Dylan checks out Baseball Weekly, photo by Ken Regan
Diamonds at Doubleday
Well if diamonds are a girl’s best friend, why do so many girls get mad when you want to go to the ballpark? You tell me.
– Bob Dylan
What was left of Hurricane Ernesto was making his slow wet way northeast over Labor Day weekend, drenching the sweet little New York City alley – I mean “Place” – where I live. So I got in the car to drive out from under everything, I hoped, for a few days. Where to? Cooperstown. Where else, indeed, to drive out from under everything, as the division leaders seemed pretty set and the wild-card races still had thirty games to go, and there to celebrate – indoors – the last golden days of summer that had turned to wind and rain?
The Otesaga, the massive old resort hotel at the southern end of Lake Otsego I first came to as a kid in 1978, had rooms left, and plenty of them, when I called from the car. “Lots of cancellations,” sighed the receptionist, in a calm level Upstate accent. And yet when I rolled into the parking lot it was full, and the sky was strange but the pavements were dry. Cooperstown was enjoying what was trying hard to be a last summer day, the little town full of happy couples, families, friends in every team cap on earth, streaming in and out of the restaurants, bars, bat-engraving shop, memorabilia stores, Hall of Fame. And, in the big street entrance to Doubleday Field, two buses with smoked-glass windows were parked, with the Cooperstown Volunteer Fire Department fighting the wind to set up a food tent, and a line of people forming who didn’t look much like a baseball crowd. Lots of leather, grey ponytails, thick boots, and no caps – cowboy hats instead. Bob Dylan was in town, and he was playing a concert there on a Saturday night.
Two summers ago, Dylan and Willie Nelson (an Astros fan) kicked off a tour of minor league and college ballparks in Cooperstown. They did it again in 2005. Now Dylan was back, alone, finishing up this summer’s round of shows before heading out on the road again in the fall to spend the hot-stove season in bigger venues, with roofs. Dylan has, evidently, always been a baseball fan. He’s written a song for Catfish Hunter, and sung about Willie Mays, bleachers, and women tossing baseball bats in the air. Recently, he told Rolling Stone that he likes the Tigers and Derek Jeter. He has more nicknames and aliases for himself than the most colorful of rosters ever held. And last summer, as the d.j. for “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM Radio, Dylan did an hour of baseball songs, proclaiming it “the greatest game in the world.” “In the fifties,” he said, “every red-blooded American boy either wanted to play baseball or be Elvis Presley.”
Back in June, a recording of the “Baseball” episode went into the Hall of Fame’s library archive. When I walked into the Hall that afternoon, they were handing out cds of “Baseball.” Dylan had been there earlier, said the skinny girl who looked at my membership card and then stamped my hand with a big blue B. “Real nice,” she pronounced him, though she hadn’t seen him or spoken to him – she’d just been told that by an employee who had. It’s become a part of Dylan’s public mythos: the apocryphal report – a sighting, a spoken word, at one or two or more removes. As I looked at Joe Jackson’s glove, Gehrig’s apartment keys, Schilling’s bloody sock, I thought about the same sort of myth-spinning that goes on in baseball, and that somehow keeps baseball holy in light of strikes, scandal, steroids. When I walked out onto Main Street a couple of hours later, I bought a bat for my godson Jackson, and a ticket for the show.
“You going to the show?” asked my new friend Willard that afternoon, with his girl Gina in the subterranean bar of the Tunnicliffe Inn, the best place (and there are many) for a beer in Cooperstown. They were going to the show; they’d driven over from Buffalo. As I listened to the conversations swirling around beneath the many tvs (Yankees and Twins, playing in the rain at the Stadium; Yankees, surprise, winning), it sounded like everyone was going to the show. And that’s how we all were putting it – going to the show. Just as if we’d all been called up from triple-A, a pack of happy rookies, to hang out with a real major leaguer.
Summer was losing its fight by the time we emerged, blinking, from the dark depths of the bar; the wind had gotten wilder and whirling, just like it was down at the Stadium (we’d made bets every time a fly ball lifted as to whether or not anyone in the outfield could predict its path, let alone catch it). A thin blowing mist had set in, but no hard rain. Umbrellas were forbidden that night at Doubleday Field, but with the mist blowing on you fore, aft, and sideways, they wouldn’t have made any difference. The stage was set up smack in center field, that iconic place: who dreamed, Philip Roth once wrote, of pitching? Even Dodgers fan Alexander Portnoy loves center field: "you can't imagine how truly glorious it is out there, so alone in all that space [. . . .] standing without a care in the world in the sunshine, like my king of kings, the Lord my God, The Duke himself.”
It seemed appropriate to take up a place on the tarp along the right-field line and sit for the opening acts. A row of us, all the others men, perched on the tarp, a motley grounds crew with no call to cover the field. The field was already covered, with people of every age: a small blonde girl turned cartwheel after cartwheel out where DiMaggio would have stood; a group of college girls smoked at short; a boy with a good arm and his handsome father, who couldn’t catch, tossed a ball at the edge of the infield – blocked off, to protect it from all the bootheels. Junior Brown pleased, particularly with the refrain “You’re wanted by the po-lice, and my wife thinks you’re dead.” Jimmie Vaughan, brother of Stevie Ray, played a searing guitar, though Lou Anne Barton, who joined him for a few songs, clearly had somewhere else to be. No one needed much warming up, anyway – but it’s a part of being in a minor league park, isn’t it? The opening acts: Max Patkin; home-plate mud-wrestling; fans recruited for slapstick physical humor. And all when you’re just there to see your team play.
Play Dylan did, for fourteen songs. Couples cuddled in both dugouts in the dark as his stage was prepared, in a routine not unlike readying a ballpark after batting practice ends: equipment removed and replaced; huge umbrella gas heaters brought out; a giant bundle of incense lit and arranged downwind – except there was no downwind, and the smoke washed everywhere, mixing with the pot already there in the air. Aaron Copland finally sounded out – just like the intro music that now crashes through every major league park as the home team stands on the top steps ready to take the field – and through the dark and mist and black stage drapes whipping in the wind came the band. The five men with him were in pale suits, and Dylan was in black, thinlegged trousers with a white stripe up the side and a big black hat. Road uniforms.
There was both a joy and an edge in the performance, but it felt like the edge was one of Dylan’s many masks, and that he was truly happy to be there, in the home of baseball, on a wild night under the tail of a hurricane. The crowd applauded the edge – when he sent a cranky harmonica flying offstage at the end of “My Back Pages” with a quick flick of his wrist – and alternately cooed and yowled with pleasure when the joy showed. As Dylan sang “Lay, Lady, Lay,” which he can turn into a series of commands, far more threat than promise, he turned it instead into a slow, sexy waltz. Couples faced off and began circling, smiling, one-two-three, one-two-three. And, in his encore of “Like a Rolling Stone,” he looked up from the keyboard as the spotlights shone on the audience, and searched our faces. We waved and laughed. Two red caps in the first rows – Minnesota Twins caps, with the old interlocking TC – seemed to catch his eye. And suddenly a grin – not just a grin, a downright halogen smile, that lasted and got bigger – showed up on the face of a baseball fan from Duluth. The crowd squealed; it was Bob’s curtain call, and he was smiling for it. At the reaction, he smiled just a little wider.
When the show was over, Dylan stepped forward and in a grave and gracious gesture removed his hat. He held it over his heart, something just a few folks still do during the anthem, and then he raised both hands and smiled again. As he did so, there were flashes from each of his wrists. Strange. Dylan hasn’t ever been one for the onstage jewelry, crass displays of gold – no bling for Bob. But during the show, Dylan had several times adjusted what I thought was the collar of his shirt, sewed with rhinestones. Clear and bright, they looked just like diamonds. He had on diamonds at his wrists, too. And from one finger of his left hand, a wide band of diamonds had spat white light every time he’d raised a harmonica to his lips. Could it be his own happy, metaphysical, word-playing tribute to where he’s been performing all summer? Playing in diamonds, Dylan was playing in diamonds.
Anne Margaret Daniel
Copyright Elysian Fields Quarterly Vol. 24 No. 1 (Opening Day Issue) 2007
Hurricane Ernesto, baseball, beauty, and Bob on a stormy Labor Day weekend in Cooperstown, NY.