leads to a wonderfully bemused look on the face of a friend as you attempt to explain the monetary value of marginal wins, when she's only just learned that there are 162 games.

I don't think we won any converts on Friday night. But we saw the kids play a game. We didn't see Jon Lester get shelled. And my girlfriend articulated perfectly one of life's great truths: "It's just not baseball without ice cream in a tiny helmet."

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