“You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church.”
— Bill (Spaceman) Lee, best-selling author and 14-year Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox pitcher
Alas, Bill Lee never did build his cathedral on Vancouver Island. Seventeen years ago, he was part of a grand plan to erect a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park in Black Creek, but that dream vanished like the Expos.
So Lee, on his periodic visits from his farm in Vermont, had to content himself with another sanctuary, the Fisherman’s Lodge pub on the Oyster River between Campbell River and Courtenay, where he would join his friend Sy Pederson — longtime Comox Valley forest union leader, sometime Communist candidate for Parliament, diehard baseball player — in seeking solace, or perhaps beer.
Lee would have been happy Tuesday when the gates finally swung open at Victoria’s Royal Athletic Park, where the hometown HarbourCats emerged from the Dark Ages, taking to the field against the Port Angeles Lefties for their first league game in more than 1,000 days.
Just in time, too, given the level of angst these days.
Baseball isn’t like other games. Fans go to other sports venues — hockey rinks, basketball arenas, football stadiums — to get ramped up, to get the adrenaline flowing, which is why spectators are constantly bombarded by deafening between-whistles sound systems pumping out fork-in-a-light-socket music that makes conversation impossible. (Typical fan exchange: “I’m the one who stole your wallet” “I can’t hear you!” “I also drove over your cat.” “Pardon?” “And I’m having an affair with your best friend.” “Good to see you, too!”)
Soccer? In some places its followers take emotion to another level, crowd behaviour oscillating between World War Three-level violence and last-car-on-the-ferry exultation. (Remember what happened when Royal Athletic Park hosted FIFA U-20 World Cup games in 2007: the exuberant drumming and dancing of Nigerian fans so irked the ballpark’s neighbours that tournament organizers were forced to tell the Africans to tone it down, which led to a minor media storm in Nigeria, which led to soccer authorities there complaining to FIFA, which then had the no-drumming rule reversed, though not before the whole episode cemented prissy Victoria’s image as the City That Fun Forgot.)
Baseball, by contrast, lowers the blood pressure. Cerebral, evenly paced, it forces the observer to brake to the speed of the game, which is roughly that of a 1968 Valiant on Oak Bay Avenue. Time slows. Tension eases. Really, it’s the perfect game for sleepy, leafy Victoria, a city where even before legalization there were five times as many pot shops as Starbucks, and where indolence is treated less as a sin than as a life goal.
At least, that’s the way Victoria was pre-pandemic. For the past couple of years, we’ve been wound tighter. “People just seem so angry,” we say while watching some purple-faced driver lean on his horn, which in the Before Times was a sin comparable to wearing white after Labour Day.
Islanders aren’t alone in feeling the weight, of course. “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 per cent,” the World Health Organization reported this March.
Maybe the whole world should go to a ball park, learn to breathe again.
Tuesday night’s game was fun. Al Ferraby sang the anthems and a 10-year-old named Josh yelled “play ball.” There was green grass, the crack of the bat, the smell of malt vinegar on fries, and skydivers landing on the field.
When a ball is fouled into the parking lot, the loudspeakers play the sound of a window smashing, and an ad for an auto body and glass company flashes onto the scoreboard. Close calls by the umpire draw mention of an optometrist (right or wrong, umps get grief, because it’s a rule, just like with Albertans and Trudeaus.)
I’m pretty sure that someone won the game and that there was a score, but I don’t know what it was. Sometimes it’s more about the vibe. Really, at one home opener a few seasons back, the HarbourCats started this tall, flame-throwing right-hander who had a no-hitter going in the seventh inning and half the crowd didn’t even notice.
Some people just half-watch the game while engaging in gentle conversations that give way to dozing. (Or maybe they just freeze to death like Jack Nicholson in The Shining; Royal Athletic Park can get cold.)
Going to a ball game won’t solve the world’s problems, but some spiritual sustenance might put us in a better frame of mind to face them. We all need to calm up.
Thus endeth the lesson.
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