The way he discovered the Muckdogs is a story in itself. It was on a Saturday after a fight with his wife (now ex). He’d been meaning to go out to Batavia for some time. There was an outlet store there that sold really nice flannel and wool shirts and wool coats, very warm, made a at a nearby factory. He hopped in the car and drove in that general direction, somewhere he didn’t think he’d ever been before. When he neared Batavia, he stopped at an information booth to get directions to the factory outlet. Just as he went inside something popped in his head. He didn’t know if he’d seen it on the back of some player’s baseball card or what, but he must have seen it somewhere or known it somehow.
“Do they have a baseball team here?” he asked.
“Sure do,” the older man said, not looking up from his paper.
“Is the park anywhere near here?” he asked.
“Just down the street,” was the reply. “Stay on Main here until you get to Bank Street. Turn left down Bank and keep going until you get to a bend in the road and right on your left is the field. Can’t miss it. I think they’re playing today or tonight.”
“Gee, thanks!” he said, and turned to take off.
“Hey” the man said, “what about the factory outlet?”
“Some other time,” he said, “but thanks. I gotta get to the ballpark.”
He was there in five minutes but there was a lone car in the parking lot and his hopes fell. He saw a man get out of the car and yelled out to him, “Is there a game here today?”
“Doubleheader,” he said. He was there!
“What time?” he asked.
“Starts at three,” the man answered.
He looked at his watch. An hour and a half to kill. He drove out of the parking lot and headed to a hamburger joint he’d seen on the way for lunch.
By the time he finished lunch, he’d cut the time in half. He drove back to the park where already a couple of cars had arrived and more were going in. He knew he was home free. Let’s play two. I knew I wouldn’t be home for dinner.
Since then I’d been going there at least once a week for several years but I’d never noticed the sign until that night.
HAVENS ROAD? HEAVEN’S RD.?
It couldn’t be named Heaven’s Rd., he doubted there was a road with that name anywhere in the whole US of A.
Had he been dreaming? He hoped not, looking over at his 7-year-old son Thomas, who was oblivious, his earbuds stuck into his ears, listening to Limp Bizkit, no doubt, if the blare he heard emanating from that general direction was any indication.
Thump thump thuthump it went, just like his heart.
Thomas, can you turn that down? That bass is killing me.
Thomas rolled his eyes, but turned it down. He was a good kid.
Now the father, on the other hand, would have received a smack in the chops for his troubles if his old man had detected the slightest eye roll at a command he’d given.
OK, he hadn’t been dreaming, but then what had drawn his attention when he spotted the bright green road sign with the white retroreflective buttons on it that read HAVENS ROAD or HEAVEN’S RD. as he headed due east on Route 5 to see a ballgame in Batavia? Why had he jerked his neck so suddenly at it as they drove by, causing what was bound to be a crick in his neck at the very least if not whiplash altogether? Perhaps it was that jarring that had made him see Heaven’s Rd. Did he actually see an apostrophe S? He doubted that would have been put on a road sign, so it must have been “Havens” he’d seen. He was thoroughly confused now.
One thing was certain: when he saw it, he’d experienced a powerful shock of recognition unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.
‘What could it possibly mean? Why had I never noticed it until today?’ he asked himself.
It was even a little daunting, if you want to know the truth.
Just as they hit the Batavia City Line, he remembered he needed to stop at Quik Bank for some cash before they went to the ballgame. As he pulled around to the machine he debated how much to withdraw. Since it could only be in $20 increments- $20? $40?
He looked over at his son and smiled ruefully. If he was a good kid, he was an even better eater. Better make it $40. His mother would have a fit if she saw the junk food gorge he was about to engage in, but that was their little secret, and the boy had never once let slip the full extent of it.
“Oh, just some peanuts or popcorn and a soda,” he’d say, “that’s all.”
He supposed that the fact that he admonished him just before he got out of the car each time that that “was our little secret,” and that if his mother found out, the jig would be up, even to the extent that he might not be allowed to go to games with him any longer, made him more able to withstand the thorough interrogation he got when he went in the house afterward.
He’d only been allowed to start going to games with him this year, although he’d been campaigning for it since he turned five. Besides, only getting him every other weekend made the father determined to make it something special, if only to break the strict regimen he was subjected to by his mother. He was all too familiar with that from their married days. He shuddered to think of it.
“Something wrong, Daddy?” Thomas asked him.
“Of course not,” he said, “not a thing. You ready to see some baseball?”
He knew that would elicit an eyeroll, which was partly why he said it, and to see if he was paying attention. The smile that accompanied it made everything all right with the world.
Not for long, seemingly, because just as he pulled back onto Main St. he saw the gumball of a police car flashing behind him.
“What’s going on, Daddy, are we in trouble?”
“Not that I know of,” he responded.
The Batavia policeman asked him to roll down his window.
“You know why I’m stopping you?” he said.
He hated it when they said that. If he knew what he’d been pulled over for it would have meant he was aware and he’d done it on purpose.
Not giving him a chance to respond the officer informed him that his left taillight was out.
“You know how I noticed that?” he asked.
“No sir, I do not.”
“Because you went through a red light, just coming into town.”
He found that hard to believe, he’d never do that, especially not with his son in the car. His mind had been on the Havens Road thing, he recalled.
The officer must have noticed the baseball glove lying on the seat between them.
“You going to the game tonight?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” he said, “as soon as we’re through here.”
“I’m going to let you off with a warning,” the officer said.
Immensely relieved, he thanked the officer and said it wouldn’t happen again.
“See that it doesn’t,” the officer said. “Enjoy the game.”
‘Whew, that was a close one,’ he thought to himself, but said to Thomas, “If he hadn’t seen that glove and you hadn’t been in the car, I would have been toast.” He tousled his son’s hair and said, “let’s just keep this between you and I, OK?”
“Sure thing, Dad,” he said, “now let’s go see some baseball.”
“Now you’re talking,” he said, grinning wider than he had in quite a while.
Dyer Stadium was his field of dreams, his favorite place in all the world to watch a ballgame. It was on the outskirts of the city, in the midst of prime farmland. The stadium had been refurbished a few years ago, a badly needed upgrade, with the major change being the wooden seats had been replaced with aluminum bench seats, and there were more of them. The press box had been enlarged, with the rest of the changes being cosmetic, i.e. a lot of scraping and painting. The player’s clubhouse was the same sandstone brick building just past the visitor’s bullpen in right field.
As you were driving in you could see a few people lined up buying tickets, which made you want to get there even quicker. Not that you had to worry, the stadium was only ever half full, you were just eager to get your ticket and into your seat. You drove into a gravel driveway and found a spot as far back as you could, so your windshield didn’t get smashed by a foul ball, an incident so prevalent one of the club’s main sponsors was an auto glass repair shop. The excitement built as they made their way to the ticket booth, gloves in hand. With a general admission ticket, you could sit anywhere you wanted, except in the seats closest to the field, which were box seat tickets. They (no matter who he was with) always sat on the third base side, four rows up, except when it was raining (which was seldom), and they’d sit under the covered grandstand, directly behind home plate, as close as they could so they could watch players who weren’t playing that night track the speed of the pitch with a radar gun, making a notation on a sheet of paper designed especially for that purpose after each one[TE1] .
Tickets in hand we went through the gate, where we were handed that night’s giveaway- a team picture calendar, a refrigerator magnet with the Muckdog logo and schedule on it, pennant, pen and pencil set, or food and drink giveaways. We always went to the first game of the year, when they gave away the magnet schedule.
Knowing Thomas would want to peruse the menu (each year there were new items) so he could decide what he wanted during the game, I went over and got a draft beer (only one- again, don’t tell mommy- and sometimes none) and a large bag of peanuts and rejoined him.
Thomas, enrapt at such a cornucopia of junk food on display, hardly noticed I’d returned. Still not being able to make up his mind, I noted it down as TBD.
I usually brought a scorebook, so the next thing would be to write down the lineups as listed on a chalkboard hanging near eye level on the grandstand. Then it was on to the field.
The field! I’d been to many a major and high minor league field and for his money this was hands down the best, from the manicured bright green grass to the smooth as a baby’s bottom tawny infield.
Everyone was hustling around to get ready for the game, and they had a nice tradition where the local kids would walk out with an assigned player to the player’s position, and would stay on the field until a hokey and off-key of the star-spangled banner was performed, and the game was ready to begin.
The games were oftentimes sloppily played, with many dropped strikes, wild pitches, errant throws, and muffed grounders, but hey, it was short-season single-A, the second lowest rung on the ladder leading to the big leagues, which only one out of ten would make. But they more than made up for it in enthusiasm and a desire to learn.
As the middle of the 3rd inning came, Thomas said he was ready to eat.
“I think I’ll have the garbage plate,” he said.
“The what? Sounds pretty gross. What’s on it?” the father said.
“I’ve never had it before,” Thomas replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I want to try it because I’ve had everything else.”
He didn’t doubt that. Thomas was quite the foodie.
The service was good, the only concern was you had to watch for foul balls hit over the grandstand or you might get conked in the head. If you were aware, and not preoccupied it was kind of cool to look up at the field lights and have a ball come out of the glare, gathering speed as it fell. It reminded him of the time when catcher Dutch Dotterer caught a baseball dropped from a helicopter. It truly did gather speed so you had to be on your toes. Usually, however, it went over the concession stand, too, so you were unlikely to get beaned, but it always pays to be on your toes, as his old man was fond of saying whenever he screwed something up, which was apparently quite a few times, as he never forgot it.
The garbage plate consisted of macaroni salad, home fries, chili meat sauce, and hot dogs, all mixed together like a Pollock painting. It didn’t look at all appetizing to me, and he didn’t think Thomas liked it all that much, as he didn’t eat with his usual gusto. Then to hear later that there were variations of it all over the country. He knew why they named it that but couldn’t they have come up with a better name?
The game itself, though important, wasn’t paramount, as he had no rooting interest. It was nice for the home crowd to be sent home happy, but it was difficult to become too emotionally invested in a contest that could be lost by a wild pitch, a dropped third strike, a muffed or passed ball, a bases loaded walk, a baserunning mistake, or a dropped third strike, which he would wager was north of a quarter of the time. The ambience of the game (each one had its own) was important also, but of the most interest to him by far was the game within the game: each hitter’s stance and what he’d done in previous at bats in the game, his swing; the pitcher’s windup and delivery what kind of pitches he favored in what count, his control, even his pickoff move; the catcher’s arm, his stance, if he framed strikes (mostly not at this level), his nimbleness from the crouch, how he blocked pitches; the infielder’s range, arm strength, and positioning; the double play combination, the first baseman’s stretch and arm (you’d be surprised how many have a weak arm and an extra base can be taken on a throw); the outfielder’s range arm strength, and positioning.
All this while still paying close attention to the scoreboard, the crowd, the base coaches, the managers, the bullpen, even the vendors.
Win or lose, whenever the game ended it was bittersweet, the field dark, half the lights on, people shuffling out of the ballpark to their cars. He never wanted the game to end, that was one reason he loved the game so much, it was a possibility. He wished he didn’t have to leave, he wished he lived in Batavia in the little house with the porch across from the stadium. It was decrepit, definitely a fixer upper, but it was perfect. To be able to just walk across the street to the ballpark. What could be better? He wouldn’t even have to be that sad as he left the park after the final game of each season, he could just look out his front window and there it would be. In fact, one New Year’s Eve, he had missed it so much that, while drinking in a bar, he suddenly left and drove there in a snowstorm, went out on the mound, threw a few snowballs, managing to see the new year in from that vantage point.
He knew spring would come eventually, but if he lived there, he could get a head start on the season by housing a ball player. How great would that be, being able to talk baseball with a real professional ballplayer?
There were so many things about Batavia that made him think it was meant for him: the way he’d discovered it, the way he felt when he drove there (each week the corn getting higher), the way he felt when he was there, the way he felt when he had to leave, and, last but not least Havens Rd.
Driving home in the dark with his brights on because the surrounding countryside was so dark, and because he was afraid of hitting a deer, his son already asleep, he saw HAVENS ROAD looming ahead when his lights hit it. Well at least he knew now. There was no doubt it, it was clear as day.
He had been an adoptee, had never known his birth parents, having been given up at a year old. Of course, he had wanted to know about them, he had so many questions. There was one image he had in his head of a farm house with a red barn, almost connected to the house with a swathe of grass between it and the road. A tree stood between the house and the barn, a tree with a rope swing dangling from one of its sturdy branches. Where had the image come from? Was it a dream? He had a feeling it had something to do with his past.
Years went by until he found out the farm he had seen in his mind was where his father had grown up, and that he may have been there as a child. That made sense. Shortly after he found this out, he drove out to see it, and it was exactly the same as the image he’d had in his mind all those years. He went to the local historical society to see if he could find any pictures of it and began talking to some of the people there, one of whom, a woman, had known his father. He had been quite a pitcher in high school, and had died at the age of 39 while walking down a local street one morning. The name of the street he died on was Havens Road.
ADDENDUM: The New York-Penn League is one of the low level minor leagues being abolished by the Baseball Commissioner; Dwyer Stadium (I call it “Dyer” in here for fictional purposes) is my favorite place in all the world to watch a baseball game. Although it is 35 miles away from my hometown of Buffalo, NY I have been going there for what would have been 29 years on at least a weekly basis for this short season league. This is fiction based on real events. I grieve and will ever grieve until the unlikely chance they are brought back in one form or another.