“What a ballpark! What a beautiful place to play!” — Babe Ruth, 1931
I watch the old man keeping score
a few rows down, a few seats south
here at the new McCormick Field,
each pitch, each out, each hit, each run
recorded in those blue boxes
whose empty frames his hand will fill,
a system my late father tried
to teach me forty years ago
in the original ballpark
when he sat by me marking up
another Asheville Tourists game.
The old man licks his pencil’s point
the way my dad would always do.
He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t drink:
he watches closely, then he writes
until each at-bat’s finally done,
part of a neatly-tallied sum.
Up narrow Biltmore Avenue toward the park,
up the faulty sidewalk from the after-hours lot,
up the gray stone stairs, footworn as a cathedral’s,
up (in dad’s hands) to the barred ticket window,
up the concourse crowded with hunger and thirst,
up the section ramp, a loud cramped tunnel,
up the steep concrete steps to our own two seats:
fold down, sit down, look down on the field
glowing before us like an immaculate garden.
For years, my father-treasurer kept the books
for the postal credit union, spreading out
those wide black ledgers on our kitchen table,
each page a grid of pale red and blue ink
ready to be filled with columns of numbers,
additions, subtractions, subtotals, balances.
He’d pencil figures and then punch them
on the massive Remington Rand machine,
pulling its cocked arm for noisy hours
to see if his accounting had worked.
It’s no wonder he loved to keep score,
to enter and update and save all the data,
each player’s position assigned a digit
from 1 to 9, pitcher to right fielder,
each play a letter or abbreviated cluster:
BB, HBP, DP, 1B, SB, PH, RBI, K.
I was far too impatient to practice
the shorthand dad used those summer nights.
But he’d still let me mark his scorebook
when one of our Tourists went deep
and I got to write HR, then draw four lines
to connect the dots of the bases,
then color the infield solid with my pencil
until it shone, a soft black diamond.
The field was named for Dr. McCormick,
Asheville’s first resident bacteriologist,
who was so appalled by the plague of flies
swarming the livery stables and streets
that he started a campaign in 1904:
“Swat That Fly!” It began with local kids
paid by homeowners to kill Musca domestica
as it paused rubbing its filthy legs together,
then spread quickly across the country,
a grassroots public health success
that earned him a nickname: “The Fly Man.”
And so every batter who swats another fly
and every fielder who runs to haul it in
continues that extermination mission
begun a century ago right here in town.
We’d find the best view of home plate
under the grandstand roof, behind the screen,
so his scorebook wouldn’t get wet
and we wouldn’t be blindsided by line drives
and we could watch the pitches break
or sink or rise or hiss past the batter
trying to protect the strike zone,
that phantom pane of glass, that grave in air,
as the ump’s fingers sprouted strikes
on the right hand and balls on the left, outs
clenched with a fist, his fingertips
resting lightly on the catcher’s shoulder
as he leaned forward, waiting for
the next approaching blur he had to call.
Dad said the only better seats
were in the press box perched up on the roof,
that heaven right above our heads
where writers and announcers watched the game
and quickly turned it into words.
Thomas Wolfe was a tall batboy
for the Skylanders in 1915,
loping toward home
to fetch the cast-off lumber.
“Hurry up!” the manager yelled.
Tom loved how the plate
was simple as a kid’s drawing,
a single-gable white house
every hitter wanted to get back to.
“Son,” the catcher growled, “move it.”
We went so often, father and son,
our programs’ lucky numbers won stuff:
a case of Royal Crown Cola
whose heavy beveled bottles clinked
all the way to our trunk,
whose wooden crate we never did return,
twenty-four square holes
in which I displayed all the balls I’d collected;
free oil changes, dry cleaning, burgers;
and (most exotic of all) a string tie,
a bolo made in San Antonio,
its slide a flat red baseball
with white feather stitches and TOURISTS
pressed into the sharp-edged plastic.
Why did they reverse the colors?
I wondered while sliding that bloody circle
up and down the dark blue cords,
the metal-tip aglets clicking as I walked.
The old man sharpens his pencil
with a pearl-handle pocket knife
like the one dad used to carry,
cedary shavings at his feet
like peanut shells crushed under mine.
The fireworks started early
one Fourth of July:
my nose exploded in a sudden bleed,
my father quickly stanching it
with his handkerchief and surprising pressure,
jamming a piece of folded paper
up under my top lip
and making me lie down across his lap,
head hanging back into the aisle,
legs stretched out across a couple of strangers
who never stopped watching the players.
And dad never stopped scoring them,
my chest his desk
as I studied the rafters and the light standards,
the sparrows bearing scraps of food
and the swooping bullbats clearing the buggy air.
Heilman in right is a blur, kicking weeds:
thanks to a couple of green pitchers
who won’t even make the team,
his Detroit Tigers are losing 18-14
to the hometown Asheville Skylanders
in their brand-new park’s official debut –
wooden grandstands packed to capacity,
low rail fences lined with dark-suited men
tilting their black hats forward
to keep the cold sun out of their eyes.
April 3, 1924, not a single leaf on a tree
in this black-and-white panoramic photo,
not an ad in sight, the only sign
a motto crowning the roof: ASHEVILLE –
THE PLAYGROUND OF AMERICA.
Cobb, the bitter Peach, player-manager,
fumes in center with hands on hips;
Manush waits in left for this exhibition
to be over, it doesn’t count for anything.
.403, .358, .334: that’s what they hit last year
but still finished second to the Yanks.
One day these three will be in Cooperstown,
bronze plaques shining from the Hall’s walls,
far away from the leather-lung hillbillies
whose grass they water with major-league spit.
“Great game, Magoo, too bad
you can’t see it!”
I lacked the guts and lungs
to insult the umpires,
every ticket-holder’s right
my father once told me.
“How can you sleep
with all these lights on, blue?”
All around us, red-faced men
would cup hands around mouths
and megaphone abuse
on those crooked judges,
their heckling sometimes echoing
off the encircling hill:
“Hey ump, the eye doc called,
he’s fixed your glasses!”
came the longed-for after-jeer.
Later in ’24, the Skylanders
(too many letters to stitch across a chest?)
were quietly rechristened the Tourists,
acknowledging the many summer visitors
to The Playground of America
but also the players, coaches, and umps
who hoped they were merely touring Asheville,
sojourners soon to be in the majors,
not on their way down and out of pro ball
or stuck in this mountain-girt town for good.
The scoreboard flashes H, not E:
the old man shakes his silver head.
A home-field ruling, undeserved,
but he erases and corrects
then adds an asterisk and note,
his unofficial marking-down.
Dad knew all the ballpark regulars –
the blind black guy who watched each pitch
loudly on his transistor radio,
always a second or two behind the action,
the retired band director Mr. Denardo,
pained by the bad canned music
but beaming in his box as he conducted us,
holding the ascending notes of “old . . . ball . . . game”
till everybody collapsed, laughing,
Struttin’ Bud Shaney, star pitcher
for the ’28 Tourists, best team ever dad said,
later the crafty groundskeeper
who could sculpt and pack and water the basepath
so it favored the Tourists that night
or hindered the visiting Phillies or Braves –
and they knew him, another local
who’d played the sport well once upon a time
and prayed for a son and got lucky
and brought the boy here when he was a tiny baby
and ever since so that he could learn baseball
by simply being inside it,
a language they shared without speaking
as they sat side by side, night after night,
The Bambino died in Asheville:
that was the rumor in April of ’25
when the Yankees trained into town
and Babe fainted in the stucco depot
in front of a mob of star-struck fans
and was rushed off in an ambulance
and didn’t leave town with the team
after they won at McCormick Field.
The Citizen reported he had “the flu”
but the evening Times ran a picture
of The Sultan of Swat flat in bed,
hands folded helpless on his big chest,
which helped fuel the wildfire gossip
that “the flu” really meant he was dead,
a victim of his unchecked appetites,
struck down in the blue mountains
celebrated for their healthfulness . . .
Six years later, Ruth and the Yanks
were back, he and Gehrig homering
high over the steep right-field bank
into the crowd that couldn’t get seats.
I wish I’d asked my dad if he was there.
This time, the over-the-fold photo
showed Babe winking at the camera
as he kissed a cute young V.A. nurse.
The mound’s a low mountain
on the mowed plain of the field,
an ancient volcano
erupting strikes through Dock Ellis
and visitors like Nolan Ryan,
but I was 12 in the summer of ’66
so I loved offense and Bob Robertson,
our moody slugger with a swing
so compactly fierce
that when he caught one on the sweet spot
his bat rang the night like a tuning fork,
that deep sound thrilling our seats’ wood
and my startled heart
and my rising father’s tingling palms
and the trees beyond the left-field fence
waiting for his towering blow
to finish its re-entry in leafy darkness.
“Take . . . me out to the ball . . . game,”
we stood and sang, seventh-inning stretching,
the only time my old man and I
ever lifted up our voices together in song.
“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,”
the kids would shout, and the drunks
would lift their last beers and laugh
and toast “I don’t care if I never get back!”
as we shared our true national anthem –
not the unsingable “O-oh-say can you see”
crackling overhead before the first pitch,
a few fans mouthing its baffling lines faintly,
my dad’s hat over his heart, his smiling lips still,
both of us waiting to cry “Play ball!”
Just north of the park was Valley Street,
the “Niggertown” where nervous whites
taking a shortcut to First Baptist
told their kids to lock the car doors
against idle Sunday morning porchsitters.
Back in the forties, black fans could stroll
down the long hill and fill McCormick
to cheer for their Asheville Blues,
playing Negro Southern League games there
whenever the Tourists were on the road.
I never saw Colored fountains or bleachers
but as I root-root-rooted for Willie Stargell
the air around me shifted uneasily.
Now Valley Street is a brief cul-de-sac
ending behind the county courthouse and jail.
Dad wrote his proud surname in the lead-off spot
the summer I was a Babe Ruth All-Star shortstop
and we played one afternoon at McCormick Field.
I ran from the dugout in my Sealtest Dairy uniform
(leaping the fresh basepath lime) to the very spot
where Davey Concepcion had starred the previous year,
then warmed up with the South Buncombe infielders
before removing my red cap and facing dead center,
watching the star-spangled banner too hot to wave
as I tried to calm the butterflies by praying hard
God, please don’t let the ball be hit my way, please
and it wasn’t, I fielded no chances in two innings
and struck out in my one at-bat, but no matter,
I’d played on the field where my heroes had played
though no picture survives to prove I ever did
and dad’s record vanished with all his scorebooks.
He marks the Tourists as he marks
the Sand Gnats, River Dogs, Catfish.
I wonder: does he save those sheets,
or does he keep such faithful score
for its own sake, for the pleasure
of noting every lit movement
for a few hours, for a few months,
for who knows how many decades?
–A crisp objective pencil stroke:
three outs, another inning done.
The old man flips his book and waits.
In college, I swore off sports as bourgeois
though my father still asked me to join him
at the park, when the Tourists were in town,
or in the den, watching cable baseball
the way we once watched the Game of the Week,
laughing at Dizzy Dean’s corny malaprops,
but I said No thanks, and so he sat alone
with the close-ups and the instant replays,
falling asleep as Atlanta lost again.
The last time I saw the original park
was in a New York theater, summer of 1988,
a cameo in Bull Durham:
Asheville skyline in the background,
Crash Davis drives his Mustang convertible
up the hill, past the stone staircase,
through the right field gate and out of sight.
McCormick was then the oldest baseball field
in the minors, fifth oldest in America
after Wrigley, Fenway, Tiger and Yankee Stadiums –
a dank antique, cramped and dim and haunted,
like the national pastime.
Three years later, they razed its rickety wood
for a concrete and brick “neo-traditional facility.”
My dad and I study Ted Williams
finishing his sweet lethal swing,
torso twisted but balanced
between bent right leg stepping forward
and left leg dipping slightly at the knee
so that back foot lifts on its ball
as it pulverizes the dirt,
front arm parallel to swung bat
lifted clean and flat over his shoulders.
We stand side by side, looking up
at this painted basswood statue
of the Splendid Splinter homering,
father and son sharing baseball again,
making their long-delayed pilgrimage
to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Dad cocks his head and turns my way
and I expect him to appreciate
the finer mechanics of hitting
as demonstrated by the follow-through
of his favorite batter of all time –
No. 9, The Thumper, The Kid,
dark keen eyes lifted, still on the ball –
but instead he asks a question
that stuns me into disbelieving silence,
this white-haired ancient touching my arm:
“Now, just who is that, son?”
May 27, 2004: it’s Thirsty Thursday
at the new park, rebuilt on the original site,
and dollar-beer attempts to start the Wave
keep collapsing before it can undulate
all the way around to the bleachers,
and Ted-E Tourist, the bear-like mascot,
is dancing lewdly on the home dugout roof,
and the lesbian couples stand to cheer
when the enormous P.A. voice booms,
after some inter-inning mock Sumo wrestling,
ATTENTION: NO SMOKING IN THE STANDS,
but the old scribe ignores it all,
updating numbers until the next batter steps in.
I don’t know how the afterlife unfolds,
but on that cold March day my father died
at St. Joseph’s, a couple of blocks south
of the original McCormick Field,
spring training scores already brightening
the hospital TV above his bed,
I hope he made it to that beautiful place,
the doomed ballpark that Ruth himself admired,
and lingered in the shady stands a while.
I hope he made his way out to the infield
then climbed the unraked mound, that circle of dirt
he’d focused on for almost seventy years,
and peered back in toward home, a ghostly zone,
waiting for the dark-blue-suited figure
to gesture that the game could now begin,
waiting for his catcher to give the sign
(one index finger pointed toward the ground
where his body would vanish in a few days,
under the outfield where nobody plays),
waiting for his teammates’ scattered chatter
and whistles to pierce the wide air behind him
before he started his delivery,
the first of many pitches in the nightcap.
He stays until the final out,
records it calmly, 5 to 3,
then closes the cardboard covers
and slips the sharpened pencil snug
inside the metal ring binding.
Wincing, the old man rises stiff,
picks up cushion and umbrella,
passes me on the sticky steps
and disappears into the crowd
high-fiving tonight’s victory,
the scorebook tucked under his arm,
a clear accounting of the game
that could be read by anyone
(a fan, player, sportswriter, coach)
who understands his steady marks
and loves the always-shifting stats,
the unforgiving truth they tell.
It’s beautiful the way this bright field fills
a lofty little valley between hills,
how perfectly they cup the outfield arc
with viny banks and trees, a natural park
or amphitheater for the timeless play
we watch to end another summer day.