Salt Lake City’s green cathedral stands empty now, just like every other cathedral, green or otherwise, all of them emptied by a virus from a far-off land.
It is far off no more. It is all around. Everyone is fully aware.
On account of that, baseball at Smith’s Ballpark has been pushed back, shoved so hard that nobody can sharpen their view enough to see exactly when it might return. We can only guess, while badly missing an annual tradition that may not be at the Major League level, but it is profound, nonetheless.
Watching Triple-A ball at the corner of West Temple and 13th South in April is the picture of good hope. It is a reminder of renewal, of everything, after lying dormant for a season, coming back to life again, along with the verdant grass, the blossoms on the trees, the blue skies overhead carved by birds, the hint of summer’s warmth in the air. And the image of players, so very close, just one more step up, to and from making their dreams in The Show come true, running across the field, rubbing their hands in the brick dust, swinging bats, and hearing the sound of the ball popping in a catcher’s mitt.
There is none of that in the spring of 2020.
Just desperate anticipation that a disease — hurry up, will ya? — will strike out and wither away.
Instead of flesh and blood and sweat on the diamond, and fans in the stands, there are only empty seats, closed down concession stands and vacated concourses at the park, and pics of the past, images of ghosts, beaming brightly in the imagination. As Paul Simon once sang, “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”
They’re all that’s left us at present.
But those repeating images are, indeed, there. They are for me.
Over in the home dugout, there’s the picture in my mind’s eye of Doug Mientkiewicz, who played here in Salt Lake City before moving on to a respectable Major League career, sitting and talking about the path baseball took him on, prodded by his father, Len, who was zealous in the encouragement he threw at his son en route.
“We were the worst of enemies, and the best of friends,” Mientkiewicz said. “Dad pushed me hard. He used to say, ‘If you’re not giving 110 percent, you’re just fooling yourself.’ He never said the game was supposed to be fun. He made me want to quit, and he did everything he could to help me. He could be a teddy bear, but also the toughest SOB on the planet.”
Down near the third base dugout, now so eerily empty, I see Frank Layden swinging his arms around, doing his best to sing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, and butchering it in the attempt.
Across the now-deserted concourse, I see fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, buying hot dogs and bratwursts, smothering them with all the fixings, eager to get back to their seats, but bowing first to their powerful ballgame-induced appetites.
And there’s the old image from a quarter-century ago of former club owner Joe Buzas running around that concourse, greeting fans in the hustle and bustle of a Friday night pregame, relishing the game he loved and the money it poured into his coffers.
“Can you hear that?” Buzas asked. “I like to hear the buzz of the fans, the talk, the sounds before a game. Look at that old guy over there, the one with a cap on. An old guy with a cap, that makes me feel good.”
Buzas at the time was 75 years old. He, too, was wearing a cap.
A few steps later, Buzas confronted a vendor selling ice-cold beverages in a tray. He feigned a punch to his face, bobbing and weaving around, before shaking the man’s hand. “Are you hollerin’ tonight?” he said. “You gotta holler!”
Over in the unoccupied seats next to the aisle along the third base side is the image of Tammy Felker-White, the first general manager of the Buzz, the team name that later was switched to the Stingers and then to the Bees. Having broken through new frontiers as a woman executive in a male-dominated sport, she made no secret of the fact that she knew the business side of running a team in the bushes, but not the game itself. In fact, she offered to take an impromptu baseball quiz to prove her point.
Who is Hank Aaron?
“I’m not sure,” she answered.
Who is the all-time home run leader in the majors?
“Babe Ruth? I don’t know … Pete Rose?”
Do you know who Dick Allen is?
“That kind of rings a bell.”
“Yes, he’s the guy in the underwear ads.”
Down on the empty infield, just in front of second base, there’s the spot where former manager and longtime Major and Minor Leaguer Phil Roof told one of the more humorous stories about his career.
“We were batting and I was second up,” he said. “I had to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t. They were out in the clubhouse in right-center field. The first guy got a hit. I wanted to bounce into a double play and get out of there. But I got a triple, instead. When I reached third, I told the coach, ‘Help!” Next thing, the other team called for a pitching change. I sprinted toward the clubhouse. The faster I ran, the worse I felt. But I made it. If it hadn’t been for the pitching change, I would have dumped in my pants.”
On the mound, with no pitcher in sight now, is the picture of reliever Toby Borland, removing his cap, taking a knee, and saying a prayer. Next, he stood up, scratched the dirt behind the rubber with his spikes twice, once in memory of his dead brother, once to remember Blaise, his 4-year-old son who had passed away earlier, stricken by brain cancer, embraced in his arms.
Borland had told me two hours before the game: “I held him until he was cold. I thought about a lot of things at that time. How I hadn’t been the father I should have been, at first. And then, how I had cared all I could. There was a lot to think about. In the Book of James, it says that life is like a vapor that appears for just a short time, then it goes away. That’s so true. Baseball is important, but by comparison it means nothing. Family is everything.”
And finally, there are the two seats behind home plate, now absolutely vacated, where my dad and I sat more than 20 years ago on opening night, taking in baseball, like we used to 30 years before that when I was a kid, talking about how much we loved the game, about how he used to work on the grounds crew at a former iteration of the park when he was young, a half-century before that, about sports and life and our fondest memories.
Baseball may not be the most important thing, but it is good for that. Good for a lot of things. And until the green cathedral on the corner of 13th South and West Temple is filled again, we’ll all miss it, eager for the chance to sit and talk and watch again.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.