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An ode to baseball and a day of playing hooky

The voice on the phone was deep with conspiracy: “Play hooky with me,” it urged. It was my brother, who otherwise has a pretty responsible position in higher education in this community.

I was already at my desk at work with a slate of obligations ahead. But it was a crystal blue October morning, exactly one month after the towers fell on 9/11, and in a few hours the Mariners were taking on the Cleveland Indians in the second game of the American League Division Series.

Still, I resisted. I had work. The game was sold out. He had no tickets and no way of getting tickets other than from scalpers on the streets. No. I listed all the reason it wouldn’t work. Then he named the one reason it would.

“It’s baseball, sis.”

National Public Radio used to have this program called “This I Believe.” They invited listeners to contribute essays on their personal beliefs and the values that shape them.

Well, I believe in baseball. I believe it facilitates connection. I believe in the beauty of the game. If space aliens landed and wanted to know three of the most beautiful things on the planet, I’d say my children’s faces, a baby’s laughter and a tight triple play.

For much of my childhood, a baseball stadium stood at the end of our street. Halliwell Park was the home of a minor league team affiliated with the Dodgers. The green walls were built with slats of wood with knotholes big enough to watch games for free. The night games at Halliwell lit up the summer sky.

I remember sitting on the steps of our front porch vibrating with excitement because my Uncle Lester was coming to take me to a night game — just me, no siblings allowed.

Uncle Lester had once played in the Negro Leagues, barnstorming with the Broadway Clowns. Baseball became a bridge to his sister’s children. He’d crouch in my grandmother’s sun-drenched front yard teaching us how to throw knuckleballs. I was awful at it, but I loved trying and the musky vanilla smell of the new baseball.

At that night game, Uncle Lester and I sat high in the bleachers. From there, we could look down the rows and see my mother laughing with her two best friends. Somewhere, scattered around Halliwell Park that night were most of the people I knew and loved: my siblings, our friends and neighbors. Baseball was our community.

So when my brother asked me to abandon work for a game, I made my excuses to my supervisor, went home for my ball cap, and got in the car to Seattle. I’m so glad I did.

We arrived at Safeco Field to a street overflowing with ticketless fans on the hunt for a scarce commodity. It didn’t look good for the game. But we were happy and up for whatever the day brought, in or out of the ballpark. The day brought us the men with badges.

I don’t know why my family caught their eye. It could have been my brother’s famous good luck. Maybe Uncle Lester’s spirit wanted to take us to one more game. But a couple of American League officials just walked up to my brother and niece as they stood talking and asked them how many tickets they wanted. One of the men whipped open his jacket, reached in and handed them four.

“Courtesy of the American League,” he said, walking away. “Enjoy the game.”

At first we feared they were counterfeit. But the ticket takers let us through and no alarms went off. We sat right behind home plate, just up from the baseball players’ wives.

The pain of 9/11 was fresh and heavy, but that ballgame lightened the load. We sang the National Anthem with such fervor my throat burned after. I quenched it with ice cold beer and garlic fries. We danced, we sang, we made fast friends with the fans around us. And we cheered our team on. The Mariners got four runs in the first inning and held the lead to the very end.

That day, baseball healed.

So now it’s that season again. They say the Mariners are strong and may even make the post season. So some advice: Over the coming months, if someone you like asks you to play hooky for a ballgame, say yes.

I did once. And it was one of the best days I ever had.

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