Nine innings at the Neck Tie

By Albert Samaha
Sports Informant Contributing Writer

Baseball induces a mythical nostalgia from its venues that no other sport can match. Nine innings at a ballpark is an interactive experience. Fans, just as players, must maintain a keen awareness for incoming balls — of course, while a player’s absent-mindedness results in an error, maybe a run, a fan’s momentary ambivalence concludes with a bump on the head the size of a plum, maybe a trip to the emergency room.

This is especially the case at Raley Field, where the stands hug the dirt like a Victorian-era Neck Tie. Brooks Robinson would feel an uneasy twinge sitting down the third base line. But such are the quirks, the idiosyncrasies, that make a ballpark memorable, that make a day at the ball game such a timeless experience. The cavernous center field of the Polo Grounds, the outfield overhang at old Tiger Stadium, the Green Monster at Fenway, Splash Landing at Pac Bell (it will always go by that name), the Ivy walls at Wrigley, the Neck Tie of Raley.

In the wonderfully deep Walter Johnson biography, The Big Train, Henry W. Thomas describes the oil men baseball circuits at the turn of the 20th century. There was a palpable intimacy between players and fans — first names were exchanged, post-game beers were passed, brother-in-laws were introduced. The community embraced their local teams- constructed entirely of local oil field workers, save for a recruited ringer or two, such as Johnson.

Incidentally, for the standouts the oil field leagues were simply a stepping stone, a necessary road on the voyage to a glorious destination- the Pacific Coast League. Anybody on the west coast with a shadow of a glimmer of Big League promise cultivated their game, their name, and their fame in the legendary PCL. Of course this was still decades before DiMaggio, Stengel, and O’Doul. Their legends were still a depression and a war away.

Well, a half century after DiMaggio, Stengel, and O’Doul, the legend of the PCL is coated in dust. Sure, there are names like Jones, Mazzaro, and Snider. But the glorious destination has become the stepping stone, frustratingly unnecessary for the impatient and conceited, competitively dull for the immensely talented. The Oil Field Circuits have been replaced by the PCL’s of the world.

And with that comes the intimacy. With that come the first names, the beers, and the brother-in-laws. With that comes the community embrace. With that comes Gio Gonzalez talking to wide-eyed kids while warming up before a start, Jerome Williams tossing autographed balls to the excited seekers leaning over the bullpen, and no-name outfielders fresh from rookie league shaking hands with old timer fans between innings. Too often people are so focused on the light at the end of the tunnel that they fail to notice the beauty of the walls within.

River Cat baseball is not televised and that is probably a good thing. 1080 HD couldn’t touch the visceral experience at the Neck Tie.

Some sports are unmistakably best viewed live. They say going to a single NHL game creates a lifelong infatuation with hockey. Attending Wimbledon, as I have found, does the same for tennis.

For most of my existence as a sports fan my familiarity with tennis was vaguely similar to a male college student’s familiarity with a group of girls at a small house party- know the important names, be aware of significant events so as to be able to hold a shallow conversation, and follow enough to know what is basically going on.

But then I spent an hour court-hopping at Wimbledon, seeing unknowns scream and grunt and sorrow in ostensibly trivial matches. But, then again, the 154th ranked player in the world probably has more at stake than Murray or Federer or Roddick. Number One Hundred Fifty Four is playing to feed his family. Winning and losing is not the difference between a jet and a yacht, Nike and Puma, it’s the difference between a family trip to Yellowstone and a family trip to Folsom Lake, new and used, mortgage and rent. You don’t need Centre Court tickets to enjoy tennis at Wimbledon. Give me a ground pass and a chilled mango juice and I’ll gladly queue for two and a half hours.

And such is the subtle beauty of Minor League Baseball and Oil Field Circuits. Is more really at stake in game 7 of the World Series than in game 53 of the River Cats’ schedule?

Nine innings at the Neck Tie should tell you.

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