Bradford: The day I watched a baseball game

Rob Bradford
July 08, 2020 - 7:46 am

Sometimes you forget the importance of baseball.

It was easy to dismiss how the sport shaped summers when being subjected to the back-and-forth of billionaires and millionaires for the last few months. And even going over to Fenway Park the last few days to watch (from hundreds of feet away) the Red Sox socially-distance their way to 60-game season hasn't done the trick. You can relish in those "sweetest sound around" social media posts when watching J.D. Martinez take batting practice, but this wasn't how the sport defined my Julys.

Thankfully, Tuesday offered my first real glimpse into normalcy. I watched a real baseball game with real fans.

When I was growing up in Essex, Mass. the Shipbuilders might have well been the Red Sox. They were my town's representative in the oldest active amateur baseball league in the nation, the Inter-Town Twighlight League. The Little League field was just beyond the left-field fence leading to us 5th-graders keeping one eye on our game and another on what was taking place in the big diamond at Memorial Field.

"Watch out, Kendall's up!" we would yell, anticipating another home run for the town's power-hitting Ruthian figure Kendall Stone.

Those games were everything. And it felt the same way when I got a chance to play for the Shipbuilders, counting the minutes each game day until that first pitch could be thrown at 5:45 p.m. (Some years there were some issues with numbers if the tide was out. The only thing that came before baseball in Essex was clam-digging.)

So when I heard the ITL was actually going to be playing for a 92nd consecutive season despite the pandemic a wave of relief came over me. While Major League Baseball was trying to figure out its deal the good old days were being dropped back in our laps. For the first time this year summer could feel like summer again.

Still, when I drove to the field I didn't know what to expect. Usually, I do. There are fans on the hill in the shadow of one of the most unique-looking town halls you will ever see. The midge flies coming off the marsh will test your resolve. And at least one car's hood will be dented by an errant foul ball. But this was different. How many eggshells would the players and their spectators be walking on? Would there actually be fans hovering over this COVID-19 era of baseball? Would it look anything like I remembered it looking?

What I found was a reprieve from the chaos.

The teams -- the Manchester/Essex Mariners and Ipswich/Topsfield Chiefs -- had been given the basics: No high-fives. Pitchers don't lick your fingers. No postgame handshakes. But once the Mariners' Kellen Field, an Amherst College football player, threw that low-80's fastball to Chiefs leadoff hitter and Assumption College standout R.J. Libby it all seemed normal. The umpire was calling balls and strikes while hovering over the catcher. Baseballs being thrown around without fear of viruses. And teammates moving around each other as teammates do.

Hitters hit. Pitchers pitched. Fielders fielded. Fans cheered.

For better or worse, the panic that had accompanied any talk about the return of sports was a foreign concept. Was there risk? Yup. The ITL doesn't have the luxury of rotating in hundreds of baseballs,  the use of personalized helmets and bats, or the ability to execute every-other-day COVID-19 tests. But the feeling that came with watching a good throw from the outfield to cut down a runner barreling around third base made everyone in attendance remember why getting this six-team league going at some point this summer was so important to so many.

Will the ITL come out of this 10-game season unscathed? Impossible to tell. Adding certainty to any equation these days simply isn't an option.

But sitting behind that screen that I had grown up playing Home Run Derby against throughout my childhood -- watching Field paint fastballs on the outside corner or Chiefs' catcher Zack Lamkin (also the Ipswich High baseball coach) expertly finish off bang-bang play at home plate -- it was easy to understand why leagues like this one were willing to give this sort of season a whirl. 

I stayed until the end, never feeling like this was a bad movie I had to power through. Score: Manchester/Essex 7, Ipswich/Topsfield 4. Winner: The great game of baseball. (And, let's be honest, nobody needs a win these days more than baseball.)