Social media has Hoovered the best years out of my life. The last thing I remember, I was a college freshman whose cosplay enthusiast girlfriend signed us both up for a website called “The Face Book.” Now, I’m middle-aged and drive an electric car. As if this wasn’t already evident, at no point between these events was I ever cool.
I will say that access to the internet’s screaming id has yielded opportunities I otherwise would never have found. Last year, I spent a month as a storytelling ambassador to a remote Korean village. I got to hang out in temples and practice calligraphy with Confucian scholars. I cooked pasta primavera for grannies who hadn’t ever had a fella cook for them before. It kicked ass, everyone there kicks ass, and if any of you have the opportunity to visit Sachon, South Korea, you absolutely should.
I only found out about that because someone shared someone elses share of a post explaining the rules for entry. How would you even know to look for something like that, if not the brute force happenstance of online communities?
This summer’s happy impossibility was a regular opportunity to perform with guaranteed pay and audience. A gig that sweet usually means having to live on a cruise ship for weeks on end, so I was quite relieved to learn that I’d instead just be working for a local baseball team as something called an “ushertainer.” Basically, combine a mascot’s character antics with the helpfulness of someone who can tell you where the bathroom is, and you get yourself an ushertainer. I’d get enough of a costume to be visibly One Of The Crew, but not so much as to require a handler and FurAffinity account. It is the perfect job for always-on anxious comedy types, the ones who manage to exude the aura of a dog waiting to be eaten by a larger dog. Which is to say that ushertaining is a job custom designed for me, and people like me.
Baseball, more than any other sport, has room for this sort of nonsense. I worked for the Worcester Bravehearts, a summer league team for college players that plays in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England; the team that the fans I bothered showed up to see is comprised of plucky local kids who spend the busy season dorming with volunteer families. The best seats are $10 and the best beer is $7 and if that isn’t the greatest news you’ve heard all week, it might be that baseball isn’t for you.
Combine that with free sandwiches thrown into the seats, ample between-innings contests, and a chance for every child in attendance to run across the field in the middle of the game, and the Bravehearts have adapted an integrated model of sports entertainment that most other leagues would do well to emulate.
The primary insight, here, is that not every sports experience needs to be as bulging and intense as the major leagues, it doesn’t always have to be life or death dramatics. That’s where I came in.
Officially, I was free to stop being a nuisance as of the sixth inning, which was also when most of the vendors and three-quarters of the fans would call it quits. Instead I would grab a seat near the exit and continue hollering nonsense until security escorted me out. I am at my core a gibbering weirdo, but I also spent the season as an expectant father. Unleashing my exhausting secret self on a sleepy crowd left more room in the rest of my life for gentleness. Being weird is my exercise, except instead of abs I confuse the people around me. Some people do SoulCycle, I approach strangers with claims that baseball was founded by a turnip farmer named Andrew Dice Doubleclay.
I am not normal, and bullies have known this about me since word one. I have found, over time, that the nicest thing I can do for my friends is spare them the work of trying to understand me. As a result, I am very good at being alone. My kitchen is immaculate. I have never before been paid to be unusual for an adoring (or at least politely uninterested) crowd before, which made this something like a dream job.
I think I earned the respect of the grounds crew by just showing up and being polite but insistent in my cheerfulness. A joke is an invitation to consider the world as it isn’t, and laughter is the experience of those two potentialities collapsing into each other. Sharing that is a wonderful kind of intimacy, and sharing that with a stranger is always something to cherish. It is also a convenient way of releasing pressure. If I joked about death at home as often as I think of it, my wife would worry. I cannot burden my family with worry, because to be a burden worse than not being family at all. Like everyone else, I came to the ballpark to get away from something.
When I stayed late I collected leftover sunglasses. A red-tailed hawk tried landing on a light and slid off awkwardly, it felt novel to see a predator embarrassed. Sometimes I’d sit in the parking garage and listen to the roar of everyone else heading home. I knew the moments in my life when I would be truly free of expectations were ending, and so I counted them up, like unpopped kernels at the bottom of a greasy bag, inedible for all their latent potential.
There is no greater hoard of facts than the ones tucked beneath the balding pate of the humble Baseball Dad. Statistics, names, crucial plays from games that predate the conception of these men’s own fathers—the Baseball Dad is a dense whorl of aggregated knowledge whose orbit you cannot hope to escape.
The first dad I spoke to as the Professor, the first soul to ever experience my antics, hit me with a trivia question that would’ve buckled Alex Trebek’s knees: “Who started for the Red Sox in the 1912 World Series?” I am only faintly aware that there was a world in which to have a series in 1912, so I listed every historical name I could think of, baseball-adjacent or not. Babe Ruth, Winston Churchill, Bobson Dugnutt, when I got to Copernicus the dad grinned a little grin and walked off. “See,” he said to the underdeveloped house elf of a child he had with him. “I told ya he wouldn’t know” clearly having negotiated this kind of wager before.
I took a lesson from this, and my favorite way to engage with Baseball Dads became to ask dumbfounding questions—the sort of question whose answer seems baked into its very structure, but the premises of which is so fundamentally wrong that you feel insane trying to answer it. The conversational equivalent of a Basilisk Image.
Things like, “what is the shortest possible stop?” or “if it’s a pop fly how come the ball is still in one piece” or “why is it a strike if they miss the ball?” I also tried asking the Baseball Dads how the infield fly rule works, which I have always considered the conversational equivalent of a Snipe Hunt, parental abandonment in the guise of a bonding ritual.
One man talked to me throughout two straight innings, running through what must have been every hypothetical situation possible in a game with so few moving parts. These were not quick innings either, nor early innings when everyone is alive and full of pepper. These were late-game innings, when everyone is both tired and restless at the same time. Even the outfielders were committing fouls, somehow.
My ignorance about the sport of Baseball became a central tenet of the character I played, and I was delighted to find that strangers would celebrate my dipshittery rather than bemoan it. I felt the way Pat Robertson must feel when he lies about Dungeons & Dragons, an unassailable confidence that can be born only from profound ignorance.
At my second game, a baked bean of a man asked me who was in the 1964 Yankees Murderer’s Row. No one who fucks knows the answer to this, so obviously I ran with the gag—Knifehands McGuy, The Enstabulator, Tyson “The Bank Robber” Von Bankrobber, Criminal David Copperfield, Ace Bandage, Hon Honri The French Tickler, Tiny Danson, I will continue just doing this until I’m physically interrupted, Stabbums McGutsycutter. Each suggestion was responded to by a firm shake of the head and bleated “no.” Thank you, dad.
Clowns and mascot characters trigger a fear in children, because both are beings which do not respect boundaries. As the Professor, before engaging in a bit I would always ask my target “would you like to hear a Sports Fact?” If they said no, I wished them well and found someone else. Most of the time, people would change their minds and give me the go-ahead just to be polite about it; if not, they would often saunter on back later in the game and listen to my medicine show patter. I just sought to be the best weird I could, and that was enough to win them over.
By the third show, people recognized me enough to instigate their own conversations. People stopped feeling threatened when I stopped threatening them, and for someone who has been excluded a lot even that token acceptance felt huge. I was free to be loud and colorful and unexpected by design, rather than as an unintentional side effect of never living up to spec in the Real World.
I was, if you want to get deep about it, also paid to lie to children, to convince them that the world was full of wondrous impossibilities just outside the circumference of what they know. To be a teacher, in other words. Lying to children seems to me about the worst thing imaginable, because they have no capacity to know better—unless, that is, you can hand them a lie that unravels in their hands, at which point you’re just teaching them to distrust authority. That’s the only worthwhile lesson anyone can teach anyone else, so that was the excuse I used. I lied when I told them the dirt was powdered pudding from a local pie company, that baseballs are the seeds of the trees that baseball bats grow on, that hotdogs are just bats picked while they’re still young and tender, that history’s first game of baseball was played using a sack of turnips and a butter churn. This kind of procedurally generated bullshit is easy to spin off the cuff. Just take two things that share a form and reverse their function. Try it on the child in your life!
I underestimated both how much comic material it takes to fill what amounted to a three-hour standup set and how often I’d see the same tumbling dust cloud of children blow through the stands hunting for foul balls. Of course they committed to memory every single one of my claims, no matter how off the cuff and unrehearsed, and of COURSE they were quick to point out contradictions in that canon. Combine that with the hours I had spent in the hot sun, in a long coat, not eating, and I was lucky to remember the barest outlines of my sermons to recount to my wife afterwards. Lucky for her!
A skill I came to rely on was replacing one lie with another on the fly. The believability of the lie is never a factor, merely how naturally it fills the space the question arose from. If an eight-year-old tells me that yesterday I claimed that popcorn is “fried umpire eggs,” they don’t care that I was Irish stepdancing on the boundary of heatstroke when I said it. They just want to know why today I’m saying they’re “first trimester baseballs.” Well obviously, I would say, they needed a replacement snack once umpires became endangered because of Cthridia mitosis. Umpires are amphibians, that’s why they spend all their time squatting. Take the form, reverse the function. Popcorn is fried corn eggs, if corn makes eggs anything can. Nature is weird enough to make leaps of imagination far shorter than they have any right to be, like the leap from “science clown” to “birth partner.”
The last year I played baseball was the first year my dad moved out. My parents got into an argument in the parking lot and the shame drove me away from organized sports entirely, which I am sure my coaches appreciated. My sports agnosticism does not stem from that one experience, but it is an undeniable factor in it. The Bravehearts, who made the playoffs and delivered an affordable and approachable experience to fans in a city and country increasingly bereft of those, is the most successful team I’ve ever cared about.
In my baby book, my dad wrote that he hoped I would pitch for the Cubs, or play on offense for the Bills. Sports medicine widely regards pitching as one of the single most physically destructive acts in sports, an umbrella which also covers Pasola, an Indonesian equine religious festival which involves throwing spears and nothing else. Football you already know about. My father did not expect me to fail, but failing has given me a mathematically better quality of life than living up to expectations. This is what it costs to be a son.
My favorite moments came with the youngest in the crowd, anytime a child had a meltdown and was pulled out of the bleachers, I was ready to distract them with jokes or ask them to draw on my whiteboard. Without fail, it would avert disaster. It was stunning to find myself putting forth so little effort and having such a positive impact. It’s almost as if children want to be happy as a default and just require the occasional reminder to be so. Maybe this is not as revelatory to you as it felt to me.
My son is the only person in the family who has ever arrived early to a medical appointment, which he did by two weeks. I will not say that capering for the children of the Bravehearts fandom prepared me to be a father, because I’m not prepared. No one is, it is impossible to prepare for such an ever-shifting set of demands. I have built a life which demands my best kindnesses, and my family has assisted me in living up to these expectations, the same expectations I spent most of my life fleeing. The stands taught me that everything that happens—everything that changes, or improves—comes through collective change.
This is what a family is for, I have come to think. One pair of hands clapping can awaken even the sleepiest audience; every wave begins with one yahoo who insists “c’mon it’ll be great.” If I learned anything at my job during the summer that I will carry into the work I do trying to grow into the most cheerful kind of Anti-Baseball Dad possible, it’s this—to remember that every inning could be great, and to make sure the people around me know it.
Malt Schlizmann has been insulted by multiple well-known tyrants. They have been published in Cracked, Vice Sports, Voicemail Poems, and once invented a holiday.