Nothing More American Than a Hot Dog
I’ve never been too good at sports. Growing up, I tried out for just about all of them offered in the NC school systems and I always played the same position in every sport: benchwarmer. I always wanted to play baseball and went out for the little league team a couple of years as a kid. On those teams nobody got cut, but several, like myself, did a lot of benchwarming. I loved the smell of the fresh-cut grass, the feel of the leather glove on my hand and the bat in my grip. Maybe that was the problem ‘— I was so hyper-focused on all the sensory experiences around me that I had no clue about what was going on in the game. In the outfield I found myself daydreaming and smelling my glove. Thump! The ball would land beside me on the ground and snap me back to reality.
‘“Lee, get the ball. Throw it to first. No! No! Throw it to second now. Agghhh!’”
It was like being awakened from a deep sleep. Shake it out. Okay. I’m ready now, crouched over and watching for the ball.
One of my clearest memories is that of being at a game, once again warming the bench, and trying to sit on top of the dugout fence with some of the other guys. I stayed balanced up there for quite awhile but then, for some reason, it was time to hop down. It was a long way down. I slid and pushed myself off of the chain link fence but, Oh No!, the pocket of my jeans got caught on the top of the fence and as I heard a ‘rrrriiipp!’ from behind me I watched the ground come up quickly toward my face and I caught myself there on the powdery dirt. There was a HUGE hole in my pants and even I must admit it was pretty funny. I got more attention from my teammates that day than any other ‘— they thought it was hilarious.
Needless to say, I never really had that all-American baseball childhood dream. I went to see the Braves play once, but that was with a group of guys and we were herded from place to place. I barely remember it. So it’s really no wonder that the Grasshopper’s Stadium didn’t do much to pique my interest as it was being built. I just didn’t give it much thought.
On the day of the exhibition game between the Marlins and the Hoppers I was sent to do some pre-game press. Now I’ve photographed baseball before, a lot of high school and some college ball, so I wasn’t thinking much about it ‘— just get my shots, pass the time and go home.
There I was on the field, surrounded by pro ball players from the Marlins. I couldn’t tell one player from another, so I wasn’t star struck, but still something awakened in me that day. As I stood there taking it all in it became the experience I had longed for as a kid. The fresh-cut grass filled the air, puffs of dirt rose from player’s feet and the smell of a cigar wafted by from somewhere. There was the snap of the ball in the player’s gloves as they warmed up. The bats were even made of real wood. There was no metal ping from aluminum bats but instead a nice crack! as the batters practiced their swings. Kids crowded around the dugouts, leaning far over the rails to have baseballs autographed. The stadium filled with eager fans, music played from off in the distance and the sun shone bright over the field and the cityscape.
During a thirty-minute break before the game was to start I needed one thing. Not an autograph, not a conversation with a favorite player, but something much more basic ‘— basic, yet necessary to the game of baseball. I needed a hot dog, and I had just enough time to get one and load it down with chili, mustard, ketchup and a ton of sauerkraut. Man, it was good; the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten. It was like the final piece of a large puzzle, the missing link I never found in my childhood.
After I ate it I was ready. I was focused. As I photographed the action between home and first base I found myself enjoying the game. In my head I was cheering on the Hoppers; occasionally a grumble would slip out when they made a bad play. And with my lens I was a part of the game, being the player I never was as a kid.
Sure, a lot of my experience was still sensory, but for me that’s one of the best parts of baseball. I can’t wait to go to a game as a spectator and maybe even yell at the players a little. Like the guy behind me at the exhibition game who kept yelling, ‘“Come on ref, crank that chainsaw! That was a strike!’”