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The XX Files

This American life


When the foul ball came screaming toward me at an end-of-season Red Wings game, I wasn't paying attention. I hadn't liked the way the game was going, so I had turned away. Rather than root for my team and risk being disappointed, I watched people frolicking in the hot tub out beyond right field.

This uncharacteristic indifference plagued me all summer, and it wasn't limited to my sports viewing. Worn down by the steady stream of bad news about this country --- the scathing 9/11 report, the mounting casualties in Iraq, the flat-lined economy --- and being powerless to help, I had started to feel disenfranchised. Unpatriotic even.

What's the point of having a Constitution, I thought as I drove my family to my gay aunts' house to celebrate the 4th of July, if Bush can try to manipulate it to deny rights? Why can't this American lesbian couple have the same rights as other couples? I had reread the Bill of Rights (don't be impressed, we have a big, illustrated Constitution that makes it almost seem like fun) searching for amendments of similar malice. There aren't any. And then I just pouted; what else could I do?

Call it Hot-tubocracy: the tendency of jaded Americans to steer their attention away from politics (or losing sports teams) toward things that are not in the least bit depressing. Here are a few safe topics: How you discovered Arrested Development before anyone else. Hanky Panky's 4811, the sexy and comfortable thong featured in a recent front-page Wall Street Journal story. And, of course, hot tubs at baseball games.

The scuffle and cries of the little boys raising their baseball mitts turned my attention to the ball, a dozen yards away and gunning right for me. Time slowed and I saw my last few moments on earth play out in a Frontier Field version of the Zapruder film.

To my left, my friend dove on top of her identical-twin tots. The ball sped toward me in slo-mo. Behind me the boys jostled each other. I covered my face. To my right my oblivious husband gazed through his binoculars at the hot tub crowd. (He would later claim he hadn't even seen the hot tub and was, in fact, "establishing a perimeter.")

The ball grew larger, spinning. I turned away. POW! The thing caught me full force on the hip. It landed an inch above my jeans which, if they hadn't been freakin' trendy low-rise, might have offered some protection. As it was, the ball smacked my midriff with such a loud sound that I was sure an organ had exploded.

That snapped me out of my malaise. All my senses sprang to life --- my pain sense especially --- and I became hyperaware of my surroundings. POW! I was blind but now I see. It was a beautiful evening. The air was warm and dry, a purple-blue dusk settled around us, and a train chugged by on the elevated track in front of the downtown skyline. I breathed in the smell of popcorn mingled with Rohrbach's blueberry beer. America in all its glory.

As people made a fuss over me --- handing me ice packs, asking how I was, and stowing the binoculars sheepishly --- I felt part of something larger again. Part of America. I had turned my back on the game, and by extension, my country. When I took that ball to the hip, POW! I became a born-again American. My new mantra: Keep an eye on the ball. In sports and in life.

Baseball, like democracy, requires participation. And not just of the players; the fans have to participate, too. In a ballpark there are no passive observers. Spectators need to keep their eye on the ball and protect themselves.

Ditto in a democracy. There are no passive observers. If you don't participate, you could be beaned at any time. By the massive layoffs spurred by companies moving offshore. By the loss of health insurance. By feds stomping on your --- or your neighbors' --- civil liberties.

With my patriotism revived and an ice pack pressed to my side, I left the ballpark surrounded by friends and family. The crowd in our section cheered for me. One yuckster called out, "How's the ball?"

I was eager to restart my life as an involved American. Should I donate? Volunteer? Both? Then someone asked if I would sue Frontier Field. Of course. What could be more American than suing the bastards? Oh, the pain. The suffering. I'll never be the same!

It turns out, however, that you can't sue when a ball hits you in the stands. Lawyers point out that fans assume a certain risk when they enter the ballpark. With balls flying everywhere, they should know what they're in for. (Now, when a chair flies into the stands, as one did in Oakland recently, that's another story.)

As in baseball, the high-stakes game of American democracy carries an assumption of risk. There's always the risk your candidate or referendum won't win. Fans can protect themselves with baseball mitts. Citizens can protect themselves by voting.

It's true that once you start to care about something --- the election, the war, the economy --- you risk being disappointed if things don't work out. But consider the alternative. People living in dictatorships or under military regimes assume no risk --- the system ensures that they'll be oppressed. It's not enough to just live in a democracy. You have to live it. Keep your eye on the ball. Play for keeps. And I, for one, will always bring a mitt to Frontier Field. Okay, maybe the binoculars, too.