Spring Training: The Point is to Learn Things (and Maybe I Did)

The baseball season has officially started. Amen.

This post has been a long time brewing, and it’s only a little about baseball, but baseball is in the margins. At this time of year, baseball is always in the margins.

When I was in Scottsdale, I had the privilege of having four really extraordinary meals, and one of those was extraordinary for several reasons not only related to the food. Thanks to Keith Law’s excellent dining guides for the greater Phoenix area, I happily, happily recommend you visit Barrio Queen and Hillside Spot immediately if you find yourself there. I also had great food at Nourish, which I hunted down on my own.

The famed pulled pork sandwich at Hillside Spot. What a bloody perfect sandwich.

But at Il Bosco, I had a fig and goat cheese pizza that was easily one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and I liked their house-brined olives so much I bought a jar to take home.

Olives. Man. These olives.

(I didn’t think I even liked olives, generally, before. In the gamut of delicious food-stuffs often served with olives, I’d never turn down bread or cheese in order to pursue the eating of olives. Clearly, I had not had the right olives.)

Still, I’d been prepared for the food to be superlative (and I planned for that–I definitely ate an entire pizza by myself that night). The more unexpected thing, though, was how marvelous the staff (and the proprietor, I think) were. I’m not talking about quality service (though that was certainly part of my experience): I’m talking about how welcome I felt, as cliche as that sounds.

I’m not someone who often feels welcome because I don’t necessarily desire it. There’s a clean, crisp impersonal hospitality that I tend to seek out both at home and abroad (which sometimes makes going out in Casper difficult because I have students who work everywhere and they generally rock but it’s hard to go anywhere and disappear). Usually, if I’m alone, I’ve brought work of some kind with me–there’s always writing to do, and if there’s writing to do, I admit to being that jackass mostly buried in pages. It’s also a way to say I’m fine–you don’t need to entertain me. I’m not particularly social, and I have a loathing of rote small-talk that I can’t explain and feel horribly guilty about.

But that week was a suspended paradise, a whole collection of Things I (Have) Never Do(ne), and when I arrived at the restaurant (nothing fancy–wood-oven pizza in a small dining room and a slightly larger patio) at four, too early for the actual dinner crowd, I was the only patron there. I felt obtrusive, but at least I wouldn’t have to rush out on my dinner to catch the Team USA vs. Colorado exhibition game I was heading to. I could eat my whole pizza in leisure while editing: perfect.

When the server seated me, her demeanor was friendly and maybe glad at having something to do–even though I was there for more than an hour, only one other family came in, and even then, very near to five. After she left me with the menu, after she came back with water and olives, after she came back in yet another trip with my drink, she fiddled with the already wrapped silverware bundles, straightened menus just at the edge of the empty bar. With every trip, I received a little burst of language: about the water, about the olives, about how the pizza I ordered was her favorite thing on the menu. Though pleasant, none of these things are strange or surprising or special, or even particularly reaching for connection. But I’d spent the previous four days nearly mute. I’d had some short and enthusiastic exchanges with ballpark volunteers (God love you, Peoria volunteers, and the Jobing.com arena usher who commented on my Malkin jersey and got my I’m visiting former Penguins speech), but even my communications with friends and family were via text message. Maybe it was a cumulative effect–I usually spend fifty percent of my days doing public speaking in a classroom, after all–and maybe it was because the server seemed interested and I wasn’t keeping her from anyone else and maybe it was because she asked questions she didn’t have to ask.

She didn’t have to ask any questions, of course, but I had some of the usual markers of being a traveler: a Phillies hat on my head (no denizens of the Cactus League they); a backpack full of books and notebooks and camera (and the bag-searcher at Peoria cheerfully forbade me to do work while I was there); aloneness. The conversation is already created: what are you doing here?

I had a three-fold answer. I could say that I was there (at the restaurant) because of Keith Law’s recommendation, and that did later lead to the proprietor coming out and telling me more about the restaurant, which was really lovely. I could say that I was there to watch baseball and enjoy my spring break. I said both of these things, and both of these things were true. The last answer–that I was there to write–was the most important to me, and it is the one that I hadn’t really mentioned to anyone in my admittedly few casual conversations of the week. (I did blog about it, but people choose to read that and I don’t have to look them in the eye while they read it.) I made myself say it. She asked about everything.

As I was talking to her–about many things, including her trips to visit her sister in Colorado Springs, her late husband–I saw myself coming to the understanding that I didn’t particularly feel like a fraud. For the first time, claiming myself as a writer, I didn’t feel like an imposter. For all that I write about writing constantly, for the three degrees I have, for all the time I spend writing and teaching writing, I have never really convinced myself that I qualified for the monikker. At that moment, it felt like it applied, all at once, even though it’s been a slow and gradual sojourn towards it over the last six months, and it’s fitting that the understanding settled on me there, during Spring Training. Baseball has been one of the primary ways I’ve made meaning in my life, and in that place, at that time, I felt justified in saying that writing was the thing I was doing there, that writing was the reason I’d made the trip. A fair bit of that courage came from the fact that I had an actual writing task while I was there, a task that turned into this piece at The Classical, not just that I was revising.

The server asked, too, for a link to my blog, and there was a hit on it a few days later from Phoenix. I surely don’t know if that was her. There are a lot of people in the greater Phoenix area. But if it was–if she visits again or visits ever–I thank her, for being there, for having a conversation because she wanted to, because it was possible. 

I am choosing to read this incident in the most positive and generous light because I have no reason to believe otherwise. I am choosing to read interest and kindness into that server’s speech because this is about believing. Spring Training, I saw, is the very essence of believing. Opening Day, not two weeks ago, is the culmination of this. David Roth wrote about that at the Wall Street Journal, and Diana Moscovitz wrote a Pirates-specific paean on the hope against hope. The start of the baseball season is about thinking that this could, in fact, be the year.

Fingers crossed. It might.

This is the fig & goat cheese (and prosciutto & arugula) pizza from Il Bosco. It was life-changingly good. Maybe life-changing is a thing they specialize in. You should give it a shot. Worst-case scenario is that you get damn fine pizza.
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