One of my most cherished childhood tee-shirts proclaimed, “Baseball is Life.” I never expected that baseball would live up to the hyperbole, but it sure helped me escape New England with my life.
My girlfriend Jenny and I spent a chunk of one summer driving and hiking the whole of Vermont. (This feat may not be as impressive as it sounds. Vermont is the size of a strip of flypaper, only with more bugs.) The skeeters had sipped a pint of our blood for every pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream we ate, which kept us trim but also deprived our brains of seriously needed circulation.
That’s the only explanation for why we, two people with a reasonable desire not to die, turned into the parking lot of a rustic roadside motel named for (and possibly opened by) a Revolutionary War hero. Anyone with more oxygen would have instead driven on through Burlington and straight into the less murderous accommodations of Lake Champlain, complete with friendly lake monster named “Champ.”
But we were tired and weary. So in our quest for a bed, this motel had two perks: it had vacancies, and it was right there.
We squeezed into the detached motel office as if trying on our own coffins. A grizzly gray fellow slouched in a creaky plastic chair. He stopped talking to someone in the back room and sized up our flanks. “He’ll be out in a minute,” the gray fellow finally growled.
The photographs on the walls whispered not-quite-right colors, and a card table slumped under unwanted brochures. A stack of tourist magazines from the seventies slouched against the table. I toppled it by breathing. Still, we waited for “him” to come out.
A patchy, pink-eyed dog wambled out of the back room to investigate us. A wispy old man drifted after the dog. His belt didn’t have enough holes to cinch around him. He quivered as he registered us—on cardstock forms—and his throat couldn’t conspire to complete a sentence.
We pitied the old man—no one in his state or at his age should have to work. But our room at the back of the lot unseated our empathy. The screen door wouldn’t withstand a determined midge, let alone a serial killer. The walls were made entirely of wallpaper, the mattress of springs and cardboard, and the room smelled inexplicably of another age. Not old, exactly—but preserved, like a mummy in a mausoleum.
The place was probably the height of fashion when our parents and grandparents were taking the first generations of road trips across America, but now it crouched in the middle of Stephen King territory. The motel might struggle to put guests in empty beds, but I sensed the walls were a bit less vacant.
Despite our severe exhaustion, we did not sleep well that night.
In the bright light of morning, we gained a new perspective: We must find somewhere else to stay. But the only wifi to be found was in the office. So in the safety of daylight, we crept there together. Jenny scoured travel sites for available hotels, and I dodged looking at the pained, quiet old man, who was still there. Perhaps, like the Crypt Keeper, he never left.
The silence in the cramped office bent me like a glow stick until I cracked. I plucked a Lake Monsters pocket schedule from the Formica counter and asked the wavery old man about it.
“That’s our minor league baseball team,” he said as smooth as sandalwood. “They wrap up a homestand tonight.”
“I didn’t know Burlington had a team,” I said.
“Oh, sure. We’ve had baseball of one sort or another pretty much as long as anybody. Centennial Field is one of the oldest parks in baseball. Mostly original, too. They just put up an electronic scoreboard last year.” He shrugged. “Had to happen, I suppose.”
I couldn’t offer much more than “Yeah?” and “Oh?” The old man was off and running. He gabbed about the baseball played during World War II with army training pilots at the local airport. He regaled us with which legendary managers and players came through town in the forties and fifties, the times he’d been invited into the clubhouse, the traveling teams that swept into town and right back out again. About the years he and other locals put young players up in spare bedrooms because their teams couldn’t afford housing. How the Lake Monsters’ new parent club had committed to the town and the facilities long-term, and how he’d met the Oakland A’s Moneyball-famous general manager.
At some point, Jenny closed the laptop and started listening, too. The old man talked for hours without a single hitch in his voice. His cheeks creaked from smiling. He stood straight as a Louisville Slugger. Years evaporated off him like summer sweat in the ballpark sunshine.
Of course, we went to the game that night. It was nearly sold out, but we nabbed two wooden seats in the back row of the grandstand, right behind a steel-girder support older than Alaska’s statehood. The baseball was sloppy—as it goes in low-level minor league games—but when the batters made good contact, the ash and maple bats sang like God’s fingersnap.
No peanuts or Cracker Jack, but we two flexitarians gorged on twenty-five-cent hot dogs and watched the sun set behind the third base dugout. When I blocked the Jumbotron with my hand and ignored the open-air concourse’s concession stands and bathrooms (added only in 1995), the baseball stadium abandoned time itself.
I didn’t have to squint hard to see the old motel manager as a boy, sneaking up to knotholes and peering through to the pitcher’s mound.
Rain unleashed on us as we returned to the motel. Sopping and steaming, we popped by the office to thank the old man. He was there, sure enough, and sounds of a televised Red Sox game skipped out of the back room. The motel itself felt renewed. No longer in the wrong time, but outside time. Ageless.
Some folks say football is America’s new pastime, but that gladiator sport sparks more puerility than childlike wonder in grown men. Of all the American sports, baseball best connects our brains to our hearts. Baseball draws the deepest sustenance from the past and soars highest on hopes for next year. And only baseball revives such youth and vigor to a man otherwise waiting for death.
I used to think that old tee-shirt represented just my own childhood obsession with the game. It offered greater wisdom than I ever realized, though. Baseball really is life. It’s that old fountain of youth, and it allows us to splash our faces every summer. And because of baseball, we escaped Vermont with our lives. Lives more magically invigorated than ever before.
This piece originally appeared in the Durango Telegraph.