Baseball is supposed to be America’s pastime, a safe place for everyone who loves the game. But what does that look like in the current, chaotic, incarnation of our country?
Pre-recorded cheers and human-sized cardboard cutouts were replaced by real-live spectators in baseball stadiums this month, causing me to wonder whether — given the bigotry and hate inspired by our previous president and intensified by fear during the pandemic — today’s fans would react to my family the way they did 25 years ago when we paraded down the cement steps of the Dodger Stadium. Would they welcome us? Ignore us? Or would we sit through nine innings of stink-eye and muttered hostilities?
In 1996, seats behind the dugout cost $10, and my mother bought one for each of us plus an extra seat for our coats. She led us down the steps in her sunglasses and headphones, scorecard in hand and her Walkman tuned to AM 570 so that she could listen to every second of Vin Scully’s commentary. Her girlfriend followed, tall and broad in flannel and baggy jeans, holding my brother’s hand. Just out of high school, he had Down syndrome and a big blue foam Dodger hand which he waved at onlookers with a sweet smile while chanting, “Beer Here!” I walked behind them, pale and plain, holding hands with my Mexican American boyfriend.
I worried, those days, about racism and homophobia and prejudice. My mother had lost custody of my brother and me to our father when she came out in 1979; she remained in the closet with her girlfriend who’d lose her teaching position if their relationship went public. I’d seethed at the border for three hours as an officer interrogated my boyfriend born in California, and feared for his life after the beating of Rodney King. I’d watched parents yank their children away from my brother in grocery stores as if his intellectual disability was contagious; together, we waged an ongoing battle against the term “retarded.”
But at Dodger Stadium, nobody shot us a second look. They stood up to give us room as we shuffled past them to our seats in the center of the row and then turned back to the field because Hideo Nomo stood on the mound, and we all watched, riveted, hoping he’d pitch another no-hitter.
Our country has long been polarized, but baseball has sometimes united us — at least in the hours it takes to play nine innings. Soldiers on both sides of the Civil War played, and prison guards sometimes joined POW games. Almost 80 years ago, Jackie Robinson integrated the sport. Glenn Burke and Billy Bean — both of whom played for the Dodgers — came out as gay, and Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game out of Atlanta this month because of Georgia’s new law with its destructive repercussions for Black voters.
In the mid-1990s, my family — like others — didn’t have a home computer or internet access; smartphones were a year old, but no one I knew actually possessed one. Without 24/7 access to news and information, folks, in general, seemed a little more chill … well, except for that time the Dodgers forfeited a game after fans threw baseballs onto the field to protest the umpire’s calls.
Spectators cheerfully passed steaming hot dogs and foaming cups of beer to us in the center seats and ferried our dollar bills back to the vendors in the aisle. My mother shared her binoculars with the couple sitting next to her so they could watch Nomo up close. People were civil to one another, and then that second 24-ounce Budweiser loosened their tongues and I prayed that they’d restrict their name-calling to batters who struck out, and not to my family.
These days, it’s cool in some circles to be xenophobic, to mock people with disabilities. Our previous president’s rhetoric inspired the rise of anti-LGBTQIA groups, and racism is rampant. Still, I’d like to believe that baseball audiences in 2021 would regard my family with kindness, or at least a disinterested tolerance. Perhaps they’d even commend us, as they did 25 years ago during the seventh-inning stretch.
That stretch was the only time during a game that my mother would remove her headphones and sunglasses. She’d stand with us and thousands of other spectators and sway and sing to the organist’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” One night, Diamond Vision captured us on the 875-foot video display screen — my mother and her girlfriend, my boyfriend and me, my brother waving his blue foam hand — for the whole stadium to see.
I was terrified. Would this be the night that someone chose to pick a fight, to threaten my mother or my boyfriend, to make fun of my brother? It had happened in other locations . . . but never at the stadium, never during the game.
On the giant screen, people sitting around us cheered. For just a moment, my family went mainstream — not larger than life, but life itself. Then, the lens focused on someone else, and people in adjoining seats smiled at us. One guy high-fived my brother. A woman compared scorecards with my mom.
We’d not only been seen, I realized, but celebrated. And when, at the top of the eighth, my mother’s girlfriend held up two fingers to a Cracker Jack vendor in the aisle, the men at the end of the row waved away her dollar bills. They passed the boxes down to her and my brother in the center seats. “On the house,” they said, and went back to watching the game.