Baseball season is underway. This is a sacred time where I’m from. Sun, grass, children playing in the park, all the memories of youth rushing back. But in New Orleans, the start of baseball season is but a placeholder: some 200 days until the Saints’ opening kickoff. This city lives on its own schedule.
I didn’t know this when I moved here.
I arrived in New Orleans with baseball in my heart. I’ve been playing the sport in California since age five, and joined leagues over the world while traveling, from Australia to Italy. If Italians were playing it, surely I could find seventeen New Orleanians with gloves.
I flexed my social media muscle, jumped from bar to bar, and hounded every yokel in sight with my plea: “Sunday morning, St. Pat’s Park, all levels.”
Most weeks brought four, maybe five guys: all fellow transplants.
A Craigslist ad found us a shirtless smooth talker and his impish partner. They were clueless on the sport, but they brought along an impressive cooler of weed-laced brownies, sodas and caramels. Naturally, a group of buyers followed.
This gave us enough for a squad — and for one day, it was glorious. But once the cooler was empty, they were gone.
Our league was, at best, a front. Before long, I conceded to truth: New Orleans just isn’t a baseball city.
It wasn’t always like this.
Dating back to the Civil War, the Pelicans were New Orleans’ first professional team, and they played baseball.
The Pelicans drew crowds in the tens of thousands, grooming Major and Negro Leaguers alike. Amongst them was Shoeless Joe Jackson, a man of legendary talent and questionable ethics. New Orleans’ own.
Colorful, unavoidably local names such as Putsy Caballero, Fats Dantonio, and Al Montreuil all spent time as heroes at Pelican Park, within a foul ball of my Mid-City home. At their peak, the Pelicans drew some 100,000 more fans than Philadelphia’s Athletics. New Orleans was, for a while, a baseball town.
Yet in 2013, I couldn’t find enough guys to fill an infield.
I gave up. There are too many factors at play in this city to come here expecting it to cater to your ideal. You either roll with it or you don’t.
And so I cheered for Brees. I cheered for Colston. I cheered for Rob Friggin’ Ryan.
But I never lost hope completely.
Over a year later, the memory of this struggle buried deep in my brain, a friend called me up at random: “Hey, my neighbor’s been throwing the baseball around with some guys down near St. Roch. You down?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The field, in all its shaggy glory, was packed with twenty of the city’s strangest musicians and dancers. Twenty!
They were tattooed, gawky; lefty gloves for righty throwers; cigarettes dangling from wisecracking mouths; toes wiggling bare in the dirt. It was a vaudevillian spectacle, a fluorescent mess.
Most importantly, it was baseball. In New Orleans.
Folks watched from their stoops. Neighborhood kids turned up, begging to play. The stands filled with jugglers and drunks as we bickered over our invented rules.
In a way, the sport evolved to suit the city.
For me, each week is a minor miracle, a wish granted. It may not be the same sport that Shoeless Joe once played here, but it’s ours.
Until football season, anyway.
Eric Millman represented Los Angeles as the backup center fielder in the 2001 Jewish Community Center Maccabi Games before blowing out his elbow in a moment of true heroism. Since, he has worked as an Italian preschool teacher, a Hollywood intern, and as the proprietor of a mobile soup cart on the streets of San Francisco. His first and only published work, Pearl + Pavement: Unwashed America From a Musical chool Bus, is available on the Internet and at your local bookstore.
Storyville is a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.
Produced by Laine Kaplan-Levenson.