Stadiums? Some of the best places to see games aren’t big enough for that designation.
You get to City Island Park in Harrisburg, Penn., by taking an exit that’s halfway across a bridge over the Susquehanna River.
The park is Double-A small. I went with my brother-in-law, who remembered most of his at-bats from the season he’d played with a minor league team in the Twins organization. We drove through two late afternoon rainstorms to get there. During the second, we almost turned around. When we arrived, there was a rainbow over the outfield.
We sat behind three scouts. Two of them had radar guns.
While one hopeful after another stepped to the plate for the Harrisburg Senators, I asked my brother-in-law how far he’d have gone if the manager of the rookie league team for which he’d played in North Carolina thirty-odd seasons earlier hadn’t tried to turn him into a power hitter and wrecked his swing.
“I could have made it,” he said, and it was a fine dream in a small and lovely place.
Which is not to say great stadium-related memories can’t be generated in great big places, where the tickets are tough to get and the home team occupies important space in the soul of the city.
Years after I saw that game in Harrisburg, I saw a game in Spain.
We flew from Boston and changed planes somewhere in Switzerland, which seemed weird, and we learned on the bus from the airport to our hotel in Barcelona that if we lined up at the stadium in a couple of hours, we could get tickets to see the home team play Racing Santander. Some of the people on the bus said they’d rather sleep off the jet lag, which also seemed weird, at least to me.
The game was not close, but it was beautiful. The stadium, which is almost three times the size of Fenway Park, and so perhaps 15 times the size of City Island Park, was full of people with blue and red FC Barcelona banners and scarves and caps. They cheered and sang and celebrated throughout the occasion, because it was an occasion. They were old men whose grandfathers had brought them to their first Barcelona games. They were mothers and fathers with children. They were as happy and loud as any crowd I’ve ever seen. When I asked questions of three young men behind us, they shrugged off my bad Spanish and answered me politely. FC Barcelona was not then the powerhouse it has been for the past several years. It was merely the team of the people of that place. Merely that. There was no championship at stake that evening. For me, there was nothing at stake at all but the invitation to participate joyfully in something everybody was so obviously enjoying.
I’ve told the story of that day to lots of soccer fans, most of them Americans. Some of them have listened politely. Those who have understood have smiled, and nodded, and wished they had been there.