“So this is what people do who don’t go to the theatre on Friday night?” I asked, as I looked around the stands at the Sharks game.
“Yes, among other things.” Mark Basquill laughed at me. “Oh, look they heard you.”
He pointed to the group gathering at the pitcher’s mound. I had been inquiring about meetings at the mound a la Bull Durham.
This was my first baseball game. I was decked out for the occasion. I even managed to locate the only piece of baseball paraphernalia in our house: one of Jock’s old Toronto Blue Jays T-shirts.
I did not grow up in a sports-oriented family. Oddly enough, though, my mother loved baseball movies—even though I never remember her or my father watching a baseball game live or on TV. But I can recite whole pages of “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural” and “Bull Durham.”
In 2012, when the possibility of building a new baseball stadium was on the ballot, I pointed out we already had a baseball team in town—the Sharks, part of the Coastal Plain League. Then I started asking: If we were so eager to bring minor league baseball here, does anyone actually go to the Sharks games? I kept hearing “no” as a dismayed answer from slightly embarrassed friends—until Mark Basquill shot back with a statement to the effect of how he loves baseball and goes to Sharks games all the time. The attendance numbers suggest the games are worthwhile. In 2012 Sharks co-owner Darrell Handelsman reported averages of over 1,000 tickets sold per night to games, with spikes on special-events nights. So I made a resolution to go to a Sharks game and see what it is all about. Sadly, it has taken me from 2012 until now to make this happen—partly because I work most weekend nights. But I enlisted the Basquill family in my plans to learn about baseball. Logistical discussions began with the important topics: “Mark, I understand that beer and nachos are involved?” I asked.
Mark confirmed this was the case.
Imagine my surprise at the ball park to discover they had multiple beers on tap and more in bottles in the cooler. Knowing I am a total light weight, Jock bought me a Bud Light. I looked at him in dismay and high jacked his solo cup of Sweet Water instead.
“I feel very American right now,” I said to Jock. “Baseball, beer, summer night, friends, Fourth of July weekend.”
“And on Canada Day!” he pointed out. “What I want to know is: Where do they keep the Zamboni?”
Back at our seats, Mark began to explain the intricacies of the sport—like why the guy ran in an arc toward first base rather than a straight line.
“Baseball is physics and geometry,” he began.
His wife, Linda, and daughter, Gwen, investigated the finer points of ball park hot dogs while Mark attempted to explain what each of the positions in the field did and why a ball bouncing on the ground changed what could be done with it. About the time Mark began explaining the merits of Southpaw vs. right-handed pitchers, he was interrupted by a young woman with a microphone walking around the field, introducing what proved to be the first of several inter-inning entertainments—a putting contest, a fitness challenge for kids, a tire-rolling contest, and a couple of lawn-Olympic-like contests with the 9-to-12-year-old set.
“What’s going on now?” I asked, perplexed. “Is this like half time?”
“No.” Mark shook his head. “This is product placement. Sports at this level is all about sponsorship.”
Indeed I noticed all fly balls were brought to the audience by “Fly ILM” and the young woman with the mic was plugging Wilmington Athletic Club for the fitness challenge, while the putting contest was sponsored by Beau Rivage (the winner got a free round of golf).
Looking at the team—who all had to be clothed, fed, trained, transported—and the facility—which is rented from the city—alongside the equipment, coach’s salaries, and front office, proved there are a lot of expenses in keeping the team financially solvent. Sponsorship seems obvious, but wow! I have summoned up more enthusiasm for animated and exciting discussions about rectal thermometers than this poor young woman displayed. I looked at Mark in dismay.
“Clearly (name withheld) could benefit from some acting classes.”
Mark agreed. “They usually try to get someone who can at least feign interest.”
“Stand up and sing; it’s the seventh inning stretch!” Linda motioned us up. We sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and marveled at the beautiful, balmy summer night—not a cloud in the sky or a mosquito in the air.
Play resumed and Mark began to explain the various scenarios necessary for the Sharks to win—and that we were approaching a time when it would be highly unlikely. Then another meeting at the pitcher’s mound began.
“This is like Bull Durham,” I commented. Mark chuckled and after a game with no runs scored by the Sharks, all of a sudden, they brought two guys home and tied the score.
“Wow! It’s turning into a real game,” Mark observed. “Now there’s a chance.”
Clearly, the visiting team, The Wilson Tobs, were not amused by this turn of events. They brought in another pitcher.
“OK,” Mark grinned. “Here’s your ‘Natural’: It’s the bottom of the ninth, the score is tied, there are men on the bases—not a sexist term; they all just happen to be guys. This is the moment for Robert Redford to hit the ball into the scoreboard and win the game!”
The next player took up a bat and walked toward home plate. While he kicked the dirt, waiting for the pitcher and the catcher to finish arguing in sign language, the announcer’s booth cranked up Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and the crowd started to scream.
“Is this like when someone gets a standing ovation during a musical?” I asked. The only thing I could equate this to was Sally Bowles bringing down the house with “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.”
“No, they’re trying to get some energy for the batter—some support,” Mark clarified.
When he cracked the bat and the ball was declared fair (not foul—look at me!) the guy on third ran for home, and the whole team swarmed the field to celebrate the win. The crowd was euphoric—a kind of contagious euphoria that made me jump up and down and cheer. Because our guys won!
On our way to the parking lot, Linda asked if we would do this again? I can’t wait for another game—it was so much fun. But, I have to admit, I finally understand the glazed, slightly strained expressions on my friends’ faces who don’t particularly know or care a lot about theatre when I get started on a monologue about the finer points of Shakespeare. I also finally understand the allure of local sports: These guys aren’t famous, they are college-aged players, and they play as a team—not as a support group for a celebrity. Kids run around the stands, old friends greet each other, and new friendships are formed. Oddly enough, it really does feel exactly like the fairy tale we are sold in baseball movies and stories.
It is this innocent place where sometimes something magical and exciting happens. Much like live theatre, we have all come together to share this moment that will never be the same again.