One thing that always gets lost in the romanticism of travel writing is the time spent wondering what the hell you should do in the place you have spent so much money to get to. At some point, unfailingly, you will end up sat on a stool in a dive bar at 4pm, watching a wrinkled barman with grey pigtails and long fingernails pour beer and wonder to yourself: what do I do now?
This is the exact situation I find myself in during the early evening of Monday, 10 June, in Chicago. I neurotically flit between Google Maps, FourSquare, and Thrillist articles, when I overhear the only other guy in the bar say to the barman: “There’s a White Sox Game tonight.”
“What are White Sox?” I ask.
“Baseball,” he says.
That’s it. I’m going to the White Sox game tonight.
If you Google “baseball tickets Chicago” you’ll be directed to the Cubs. The city is plastered with their majestic red C, the prowling bear of their logo never far from my eye line. They won the World Series in 2016 (baseball’s highest honour), allow tours of their trophy cabinet, and play at Wrigley Field – an American Dreamy sounding place that honours William Wrigley Jr, who arrived in Chicago with $32 and built a chewing gum empire.
The White Sox, on the other hand, lurk on page three of Google. Their stadium is called Guaranteed Rate Field, which is less romantic than cement, and their big claim to fame was a match-fixing scandal in 1919 when they intentionally lost the World Series. They won it 14 years ago, but last season they lost 100 games (which is bad.) Their logo, up until 2010, was a small white sock. All of this makes me instantly fall in love with them.
I find a ticket on StubHub for $10 (staggeringly cheap, worryingly cheap), and set off. On the train platform, a topless man performs Jesus-themed rap on a low quality PA system.
At the Guaranteed Rate Field food concourse you can find all kinds of food: burgers, sandwiches, wedge fries, loaded fries, twice-loaded fries, loaded nachos, twice-loaded nachos. The BBQ is squealing and the hot dogs are rolling and bending in that flexible, unnerving way that hot dogs do – like they might for a moment be conscious. There are acres of hot dog stands, so I choose the one that looks like a father-son double act.
The construction of a Chicago hot dog is a mesmerising dance. Son opens the bun, pries it wider with the tongs, and sprays mustard up one side. Lids start coming off tins like percussion, releasing clouds of meaty metallic gas. Father flops the dog in, followed by chopped onions, a bright green relish that drips, two huge slippery dill pickles, tomato wedges and sport peppers – small but pungent little bastards I learn. Father hands it to me but immediately draws back. He forgot celery salt, and looks ashamed. Sprinkle, sprinkle. I look down at this… this python in my hand. With meals like these, who needs murderers.
“It’s my first Chicago hot dog,” I goof like a twat, after much deliberation about whether to say anything at all.
“Don’t put any ketchup on it,” he warns in the broad and hilarious vowels of Chicago, then turns to the next customer and asks a silent question with his face.
“Footlong,” replies the customer.
The show continues.
Now I’m writing this from my allocated place in Lower Corner 154, Row 5, Seat 2. The stadium has 40,000 seats but half are empty and will remain that way all night. A man is jogging the circumference via the empty upper stands. Vendors wander past me, “CORONA! MODELO! BEER! BEER MAN! Beer?”
There’s no cool way to eat a hot dog alone, so I begin the only way possible: by slowly forcing it into my face. A young man and woman appear on the big screen and start singing “The Star Spangled Banner”. Everyone stands up, hands on chests. Even those in the food concourse are struck dead in their places. I continue to sit and eat but realise I’m getting stares from those around me. Do they know I don’t do baseball? I’m half-Iranian and wearing all black, so I decide to get up in case they think I’m in ISIS or something. A footlong in my right hand and a beer in my left, I place the hot dog over my heart.
“For the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
I see the stadium as one huge living organism, capable of an orchestra of curious noises and actions, like a kraken-sized Bop It! An anorexic green honey monster appears on the grass in front of me and starts gyrating and waving a flag. The game is about to begin.
The fielders are out, spread and still, like dropped rice. A batter struts on to a trumpety salsa song (they choose their own walk-on music). It’s at this point I realise I know absolutely nothing about baseball. As I would back in England when watching football, rugby or tennis, I move to the edge of my seat and focus.
The pitcher throws; batter ignores; ball hits mitt (snap). The pitcher throws; same again. The pitcher throws; batter hits (thwack); exciting! No, it’s gone behind, foul. The pitcher throws; batter hits (THWACK!); it sails across the sky like a distant speedboat; hands cover brows; the ball gets momentarily lost in the sun, then loops down into the mitt (snap) of a nonchalant fielder. The batter is out; we go to a three-minute break.
I don’t know what I expected from baseball (I do: men in stripes relentlessly blasting balls to Neptune), but this is the story of the first 45 minutes. The ball is thrown, mostly missed, and the players rearrange themselves while we take a break for commercials and sideshows. A news anchor-looking woman appears on the screen, coaxing fans into playing prize-winning games that seem far too complicated for the small slot they are afforded. Just as it is beginning to make sense she is cut and play resumes.
I google “how long is a baseball game” and, beneath an article arguing that they could technically go on forever, is an answer of “average time: three hours”. I type “how long is baseball actually in play” – answer: “18 minutes”. The screen is swelling with statistics. It looks like the stock market.
Two old men sit in front of me eating peanuts. They look to have been there for centuries. They talked a great game before it began – slow and sensual Baseballish about “middle relievers”, “bunts” and “bullpens” – but now it’s underway, they seem fairly disinterested. They are discussing cars. A molehill of nut shells rises between them.
A White Sox fielder sprints after an errant ball, slides on his chest, and his hat falls off. Despite this embarrassing commitment, he fails to catch it. That must have been important, I think. I check the old men’s reaction for guidance. One of them is holding his iPhone in front of his face and talking to Siri. “Emergency flashers for 2008 Ford Taurus,” he says, then frowns at the results.
It’s the fifth inning and the White Sox are losing 3 – 0. The players are rearranging themselves again, so a war hero is brought out: a navy officer in full whites – mid fifties, served in Afghanistan. Everyone stands and claps. He gives a salute and gets a big fat kiss on the cheek. A roving camera finds another war hero in the audience. “Who me?” she seems to gesture, despite having come to the game in full military gear.
Nobody seems to be focused on the game as intently as I am. Am I doing baseball wrong? The man behind me has sandy blonde hair, green eyes and looks to be in his forties. I decide to start a conversation with him because the thought of doing so scares me and I’m up for a little fright.
He came alone, bought a five dollar ticket in the heavens and wandered down here until he found an empty seat closer to earth. That’s what most people do, he tells me.
“Is this a good game?” I ask.
“It could be,” he says.
It could be. We’re 90 minutes in and it could be. How has baseball survived? It’s slow, long and complicated – I have never known a form of entertainment that sells itself less. How is baseball a multi-billion dollar business in a world of Instagram, Netflix and PornHub, a world of instant gratification and ultra convenience? This strange game, which exists in direct contradiction to the trends of humanity.
White Sox are losing terribly, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is having fun, a calm easygoing fun, without the angry, red, crying men I’m used to at English football matches. I ask the blonde man why the crowd is so relaxed. He explains that one team will play over 162 games in a season, so you can’t get crazy about every single match.
A group of women giggle as they swig sci-fi green alcohol from long twisted novelty cups. Groups of teenagers lounge around empty rows, chatting, flirting and messing around. I guess this is a relatively cheap place to hang around for a few hours, their bedtime curfews kindly extended by the never ending nature of baseball itself.
The sun has dipped, the cool air smells like freshly cut grass, and organ music plays on the breeze. Not from a cheesy DJ channeling old timey baseball like I thought, but from a live organist called Lori who looks down on us from a glass chamber as she tickles the keys. I shall remember this moment; the stillness and the dusk. I wonder how much of America’s enduring love for baseball is actually a love for this: smells, sounds, colours and closeness.
When the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about the theory of “great good places” in 1989, he studied independently owned cafes, bars, and community centres. He saw them as “third places”, a setting beyond home and work where people can relax and be around each other. Beacons of social cohesion.
But as these spaces have become even rarer in the neoliberal West, and individuals grow further away from one another, I find it interesting and ironic that half-empty 40,000 seater baseball stadiums could, on a quiet Monday night, feel like surrogate community centres – a great place where you can eat nuts, talk cars and think: “It’s OK to be here.”
I suddenly feel struck by a sort of melancholy that I don’t have anywhere like this back home to just be, two or three times a week. There was a White Sox game yesterday and there shall be one tomorrow. 162 a season.
“Get up!” says the sandy blonde man with the green eyes. He’s making star shapes with his arms and angling his neck. Everyone is. “It’s the seventh inning stretch.”
“It’s when you loosen up, stretch your legs, take a walk – we’ve all been sitting around a long time.”
Kids are dancing. There are male cheerleaders on the field waving their arms and tossing free T-shirts. The organist is playing a comforting song – like a mother’s heartbeat – and everyone is singing along.
“Take me out to the ball game / Take me out with the crowd / Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack / I don’t care if I never get back.”
I start waving my arms too. “They play this at every baseball stadium around the country,” says the sandy blonde, grinning like a cat, “and it always takes you back to your very first time.”
I try to imagine his very first time at the ball game. It’s corny, probably something I saw in a movie once, but it’s beautiful. I lean into the warm feeling that I now too have my first baseball experience, the one I’ll sing about at the seventh inning stretch next time. I have been to the ball game. I know what it is like to go.
And in the future when I look back on this, I won’t remember the turgid nature of the game itself, the relentless commercial breaks or the overpriced $12 beers. I’ll remember the sweet organ melodies, the terracotta gleam of the dirt, the sharp tang of mustard in that first hot dog bite – which all do exist, but not in isolation and not to the exaggerated degree that I’ll recall them. Because though this experience will be sent to my Memory Bank initially, it will soon be passed on to the Nostalgia Department, where it will be filed and stored by the elderly staff who work there, each of them a rose-tinted fantasist.