Rushin: Winter Blues For The Baseball Soul

Behold the ballpark in winter, an unsettling place, like a History Channel model of a post-apocalyptic world: field and seats covered in white, billboards advertising to nobody, dugouts devoid of Dubble Bubble, bullpens bereft of relievers. Everything looks abruptly abandoned to a desolate winter, possibly a nuclear one.

And so the giant coffee cup that looms as a caffeinated colossus over Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford doesn’t jettison a spray of steam in the winter, withholding its warmth when we need it most.

Let Old Faithful or the fountains of Bellaggio issue their geysers at predictable intervals year-round. The coffee cup only erupts when a Hartford Yard Goat hits a home run. It stands at the interchange of two interstates, and reminds the 275,000 motorists who pass it on any given day—myself included—that the world is a cold, forbidding, Goat-less place, at least in winter, when nobody’s going yard.

It’s true of ballparks all over North America in winter, when racing sausages fly south, organs fall silent and food in polite society is no longer served in batting helmets. The wind  blows neither “in” nor “out” in January. It just blows. And so does January.

Thank heaven, then, for the short-sleeved statues standing stoic against the elements. Outside Target Field in Minneapolis, Rod Carew is frozen in time (and in fact), forever hitting singles in the single-digit temperatures. His bat is always at the ready, raised above the snow. Something about it recalls the Statue of Liberty, waist-deep in the sand, her torch still held high when Charlton Heston stumbles on her at the end of “Planet of the Apes.” A proud monument to a happier time. In this case, summer.

Even in temperate places, the ballpark in winter is no less disorienting. A monster truck show invades Angels Stadium in the endless summer of Anaheim, as if the homeowners left on vacation and the noisy neighbors—Gravedigger, Stonecrusher, Whiplash and Mutant—jumped the fence to use the pool.

Winter brings a home show to Tropicana Field, a science expo to Petco Park and—in St. Louis—the shotgun wedding of a bridal showcase and Busch Stadium. Citi Field hosted the NHL Winter Classic, which brings a kind of frozen grandeur to ballparks every year. Indeed, it now takes a matinee hockey game in January to evoke the sun-and-shadow atmosphere that day baseball in October once did.

A few years ago, I watched the New York Rangers play hockey against the New York Islanders on a frigid January night at Yankee Stadium, where the music impresario Cee-Lo Green, in fur coat and shades, stood roughly where Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner did in the summertime. Green performed between periods, antagonized Islander fans with his pro-Rangers exhortations, and was lustily booed. When he responded by flipping the crowd double birds, Green exceeded (by one) the previous record for middle fingers extended to Yankee Stadium spectators, set by former Bombers pitcher Jack McDowell, who gave the home crowd the finger after a rough outing in 1995, earning him a timeless nickname: the Yankee Flipper.

In other words, it isn’t all bad, the ballpark in winter. It has its moments. At Wrigley Field, for instance, the Boston ivy goes dormant, its vivid green turning brown. The very same color change happens to the fur of the Phillie Phanatic in its winter dormancy, or so I like to imagine. The Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley wears a regal white mantel of snow across his shoulders. Even in February, the great man is holding his microphone out while singing the stretch (though it still appears he is using it to hail a cab to some Rush Street watering hole).

If you cannot see a snow angel without thinking of J.T. Snow, late of the Giants, you may be ready for baseball. Even the Braves groundskeeper-turned-warning-track sprinter known as The Freeze is paradoxically waiting for the thaw, like Olaf, the snowman in “Frozen” who dreams of lying on a beach someday. “When life gets rough I like to hold onto my dream,” he sings. “Of relaxing in the summer sun just letting off steam.”

Which brings us back to the commuter, stuck in traffic on I-91 in January, passing that giant coffee cup at the Hartford Yard Goats’ ballpark, and imagining it in the summer sun, just letting off steam.

The most poignant winter ballpark monument may be the enormous tiger sculpture outside Comerica Park in Detroit. It’s a white tiger, more Siegfried & Roy than Trammell & Whitaker. It stands frozen in mid-pounce, as if turned to stone by the White Witch of Narnia, whose reign meant eternal winter—until her spell was broken, and spring came, and all the frozen creatures returned to life. n

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