Having no personal attachment to the Atlanta Braves or the St. Louis Cardinals, I watched the bottom of the eighth inning of the Wild Card Game with mingled amusement and helplessness. As the furor grew and people displayed their frustration through ballistics, the announcers grew increasingly disdainful, warning about forfeits and then simply shaming the fans for their behavior.
For those wounded Braves fans, I have nothing to offer except a shrug of the shoulders, a note about the fickle cruelty of life, and this related but comfortless tale about a meaningless baseball game from long ago. I hope it evokes some brief flicker of merriment.
It was the summer of 2003. I was, at that time, living in the tiny municipality of Busan, South Korea, teaching small children to say the word “fish” and having painful barstool conversations with drunken expatriates. One July afternoon, my friend and I thought it would be pleasant to watch the hometown Lotte Giants face off against the Hyundai Unicorns.
It was a contest between the two worst teams in the league, played on a charmless, unending summer afternoon. The crowds filtered through the rusted turnstiles like zombies, circling the concrete skeleton that was the Sajik Baseball Stadium. These days, Lotte boasts the most popular team in the KBO, setting attendance records. But in 2003, the Giants were on their way to the worst record in the league for the third straight season, and it showed:
They didn’t post the attendance, probably out of pride, but there couldn’t have been more than a thousand people in the stands. Ninety percent of them chose to sit in a single section, drawn to each other by a longing for human contact as well as the two scantily-clad cheerleaders who danced some small amount of their youth away atop the first base dugout. My friend and I sat with the others for a while, immersing ourselves in the strange spectacle of rehearsed cheering. Then, we began circling the stadium, watching each half-inning from a different angle.
The Giants were losing, of course, but they had held it close, only down 3-1 in the eighth inning. We had made our way to right field by this point. The batter was the American-born Micah Franklin, he of the thirty-seven major league plate appearances. Franklin turned on a belt-high fastball and sent it rattling among the center field bleachers.
I’ll never forget what happened next. At the end of that ball’s path, a man broke.
I’ll never know how many games in how many years he had to watch from those center field seats, how many opposing home runs he had to catch. I’ll never know what drove him to be there, forced to watch the futility of life spread itself out before him. I’ll never know how much soju he’d soaked himself in, from one of the carts outside the stadium or hidden in a rumpled coat pocket. I don’t know, but I can guess, a little.
No one noticed when the man broke. They noticed when he emerged from the concourse with a gigantic trash can, which he flung out into the playing field. And, because there was no security to stop him – really, no one there at all – he went and got another. And another.
There were four or five cans out in the field by the time they grabbed hold of him. He disappeared, and the trash stayed, and the center fielder stayed as well, because there was nowhere else for him to be. We waited. The trash stayed. The sun beat down on the trash and the center fielder and on me and my friend.
The umpires didn’t call the game, but we did. We departed the stadium and made our way home, an eight-inning final with an exclamation point.
I’ll never know what happened to that fan, either. But I can’t think too badly at him, nor can I with those Braves fans who waited six months only to see things fall apart in a matter of hours. It’s almost enough to break anyone.