J. B. Grant
A Day at the Game
With a twinge of anxiety as well as a bubbling chestful of anticipation, Richard Spires clicked through the turnstile and entered the Stadium. This first step always brought on the same odd fusion of conflicting emotions, and tended to cast the fact of being here into a realm of semi-unreality. The lofty girders of the Stadium substructure, the eddying arrivals of all sizes and shapes, the ambulatory vendors with voices like foghorns, the clots of paper trash along the walkway—the sum total of it, echoing his own private mix of focus and anarchy, spun his head as if he had downed a couple of quick drinks. He half lilted toward his assigned gate, barely taking notice when a repairman with a welding torch angled in front of him and clumsily clipped him in the flank.
Gate Z was situated opposite the entryway, and Richard Spires had almost a mile to walk. Why, he’d often cogitated, didn’t Stadium management have the consideration to install a shuttle that circled around the base of the substructure so that patrons with distant seats could ride to their destinations? Then again he had to acknowledge that it served as both a warm-up and appetizer to proceed on foot through the innards of this steel-and-concrete colossus, with the pulse of the multitude above and the hum of city conduits below. His initial confusion subsided, faded. In its place he felt something deep and vital well up from within. Comforting, if a bit bizarre, after all that had happened lately to feel such strength amid the crisscross of girders and high dirty windows and the hurried swirl of humanity.
By the time he made it to the tunnel mouth bearing a crimson Z on its keystone—for him, a hugely portentous arch, proclaiming passage from here to there—Richard Spires stood tall, filled with stout dedication to his purpose. And with a sense of having been chosen, of having come uniquely prepared for whatever might ensue. Resolutely, he strode on through the tunnel.
Located far from the protection of the grandstand, Gate Z led to an expanse of open-air seats—as usual, a welcome sight. Richard Spires loved the cheery rooflessness of the bleachers, the tiers upon tiers packed with spectators of modest means, their identities all but lost in the hodgepodge of color and the chorus of eager noise. And yes, on down the aisle and over to the right, he spotted his accustomed seat—unoccupied.
It stood out like a missing tooth. To one side: the nine plump members of the Garcia family, laughing and yammering. To the other: frail old Mr. Thompson, with his skinny grandson and the hard-eyed matron who might or might not be his daughter-in-law. These people provided anchorage for Richard Spires. They’d been giving him moral support ever since he started this, just by being there. Whatever their little faults, they genuinely cared about him. They were open-air folks, not at all the kind who sought the shelter of the grandstand or coveted the plush isolation of a box seat.
In the bleachers the sun always shone for at least a portion of the crowd. In other words, it never rained on everyone at once. While being pelted with large drops, a spectator could point to a patch of brightness over yonder and say, “Look, the sun is shining!” And his neighbors would smile and nod their heads in enthusiastic agreement. But those who could afford seats beneath the grandstand roof scoffed at such simplemindedness. Rain or shine, what did it matter to them?
“Aftanoon, Mista Spies. Wheah you been so late?” That was Mrs. Garcia, round and fertile.
“Missed you, Spires.” Thompson, gaunt but affable.
“Hiya, Mr. Spires!”—many sturdy brown Garcias and one pale, skinny Thompson.
“Hello, hello,” Richard Spires called out as he edged into the row. Leg to leg, each of them checked him over, appraising him as best they could. He knew what they were thinking: no bandage, no sign of anything amiss, don’t see how he does it. But they didn’t ask questions, so he tendered no explanations. And even if they did ask…
“Well now,” he said, “is everything about to start?”
“Mista Spies, you chust on time.” Mrs. Garcia beamed, and with one chunky arm she escorted him bodily into his seat.
Darren McCarran, dean of sportscasters, perched in his upper grandstand booth, cheek by jowl with a bouquet of microphones. This was home. He coddled and chastised his equipment much as Mrs. Garcia kept after her seven progeny.
A tiny flashing light alerted him to speak.
“Howdy, sports fans and everybody. This is Mr. Play-by-play, Darren McCarran, bringing you all the action of the big holiday game, an event that half the world is looking forward to. Playing conditions couldn’t be more ideal. We’ve got a beautiful day here at the Stadium, a great crowd, temperature in the seventies. And, as you know, today’s contest features the two top teams in the Major League. Yes, folks, from all indications it’s shaping up to be one whale of a Saturday afternoon. So without further ado let’s give you the starting lineups.”
Slowly, affectionately, he read off the two rosters of superstars, timing it to coincide with the p.a. announcer doing the same so that for the radio and TV audience, each name was punctuated by applause and a loud or very loud hurrah.
Then, as a reverent hush fell over the Stadium, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem.”
When the boisterous ditty had ended, to cheers and whistles, McCarran effused, “Wonderful, wonderful. But before we get started, your friend and mine, Jim Jarvis, has one more very important announcement to make for all the fans in attendance—don’t think I need to tell you what about, considering the recent rash of misbehavior. I’ll be honest, folks: I sure do wonder when some of these crackpot psychos are going to wake up and face reality. I just can’t fathom it. They see for themselves what happens to troublemakers. They know that the consequences are guaranteed. And yet, if anything, the problem seems to be getting worse… Well, enough for now. We’ll back off here so you folks can hear what Jim has to say.”
After joining in the applause for the lineup of superstars, Richard Spires began to survey the crowd as everyone rose for the national anthem. He smiled benignly at the shoulder-to-shoulder patchwork of souls by the thousands, pressed together in concentric rows like rags in a rug. Then he shuddered at the phenomenon of so many people, neatly arrayed, content to sit in place and just watch.
Thompson’s matronly daughter-in-law saw him smile and shudder. When the final strains of the anthem had died away, she decided that now was the time to inquire. “Tell us, Mr. Spires,” she said. “Will you be out there today?”
The question, politely put yet so blunt, was overheard by all in the vicinity. The Garcia children and the Thompson waif took up the cry: “Will ya, Mr. Spires? Will ya, huh?”
Richard Spires vented a short laugh. “That remains to be seen,” he said. “What’s your advice, Miz Thompson?”
“My advice?” she exclaimed, as if falsely accused. “Well, since you mention it—”
Just then, however, the p.a. announcer switched on his sound system, volume as high as possible without distorting his voice. In response to the prefatory hiss of the speakers and the first words of the announcement, a number of the crowd grimaced and covered their ears. But some, as if mesmerized by the message, hung raptly on each overamplified phrase.
“May I have your attention. Your attention, please… Be advised that spectators are warned by Stadium management to remain in the seating areas and stay off the playing field. That is, spectators are warned by management to remain in the seating areas and to keep off the playing surface. At the bottom of each aisle is a barricade, guarded by a uniformed security officer and clearly marked with a red-on-white sign reading ‘Stop! Beware of trim.’ Violators will, without exception, be punished to the full extent of the law… Thank you for your attention.”
The p.a. system clicked off. There were scattered boos, but most of the audience reacted with silence or tepid murmur, no doubt relieved that this rude reminder was over and done with. From here and there came determined cheering, but these were house seats.
Throughout the announcement anyone located anywhere near Richard Spires kept an eye on him. He sat upright, composed. Some thought him courageous. Others had long since concluded he must be insane. And perhaps a few of them understood that, despite his apparent composure, little bits of his interior crumbled or went poof with every word that grated forth from the loudspeakers.
Yet, overall, his composure was real enough. It had to be, especially here at the outset. Dithery behavior, or any other sort of strangeness, would only doom his effort. One of the security goons would be sure to single him out for observation all game long, pinning him again and again with beady glances.
And so, as he had successfully managed in the past, Richard Spires deep-breathed his way through the official warning and bided his time.
By degrees, everyone present grew more or less absorbed in the game’s progress. So it came as a mild shock when the first offender sprinted down one of the aisles, dodged the guard at the bottom, clambered over the wood-and-wire barrier, and ran out onto the grass. The crowd responded with a crescendo of gasp and outcry. It was a small boy, not more than ten years old, wearing a child-size game uniform. His distraught parents, having pursued him in vain, gestured wide-mouthed from behind the barricade, their pleadings inaudible due to the mounting roar. The boy trotted up to several of the superstars, but at his approach each of them stiffened like a statue, per Major League regulations. One player lifted a hand as if to say something cautionary, but a man in a three-piece suit, sitting in a front-row box, jumped to his feet and shouted, “You want a one-way ticket to the minors?”—and the superstar snapped to attention.
Frustrated, desperate, the ten-year-old began to caper about and swing his fists, trying somehow to make personal connection. He clouted a big bruiser below the waist. The superstar folded and sank to the turf. Hereat, as the crowd roared still louder, a cordon of security guards left their stations together with a crew of paramedics. The boy saw them coming. Once more he started to run, first in one direction and then another, and finally in circles. The circles shrank as the guards closed in. When they had formed a stockade of bodies all around him, the boy threw back his head and toppled over, kicking and writhing.
Unlike the brutal guards of years past, the professional personnel of the Stadium Security Force were as gentle as they were firm. And discreet. Of the many spectators attempting to peer over the stockade, only those in the top rows could discern the paramedics at work: opening, probing, extracting, stitching shut. In less than five minutes, his head swathed in fresh white cloth, the child was being ushered back to his grieving parents. So efficient had the operation been that he was able to navigate the last ten yards virtually on his own. The crowd cheered him to his seat—a standing ovation.
“Terrible, just terrible,” commented Darren McCarran from up in the play-by-play booth. “And these fans make a big mistake to applaud. It only encourages more of the same. Nice-looking kid, and here he’s gone and got himself trimmed at such a young age. Terrible shame, folks. I tell you straight from the heart: I just can’t imagine why any sane person would want to trespass on the playing field. You know for a fact you’re going to be caught. You know from in front that all you’ll get out of it is a trim job. Boggles the mind, I swear… Though take a young kid: I suppose it is a temptation, sitting there so close to the superstars. Kind of dazzles ’em so they don’t stop to weigh the consequences. But you’d think their dads and moms would step in—if necessary, restrain them physically. Even with the latest surgical techniques, it’ll still take that kid three or four days to get back on his feet—valuable days of schooling down the drain.
“Meanwhile, there’s no excuse whatsoever for these crazy adult men. And now it’s some of the ladies too. Unbelievable. Folks who ought to know better. Stadium management has done research on this, and contrary to what you might think, very few of the violators turn out to be your typical wackos. But no question: they are mentally unbalanced. They’re not in tune with reality. Trespass on the field and what’s the payoff? The superstars won’t have a thing to do with you, not at the cost of career penalties. The folks back home won’t see you on TV—cameramen have strict orders to pan away from anyone creating a disturbance. And the personnel in Security are the best in the business, specially trained, so you don’t stand a ghost of a chance. All it takes is two feet on the turf, and once you’re out there, it’s too late to change your mind. I’ve seen ’em have second thoughts and try to get back across the barricade. Pitiful. Hopeless.
“Now, let me hasten to add: management wants everybody to have an enjoyable experience. That’s what the Stadium is for. But management is not about to tolerate any nonsense, and why should they? Why should they put up with behavior that’s disruptive and dangerous? The game comes first. If you were management, would you stand for some nutcase interfering with the progress of play just to have his little moment on the grass?”
Though seldom fast-moving or glitteringly inventive, the game commanded attention as a display of well-executed tactics. But given its slow pace and predictable format, spectators were rarely held spellbound. In fact, as the game went on, there were intervals when large numbers of fans, having lost interest, chatted and chortled and shared picnic lunches.
Others, restless when bored, initiated games of their own. Just a bit ago, for instance, a lanky lad over in the Gate X area had snatched a leather cap off the head of an unsuspecting neighbor, and now there was a whole gang of young men and teenagers stumbling across seats and scrambling up and down the aisles, playing rowdy keep-away with the cap, sailing it hither and yon. In response, half a dozen security guards, including those from the barriers at gates Y and Z, left their posts and began to move in on the fracas.
While he sympathized with the outpour of youthful energy and the spontaneity of their sport, Richard Spires had never thrown in with the rowdies. They tended to be shameless showoffs, and in any case he had no desire to race up and down the narrow aisles or wedge his way through the cramped rows of spectators. He recoiled from the wild-animal antics, everybody stomping all over everyone else.
But he was grateful to the rowdies for serving as decoys. As long as they went on fighting for the cap over by Gate X, keeping Security nice and busy, the Gate Z barricade would remain unattended.
Richard Spires’ eyelids descended halfway, so intense and pure was his anticipatory thrill. He yawned and stretched, and the thrill stayed with him—the tingling compulsion to go ahead and do what he must. His entire body had begun to swell and throb with readiness.
Just then there was a flurry of on-field activity. The crowd’s noisy approval caused him to retreat momentarily into a space of solemn awareness—awareness of the vast substance of the Stadium, and of the voluntary presence of all these thousands of spectators. Awareness and even respect for the cultural eminence of the game, overarched as it was today by an infinite dome of deep-blue sky.
The flurry of Major League activity continued apace. Meantime, the Gate X keep-away contest had escalated into a riot of flailing fists. The guards were edging closer, electric stunners unsheathed.
Shaking himself loose, brimming with a resurgent gush of keen expectancy, Richard Spires rose to his feet. Seven young Garcias and the Thompson grandchild craned their necks. Mrs. Garcia breathed a silent prayer. Old Thompson put one hand over his eyes.
A last flickering question: WHY? On the heels of which came the only answer worth a damn: WHY NOT?
Muttering pardons, Richard Spires sidestepped the length of his row and—swiftly, smoothly—wended his way down the aisle and toward the barricade. He heard some surrounding babble, a few shouts of admonition, but he felt neither egged on nor deterred. He paused to fill his lungs. Then, with surprising agility, he vaulted the barrier. For a record-setting thirteenth time, oblivious to spectators and superstars alike, he strolled out onto the playing field, out onto the soft, sun-silvered greensward.