And We Don’t Care If They Ever Get Back
It was a sweet summer night, warm, with just a bit of breeze. The Modesto A’s of the California League were playing the Bakersfield Dodgers, and the bleachers at John Thurman Field were full. The A’s have been hot this season. A large, freshly painted sign at the front gate welcomed fans to the home of “The Winingest Team in Baseball.” Not the spelingest, perhaps, but the winningest.
The players took the field to loud applause and, from high in the stands behind home plate, a shout of “Whee-hoo!” I happened to be seated next to this shouter, and we got to talking. His name is Don House. He is 63 years old, a farmer whose forearms were nicked up from working among his almond trees. He wore gold-rim glasses, a trim mustache, a green polo shirt, beige slacks, black loafers and an expression of utter contentment.
“There is nothing like this,” he said. “You get the day’s work done, get yourself cleaned up, and come on down for a relaxing ballgame.”
He’s been coming with his wife to these minor league games for decades. “I have sat right here,” he said, “and watched guys like Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Jose Canesco, Ricky Henderson. They all played ball here.” He paused. A Dodger had hit one of the first pitches hard. House followed the flight of the ball for only an instant before declaring: “That’s going to be an out. Clarence has it.” Clarence was the left fielder. House is high on him.
Pigs, House was saying, are a misunderstood animal. He had told the joke about the fastidious bartender. I had countered with the one about the woman and the duck. This had led to a discussion of pigs. Pigs, House said, “are smarter than dogs.” He had seen pigs figure out how to work water faucets. And clean? Pigs don’t wallow in the mud, they bathe in it only because “they don’t perspire. Most people don’t know that.”
A foul ball sliced out of the park. “All yours, Tree Man,” House shouted. He pointed out a thin man perched high in a Douglas fir just outside the ballpark, overlooking first base. With elaborate hand signals, Tree Man directed a corps of kids on the ground toward the foul ball. So far this season, he has collected about 300 balls with this system. What he plans to do with them is a Thurman Field mystery.
The conversation resumed. It wasn’t straight monologue, although if we were a baseball battery House would have played pitcher to my catcher. After pigs, it moved on to almonds, and after almonds to politics and after that to environmentalism and pitching rotations and population growth and insurance companies and minor league umpires and drought-resistant alfalfa and pedal steel guitar. Until the Korean War came along, House had been headed for a career in country music. He was happy, though, farming--even with the drought.
“You know, there is an answer to our water solution in California,” House declared. He paused.
“Yes, desalinization. That’s how nature produces it. All the water we get out of the hills really is desalinated ocean water. We got a big ocean out there. All we need to do is learn how to enhance nature.”
The game had moved fast, a battle of two-run homers. In between innings, fans competed in corn pone contests. One barefoot little girl stole the show when, in what was supposed to be a race around the bases, she became confused and sprinted off deep into right field. House giggled at this, and started talking about family. He was headed for Portland later in the week to move his son back. They were going to farm together. House beamed as he said this.
And now it was in the ninth. The A’s were well ahead. The Dodger fans, keeping faith with club tradition, had left in droves after the seventh. And now, finally, the subject of the baseball strike came up. House said his feelings were “mixed.” The sport had changed so much, had grown so big, “that it’s kind of hard for anyone to get a handle on it.”
Anyway, he wasn’t losing much sleep over it. There simply was too much to do. There were almond trees to water. There were sons to bring home. There were big things to contemplate. It was enough for him to head out to Thurman Field on a sweet summer night, and make friends of strangers, and root root root for the winingest team in baseball. And who cares if those other guys ever come back?
Not me, I said, although I can’t say for sure House heard. He was talking by then about cows.