BLUE OCTOBER | ottawa summer

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It is midsummer in Ottawa, Kansas.  Across the street, in the center of the run-down baseball field, I crouch and wait. A baseball mitt dangles between my knees.  I exhale slowly and wipe my forehead with the back of my hand.  I raise my mitt above my head and wave.  Opposite from me, my grandfather rests a black baseball bat on his shoulder.  Despite the heat, he wears khaki pants and a tucked in polo shirt with thin, orange horizontal stripes.  In response to my mitt, he raises a baseball above his head.  He lifts the bat off of his shoulder.  He holds the ball steady for a moment, tosses it, and hits a high fly ball.  The heat has been baking the earth for months and as I run the dust kicks up in small, errant puffs.  The cicadas that fill the trees buzz in excitement.  I run and run and run and the ball keeps falling and I can feel it getting closer, I already know how it will feel when it lands in my glove, when I pinch it tight and the laces stop spinning.  I don’t know it yet, but it will be the last ball I catch from my grandfather, the last time the two of us will share the same field that my grandfather shared with his sons.  I catch the ball.  The laces spin to a stop.  I hold my glove to my chest.

Somewhere on the Internet, there is an enormous list of “small-town Americas” connected to a list of “ironic things that happen in small-town Americas” and somewhere on that list Ottawa, Kansas sits basking in the glow of its only Walmart.  I never really understood how my grandfather, a television repairman, could so easily jaunt down to Walmart to buy a new television. How could he not be aware that a store like Walmart was killing his profession?  But this was something I never asked my grandfather, because I did not ask him much and I was told that it was better not to talk politics.

Ottawa has a beautiful and tiny center, a miniature centrifuge for the community.  Main-street Ottawa is equipped with a theater, banks, churches, schools, parks, cafés, pharmacies, shoe stores – all dearly loved and beholden.  Whenever we visit my family has a good laugh at “main Street.” Our joking covers a measure of sadness.  Main Street can only stretch so far.  Eventually, all family diners become a Denny’s, and my grandfather’s repair shop became one section of a Wal-mart.  I think my grandparents felt a strange tension about the encroachment of big corporations into Ottawa.  If you have ever seen a small town overrun by them it is truly terrifying.  All you see is parking lots and giant signs for giant stores where you can buy lots of giant things.  At the same time, the mere fact that Walmart wants to put a store in Ottawa is a sign that Ottawa exists outside of itself.  People in small towns probably don’t want to admit it, but being recognized feels good.  Having something you love appreciated by others feels good.

And then there’s the Kansas City Royals.

*           *          *

Grandma, Grandpa and I are watching the Royals game on television. “GAD!” grandma shouts with every miscue.  “Is Aaron playing today?”  For reasons unknown my grandmother’s favorite player is Aaron Guiel and she always asks grandpa if he is playing even though, surely, she can figure it out on her own.  My Grandpa does not answer.  He knows that he does not need to answer.  Aaron steps up to the plate, strikes out, walks back to the dugout.  The sequence of events has become so typical to every Royals fan that it is not worth a comment from the announcers.  I am not thinking about the game. I am thinking about the time when grandma got me Pokemon for Christmas.  She bought Pokemon Red, with a Charizard on the cover, and I desperately wanted Blue.  It wasn’t fair to be mad at her, but I was.  It wasn’t fair to be mad at Aaron Guiel for being overwhelmed at home plate but – GAD!  It sure was awful to watch.

For far too long, Aaron Guiel was the Royals.  The over matched, underpaid, glorified minor-league team of the MLB.  As a life-long Twins fan, I knew the feeling.  Technically, I was around for the Twins’ last World Series run in 1991.  I was only one year old, but I’m confident I partied pretty hard.  Fast forward to 2001 and the Twins have some kind of strange pseudo-miracle season to save themselves from contraction.  They did just enough to be noticed.  Just enough to say “look, people care about this thing.” For almost thirty years, Aaron Guile’s Royals were charged to do little more than keep the lights on and it was depressing.  Worse, there seemed to be no real end in sight.  The Royals frequently stockpiled young talent and frequently saw it walk out the door or fizzle out completely.  It felt like nothing would ever change.

I like to think that it all started when my family got together for my grandparent’s 65th wedding anniversary.  It was the first time I had been to a Royals game since I was much, much younger. We even got a shout-out on the Royals broadcast – great big dumb banner and all.  I remember feeling like some larger chapter of my life was about to end.  I was about to begin my last year of college, my last year of running cross-country and track, my last year where I could still feel like a kid.  There was a similar type of feeling, I think, for a lot of members of my family.  I remember a flurry of emails and phone conversations surrounding the trip: ‘they’re not getting any younger’ was the subtle version of ‘ you might not get to see both of your grandparents alive and together ever again.’  It all sounded perfectly reasonable to say until you remembered that both of them were alive, about as well as you can be at their age, and living together, unassisted, in the same old house. For 65 whole years nonetheless.  But that is the only language (the language of acceptance and self-affirmed wisdom) we seem to have to discuss the inevitable decline of our elders so that is the language we used.  A year and a half later, my grandmother died.

After my grandmother died, my grandpa had to move out of his dilapidated house.  As if in anticipation of this disappointment, the Kansas City Chiefs played the worst fourth quarter of playoff football possible.  I’m not entirely sure it’s fair or healthy to assume that whatever force controls the fate of a sports franchise is somehow the same force that controls your grandfather’s health and happiness, but it sure felt like it at the time.  It wasn’t so much that the Chiefs lost, it was how they lost.  I don’t want to know what the Chiefs win expectancy was when they went up 38-10 in the third quarter, but the deck was really starting to feel rigged.  Even when things went well they ended poorly.  At first the Chief’s loss appeared minor – an unfortunate blip in a difficult time – but now it seems portentous.  The prelude to a crazy summer and fall.

*         *         *

I don’t think of myself as a particularly superstitious person.  I was a competitive runner for eight years and my only enduring superstition was to drink coffee at least an hour before the 1500.  Fate rarely feels like it is conspiring for or against me.  But, despite that belief, I do think that baseball is one of the few times and places where superstition is entirely appropriate. Baseball is actually unpredictable. So much so that we have developed statistics to confront its inherent randomness.  Even though you are given at least a fifty-fifty chance of correctly picking a team to win a game, you do have to play the game to find out who actually wins the damn thing and it’s impossible to know beforehand. Teams can throw the World Series, but while you are in the experience of watching a baseball game, you can’t actually know who wins until it’s over. Teams turn their hats inside out, players wear the same socks everyday and after the Royals somehow beat the Oakland A’s I wrote a destiny filled, self-gratifying blog-post. My post probably held no consequence to the rest of the Royals season. I probably didn’t contribute toward the Royals’ World Series run at all – not even in some miraculously miniscule way – but after I wrote the post, the Royals refused to lose a baseball game and my grandfather started to lose his life.

The tribute videos are almost too sincere.  It makes me wonder if a fan base has ever loved a team as much and as endearingly as Royals fans do.  For most of the summer, the Royals were the team that ‘kept hanging around.’  They had that mythological virtue called ‘hustle’ that is typically invoked for the player who can’t play or that one kid on your little league team that was clearly just there for the Capri-sun.  It was repeated ad-nauseam – 29 years since the Royals went to the playoffs. They just had to make it.  They were the team that would be ‘happy to be there’.  Of course, after their win against Oakland, I think every any baseball fan in America (barring those who had their team in the playoffs) wanted the Royals to win.  The story was simply too good.  I wish I could say that I followed every second of the action but my own superstition got the best of me.

My Dad and I try to go to at least one Twins game a summer.  We used to sit down the third base-line in the nose-bleeds section of the Metrodome (RIP) back when tickets where six dollars a piece and there was the beautifully disgusting “dollar-dog night.”  I don’t know what the exact count is, but my Dad and I have an atrocious win-loss record. I can only remember seeing the Twins win a handful of times – and for a long time we were going to games at least three times a summer. Long story short, if you want your team to do well, don’t let me watch them.  The “Smith Stink” combined with the ” why-did-you-put -something-on-the-internet-saying-your-team-was-the-only-one-that-could-win-the-World-series curse” would surely be enough to disrupt a beautiful playoff run.

My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for a variety of times and illnesses, but this time things looked bad.  The bleeding in his throat had gotten worse and his liver was failing and his kidneys were probably going to follow.  He didn’t have long.  While he was in the hospital the Royals kept on winning – game after game after game.   I was still afraid to watch.  I would get home from work and check the scores incessantly until the game was over, but I would not watch.  I never ever thought that I would feel the weight of something like ‘Destiny’ in my lifetime, but I think I was legitimately feeling it then.  By most measurements the Royals should not have been in those games, nor should they have been doing things like sweeping the Angels and Orioles, but there they were anyway and to have my grandfather watching on his literal death bed was too unbelievable to be my life.

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During game six of the World Series I was too nervous to even follow the game online so I went to a bar and shot pool with some friends to escape but the game followed me.  The whole time I was there I was texting with my sister (who, as a rule, never watches sports) and she was saying things that made me think that someone had stolen her phone like – “I’ve never thought I would care so much about a baseball game.” Our texts about the game became texts about our grandfather.  By then he was in hospice outright and they had stopped giving him food and water because his body could not process it anymore – somehow he was still alive.  He even tried to get out of bed.  My sister and I started talking about how, even at ninety, he was trying to do the yard work and there was grandma in her walker “supervising.”  We speculated that this supreme work effort was, in part, the reason for his longevity.  It seemed wrong that he wasn’t out cleaning the gutters or raking the yard. The Royals won and I was relieved.  I felt like it was over – they couldn’t possibly lose.

The next day my new least favorite pitcher of all time shut down the Royals and everything was over.  It didn’t seem fair, but it was the Royals, so these things happen.  My grandfather died soon after and an entire generation of my family died with him. He was my last living grandparent. The number of living Reynolds /Smith generations decreased by one. Obviously, I knew this was going to happen, but knowing something will happen and having something happen are two different things, and even if you know someone is going to die they are not dead until they are dead.  It sounds simple until it happens.

I would be a liar if I said that I was close to my grandparents.  The reality was that by the time I was old enough to bridge the gap of understanding between us they were too old to be accessible and my family was hardly around anymore.  I don’t say this to assign blame. It just seems to be the way the world works.  Whatever wisdom my grandparents had was, and is, passed vicariously through their own children to me.  But distance does not mean a loss of love. It does not mean genuine care and affection are gone or non-existent.  It does not stop something passing in the space between us even if that something was just a love of baseball.

*          *          *

While I wrote this post I thought about all of the tempting narratives that were creeping into it.  There was the perpetual underdog narrative that the Royals so clearly inhabited.  The small-town versus big-town fight.  The overriding temptation to turn a sports franchise into something more than a business, to turn it into a symbol for my grandparents love, the love of my family for them, and the love of the community for that franchise.  But as I wrote, as I am writing now, the whole thing gets easier and easier, the most important and lasting effect I will remember about the Royals run through the 2014 playoffs is that I thought about my grandparents every single day they played and there was only one sports franchise in the world that could do that.

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