Balls

Root, root, root for the home team

There's a thin line between healthy athletic competition and legally sanctioned barbarism. The difficulty is in predicting where and when this line will be crossed: South American soccer matches have passed without so much as a harsh word, while minivan-driving moms have packed heat to the Little League playoffs. So what exactly happens to this law of unpredictability when hormones, Gatorade, beer, and Minnesota Nice are mixed in a souvenir collector's cup and left to fester?

The Minnesota Twins have brought many things to Minnesotans: two world championships (and their attendant festivities), lovable heroes (from Killebrew to Kirby), an increasingly controversial indoor stadium. On this Thursday night the Twins have brought us the New York Yankees: Jeter, Justice--the whole men's-hygiene-product-hawking lot of them. They have also brought us the Yankee fans, accounting for about a third of the total attendance.

The Yanks are playing along with the batting-practice-ball-hungry fans as they warm up, showing good sportsmanship as they tease, then reward with freebie bits of baseball history. A teenage girl in a Jeter jersey carries a sign that reads "DEREK THE HEART STOPPER." She lets out a squeal apropos of an 'N Sync fan when her friend catches a ball tossed into the stands by No. 2 himself.

As game time draws near, the battle to take home a Yankee souvenir intensifies. A father hoists his infant offspring, clad in adorable Twins PJs, onto his shoulders in a dangerous attempt to attract attention on the field. Two ostensibly mild-mannered dads wrestle over a wayward ball; the son of the winner gives his pop a Visa commercial-worthy bear hug, his young face beaming with admiration, while the unlucky kid looks dejected and miserable until a magnanimous Yank, newcomer Denny Neagle, points at the losing dad and tosses him a ball too. As fans take their seats armed with foot-long bratwursts and sacks of peanuts, a Yankee fan (and native Bostonian) is overheard extolling the virtues of indoor baseball to his (locally born) date. "This is so much better," he tells her as she murmurs her agreement. "We never woulda got seats this good at Fenway."

The first inning is interrupted by two slightly intoxicated gentlemen who loudly inform everyone in a six-seat radius that they are from New York and are Yankee fans. Determined to prove that everything we Minnesotans have been led to believe about New York sports fans is indeed true, the pair proceeds to bellow frequently and dump a beer on the guy in front of them.

A family of five (four of them Yankee fans) has come up from Lincoln, Nebraska, to visit relatives and see their team play. Each family member has put two dollars into a betting pool--a buck to pinpoint the inning in which the first home run will be hit, another to pick the one in which a teenage family member would speak to the young lady sitting in an adjacent seat. The winner, a grade-school-age lad, becomes evident when he makes a foray to the concession stand and returns with that pride and joy of all young male sports fans: the giant foam finger.

On a trip to the ladies' room, I overhear a woman talking in a stall. "It's the second half of the second inning and the Twins are ahead by three." I assume she's explaining the game to a potty-training child until she continues. "Oh, I'm sitting on the can. It's the only quiet place."

 

BASEBALL FANS MAY hate to admit it, but the playground has long since replaced the sandlot. As its local arena, the nationally touring Hoop-It-Up 3-on-3 competition has chosen the Rapid Park megalot, and Minnesotans of all races, classes, ages, and sexes have come to get their proverbial games on and sweat it out for a chance to win cash and prizes. There are plenty of opportunities for spectators to cash in as well: Test-driving a Ford Focus will get you a free lawn chair; scaling the U.S. Army-sponsored climbing wall could put cash in your pocket; and those who sink the most baskets in 30 seconds stand to win stereo equipment and cellular phones from AT&T.

Meanwhile, everyone from yardstick-high boys in YMCA jerseys to Xenaesque college babes and old army buddies duke it out on the courts, while admirers of both the game and the human form wander about saucer-eyed. Perhaps the sun beating down, unfiltered by cast concrete or inflated plastic, has a tranquilizing effect. Or maybe the fact that Gatorade is the drink of choice makes a difference. But this Saturday in Minneapolis could be any Saturday, in any city, as strangers share a common space and a common love of the game.

 
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