Summer is dripping into our once light and breezy April days here in Taiwan.
The first few nights of kicking off covers, turning over in heated sleep frustration, those are the nights that I waited for as a child. The feverish changing of seasons meant the end of school, the start of summer, and, invariably, the summer heat meant baseball. Remembering those golden summers of years past, I can still feel the grit of sand in my cleats and the sweat pooling in my palm under a leather glove. I reach up to adjust my phantom visor through some ingrained muscle memory. I smell the Frito pies all the way in the stands.
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood were made in the dugouts of our county park and in the sand of those infields, lights scorching each grain to a dull beige. Crowds of family and friends erupting with every smart play, sing-song cheers meant to distract the opponent, ketchup stains on our jerseys. But, with those RBIs and stolen bases, there were also plenty of thrown gloves, strikeouts, and cap brims pulled low over dusty faces, streaked clean with falling tears.
Baseball (or, more specifically, softball) is a mental game. And at sixteen, I didn’t have the mental fortitude to drown out the insults and fear of failure that came at me from the inside. We are our own worst critics.
But my love for the sport never left. I cheered my brother on through the entirety of his catching career, and I saw the Reds every year for Father’s Day with the most important men in my life: Jacob, Dad, and my two grandfathers.
Seeing a Reds game was a grand affair for my brother and me. We made a packing list that included snacks for the three hour car ride, our own gloves and caps, a rain jacket, our savings for souvenirs, and a poster board sign constructed with the hopes of appearing on the big screen as the cameras swept the crowd. I never did appear on the Jumbotron, but that was not for lack of trying. I woke up hoarse after every, single game, vision blurry from our late night out as I reenacted the best plays from Momma in the sizzling summer air.
This weekend, I saw my first baseball game in Taiwan. As we neared the stadium from the metro, I felt the roar of the crowd in my feet, reverberating through the concrete, and a childish excitement tingled up my limbs. I cannot imagine how overstimulated eleven year-old Jessica would have been at the sight of hordes of Taiwanese fans, clad in either royal blue or burnt orange, causing a ruckus with every strike and balled called.
I had experienced something like this only once before. When studying abroad in Havana, Cuba, I had the opportunity to attend a baseball game with my fellow classmates, only few nights before we were to leave the island and return home. We bought our tickets and were inspected at the gate for alcohol. Every baseball stadium in Cuba is dry, because alcohol and this kind of excitement more often than not ended in a stadium-wide brawl.
We found our seats, which were more like placeholders than anything else, as we were on our feet much of the game. The time that we did find ourselves seated was instructional in nature. The professor leading our trip, one of the most brilliant minds at my university, did not know the rules of baseball. I was given the extreme privilege of explaining balls and strikes, fair and foul, and I could not help but smile inwardly at the strangeness of our role reversal, when I have revered him from afar for his intellect for so long.
In actuality, it would be surprising if my professor learned anything at all that fine Cuban night. Though we sat less than two feet apart, I was yelling over the roar the crowds and the thunder of bass drums and bugle horns blaring with no apparent rhyme or reason. The instruments would release ear-splitting peals of sound when something of interest occurred on the ball field, but there was never any set tune, and often times, the sound of chaos whitewashed any organized cheer or chant into a blanket of noise.
When there was order, it was Spanish chanting that made our Cuban guide blush, meant to demoralize the other team and suggest something about their mothers.
I was struck by the way the stadium walls shook with the crowd’s intensity, a fervor that one does not see for baseball in the United States. The crowd jeered and rallied, booed and cheered, a fluid organism winding to and fro with each play. There was a heat in the air that had nothing to do with the weather but was tangible all the same. And we were wrapped up in the glory of it.
Fast forward to last weekend, when Ross, Charlotte and I arrived two innings late for a faceoff between the Fubon Guardians and the Seven Eleven Lions. I refer back to a previous post to encapsulate my feelings about 7/11:
“For those of you who have lived in Taiwan for any length of time, you know that the 7/11 is the emblem of civilization as we know it. It is where everything can be done, from picking up packages and paying your electricity bill, to making late-night milk tea purchases as you type out a blog post and keep an eye on the storm. The last time I was in Taiwan, the local 7/11 continued to run even as the typhoon winds rattled doors and windows and bent palm trees into submissive bows. To remove the 7/11 sign from atop this revered establishment signified to me The End of Times.”
It was clear that I was destined to be a Lions fan. Ross, who had played baseball for many years and has an even greater appreciation for the sport than I do, heartily agreed. Charlotte, who is a loyal customer of our local Seven, saw no reason to deviate from supporting 7/11 now.
And that was how we ended up with three third-base line tickets for 450 NTD apiece (roughly 15 AMERICAN DOLLARS, Y’ALL). We visited a 7/11 outside of the stadium to purchase beer and a giant hot dog that I loaded with mustard and relish. Although we were allowed to carry food in with us (American ball parks need to learn a thing or two from Taiwan), the hot dog did not make it into the stadium. I was too hungry and too excited to delay gratification.
Once we found our seats, Ross purchased noise makers for each of us: maracas for Charlotte, two large orange sticks which I beat together in time with the drums, and some type of amplified plastic horn for himself. Now armed, we spent every at-bat on our feet, beating and blaring at the instruction of a cheer team. The Guardians, who were hated for their money, had female cheerleaders that stood on top of their dugout and did little dances in time with their music. But the Lions had Ta-Ping, and in my opinion, he was all we needed. His shrill voice carried throughout the entire stadium, and his trusty whistle brought a bit of order to the ruckus the fans caused from the stands.
Charlotte and I spent quite a lot of time trying to pick out the words of the cheers. Though my Chinese is better than my Spanish, it still leaves much to be desired; eventually, Charlotte and I gathered that their chanting was a combination of Chinese and pseudo-English words, like “HIT-O, HIT-O” to encourage the players to make contact with the ball.
After having inhaled my first hot dog, Charlotte and I decided to roam the stadium in search of more food. We found another hot dog stand, from which Charlotte bought a cheese-covered dog. I bought some steamed dumplings, and then Charlotte and I split a bucket of fries loaded with a sweet ketchup sauce. We sipped our drinks and ate fries as Ross and I talked strategy.
For the first few innings, the Lions were ahead by one or two runs, a lead that wasn’t quite comfortable in my opinion. The pitcher, who once played for the Milwaukee Brewers, started to waver in the seventh inning, and his replacement stretched the innings into the night. This development did not deter Ta-Ping, or the entire Lions fan base for that matter, and we chanted and danced our way through five hours of baseball. The excitement was contagious. Though I normally do not appreciate noise makers of any variety, I couldn’t help but beat my plastic bats together with every cheer and every out.
In Taiwan, the baseball is good, but the experience of baseball is even better. Children scampered through the stands calling out the names of their favorite players, and adults cheered with childlike delight for the success of their team. The normally reserved Taiwanese cut loose for each double play. The crowds exploded for every base hit. And it went on in this way for five hours.
Oh yeh. And at some point, Charlotte and I got cotton candy. Living the dream.
In the ninth inning, we were all on the edge of our seats. The game had tied up somewhere along the way, and now the Lions had to score if they had any chance of winning the game. We ceremoniously rose to our feet as the first batter stepped up to the plate. Two pop-flys to right field left us in dire straits. The last out came, and with it the home team’s turn at bat. Ross couldn’t keep still, and neither could the crowd, gyrating like leaves fluttering in the breeze.
Base hit means a person is on first. A walk, now there are two. Bases loaded now and…and …and … Walk off to end the game in favor of the Fubon Guardians. The Lions sections dialed down their intensity to a dull roar. In the echoes of Fubon’s jubilee, the 7/11 Lions recognized their defeat. But instead of leaving the field with heads hung low, the entire team filed out of the dugout and lined up to face the stands. Together, they bowed to their adoring fans, and were met with renewed cheers. They then turned in the direction of their opponent’s dugout and bowed again before trotting off the field, as classy as could be.
Regardless of the outcome, a Taiwanese baseball game is an incredible experience. My own nostalgia notwithstanding, this family-friendly and wallet-friendly event is a must-do for even the shortest trips to Taiwan. It is a beautiful thing to see pure and unadulterated joy ripple through a group of people, united only in their passion for the sport. After the game was over, we all filed out of the stands, threw our trash away, and boarded the metro to return to our normal lives. But in those few moments that we were together, under the stadium lights, we stopped time with our enthusiasm.
There is a Chinese saying: 旅行为了回家。We travel to return home.
No matter how far removed I am from the infields of the Anderson County Park and those sweltering Kentucky summers that I played through, I can find familiar in the most unfamiliar of circumstances. The desire within me to find baseball games is the same desire that pushes me home, to the old definition of normal. And because this definition will no longer satisfy me, soon enough, I will start searching again. It is a cycle of leaving and returning, as if planes carrying me and the “I” that I wish to find were passing each other midair.
My time in Taiwan is drawing to a close. In only a few short months, I will fall once again into the turning of this circle, the cycle that every traveler knows. My bags will be packed, and I will board plane after plane until I see that bluegrass again, gleaming in the sun. I will have only a few weeks until the beginning of my next adventure: graduate school at the University of Georgia.
But even as my circumstances shift and change around me, memories remain. And on some fine summer evening, as the sun sets over the red Georgia clay, you will find me, cheering on the home team as those stadium lights shine, shine on.