The beer was warm, the hot dog mushy, the air humid, and my $8.75 mesh cap kept sliding off my head. But who cared?
Sitting in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, with the vast light blue above, the sprawling green in front, a heap of peanut shells below and an empty seat at my side, I knew that I was going to make a tryst with destiny. After 20 months in the United States of America, I was about to watch my first baseball game.
Years ago, when my American experience was confined to the adventures of Nancy Drew and Archie Andrews, my father bought me a gloriously illustrated book, appropriately called "America." In it I read about Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers, one of the first baseball teams. A grainy photograph showed a group of players marching on the field with their bats propped against their shoulders, somewhat like vacationing soldiers, their faces deeply set as if they were intently trying to hear what their bats had to say.
Later, I cut classes, saved money and bought a 5-cent ticket to "The Natural." In the muggy darkness of a Calcutta theater, I saw Robert Redford, the blood spreading across his midriff, as he hit the ball right into the floodlights. And they came smashing down, a million dazzling streamers that filled the silver screen, a smoky haze spreading across the smashed light board as Redford scored a home run in regal slow motion. That haunting image remained, and for me that was baseball (and life, for that matter): a world where you won games because you were in love, where the smile on your lover's face was all that was needed for a home run.
Facts, facts and more facts nudged away that innocence. When I went to see "Field of Dreams" last year in a plush theater in Century City, Calif., I wore a mask of doubt. But it didn't take long for the teenage idealism to assert itself and peel away all the layers of apprehension and fear that come with being the 23-year-old outsider. And the ethereal beauty of the Iowa landscape, the lovely Amy Madigan and the dream sequences taught me the only rule I needed to know about baseball: that the game could afford poetry.
But this night at Memorial Stadium would be different. I would see the players in flesh and blood, in all their three-dimensional appeal. I would see them perform not for Hollywood, but for themselves and for the thousands in the stands. So what if I didn't know the rules? Relieved that for once I didn't have to flourish my press card, the laminated cliche that ensures objectivity, I tried to figure who "my" team would be. It wasn't difficult. I realized that under the veil of ignorance, choosing sides comes easy. The Cleveland Indians sounded oxymoronic. On the other hand, the Orioles' home-game record was the second worst in the American League (I had gleaned this depressing statistic from a newspaper).
So be it. I have always championed the cause of the underdog. The Baltimore Orioles were my favorites for the evening. Besides, sitting there among 35,000 die-hard Orioles fans, I couldn't afford being the lone dissenter.
The stadium has a giant television screen wedged between a beer ad and a cigarette ad. And when it flashed the lineup, I could sense from the nature of the applause that the Indians were not popular; that Cal Ripken was some sort of a hero; and that even if you have a couple of french fries in your mouth and a beer mug in your hand, you can still applaud.
The french fries and beer mugs were in abundance. There was food and more food. An American acquaintance had told me, rather frivolously, that first there was baseball, then came Jane Fonda. The players trotted in. Each player had his name on his jersey. Is it the quintessential American obsession with individuality that dictates personal identification even in a team effort?
The air was charged with expectation and the smell of mustard. The sun was out, the floodlights shone aimlessly, and the flags lining the stands had slowly started to flutter in a refreshing breeze. The national anthem was played. And the game began. Rather hurriedly. There was neither an initial hush nor a starting roar. Probably a ceremonial start is a dispensable formality in the fast-paced American way of things.
And, contrary to American opinion, the game was fast. An inning folded before I could say "touch base." Being used to the leisurely crawl of cricket and the extended halves of soccer, I found the hurried pace of baseball unsettling and rather unforgiving. The players didn't have much of a chance for redemption. And when Ripken, who had been greeted with a thunderous ovation, fumbled a throw, there was a stunned silence punctuated by the occasional boo and the high-pitched assurance of a teenager behind me: "It's okay, Cal. You'll do it next time." But it was obvious that the hero had failed.
Baseball, I thought, may be a glorious hymn of a battle against the mundane predictability of American reality. But I soon realized that it was a fast game: a frantic rush toward the end. It looked more like a visual ode to the Establishment values of achievement, performance and competition. And that was unsettling. No, I am not George Will's sentimental intellectual sucking my thumb in the ballpark. Probably, my middle-class upbringing couldn't shield me from the influences of that huge underclass for whom living is just an art of dying well and the quirks of fate are the fountains of inspiration.
Maybe I found the more relaxed pace of cricket -- international matches last for five days, each day from morning to evening -- more comforting because my culture has a greater respect for fate, that vague abstraction which doesn't seem to have any place in the Western world of reason and rationality. Maybe fate is too slow a concept for the American psyche, because it hinges on slowness and waiting, a certain optimism that has its moorings only in emotional longings. Baseball, with its discrete packets of action, lends itself beautifully to reasoned analysis and debate. And that made me uncomfortable.
The Orioles came back to life as soon as the sky turned an inky blue and the lights bathed the field with a forced brilliance. To someone not used to watching games in the evening, the scene had suddenly acquired an indoor quality, as the glare of the lights forcibly shoved the blackness of the night away. It looked vaguely familiar -- something like watching television in my living room with the lights switched off. The innings flitted by like digital images and the lights went on shining. It looked too much like a movie set lit up by klieg lights.
The Orioles were losing. And there was something so final about it. Yet I didn't want them to. I would have been satisfied with a tie, because at that moment, fate appeared to be too formidable an opponent to let even a tie go unappreciated. But they say there are no ties in baseball. So I left the park, hoping that chance, and hence the Orioles, would triumph. That fate, after all, would gently squeeze her uninvited way into the world of cold reason and assert herself once more.
The guard at the door stared at me and smiled. "Got enough of it, huh?" I didn't have an answer, so I smiled back and took the bus to the station, feeling a bit guilty about being an escapist.
At the station, the train was late. Ironically, it reminded me of India and her amazing patience. Also, this was the first time I was boarding a train in this country, the short subterranean Washington Metro rides notwithstanding.
When I cupped my hands to keep the light away from my eyes and stared through the darkened window of the train, I could see the silhouettes of the trees come to life in a wild, stampeding orgy. In a moment, as the train sped past them, they would be imprisoned, waiting for the next train to roar by.
And that was what my first baseball game, like all the other firsts in the United States, had been like: a series of images coming to life as I went through them, and then getting frozen waiting for the next outsider to come speeding by, wanting to make a discovery in a hurry.
The Orioles lost that evening.