IRWIN: Talking sports with an alien at the airport



About a year ago I was eating an overpriced Caesar salad during a two-hour layover at O’Hare Airport. I was giddy with my good fortune to secure a stool in front of a large TV, and was rewarded by the Braves as they were ahead of the Cubs 4 to 2. The “My Pillow” guy had just appeared on the screen between the eighth and ninth innings when a space alien sat beside me.

Now, to be clear, this wasn’t one of your naked, bulbous-headed Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind / Roswell-New-Mexico type aliens. No. This was your fully-clothed Star-Trek / 1965-Lost-in-Space type alien, one who speaks effortless English while traveling from one solar system to the next. 

But I was pretty sure he was an alien because of his 1970s three-piece-suit, the lapels of which were broad enough to land an airplane. His knitted tie had a knot the size of a tennis ball.

On the counter, he clunked down an old-school aluminum camera case, opened it, and produced what looked like an iPad, a 32-ounce Pilsner glass and a liter bottle of Gatorade Code Blue. But what he poured appeared thicker than normal.  He turned to me and said, “This is just Gatorade … not any other kind of liquid.” Then he addressed the server behind the bar. “Ma’am, may I have some green food similar to my friend’s here?” He drank down his blue beverage in two gulps, noisily exhaled, and banged the glass on the bar.

I said, “You seem to be drinking that as if your life depended on it.”

His head whipped at me. “No. I simply thirst, greatly!”

“Ah. I see. You’re just thirsty.”

“Right! Ha. Ha-ha. I am thirst-eee. Ha.”

I decided to go ahead and hazard my guess. “You’re a space alien, aren’t you?”

He slumped down. “How could you tell?”

“Well, you see, I’m a storyteller, and as such, I am a professional observer of human behavior. And I could tell, you ain’t human.”

“Yes, it’s true. My name is Leonard, From the planet, i. That’s a small case ‘i’ in your language.

I extended my hand. “I’m Andy.” We greeted as the people of Earth had once greeted in The Before Time, by touching palms and grasping. 

The Braves were at home. Top of the ninth. One out. The Cubs’ Javier Baez had hit safely to first. Jason Heyward, a former Brave, was at-bat. The count was 3 and 1.  Leonard and I were both watching the game when I asked, ”Soooo, Leonard, whatcha doin’ here? What’s your… oh, what do you call it?… your directive?”

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“Ah yes, there are many of my kind here on Earth. We are all on different quests to ascertain various wherefores of human endeavor. I am here to learn about sports.”

I said, “Wow, cool! But I’m curious, is there any practical use for such information on your planet?”

He turned to me with an expression that told me he was preparing to be judged. “I believe the saying on Earth is, ‘science for science’s sake.’”

I wanted to express my approval in the highest terms so I raised my palm and exclaimed, “Dude!” He slowly raised his palm, and I brought my palm to his, audibly, as people on Earth had done in The Before Time. 

Leonard looked at his palm and asked, “What just happened?”

I said, “High five!”

Leonard caught-on quickly. “Oh, I see, to express concurrence.”

“Yup. What have you learned so far about sports?”

“Well…” He began to consult the notes on his device when his salad arrived with its shiny metal-looking plastic airport cutlery. He took a bite, chewed, regarded his selection with eyes skyward, and continued. “When people are fanatical about their favorite sports, they have trouble explaining to me how the sport works. When I ask, they say things like, ‘What? Are you from another planet?’”

“But Leonard, you are from another planet. We have established that.”

“Yes, Andy. But when you pointed it out, it was a factual judgment, not a value judgment. For that I am grateful.”

“You’re welcome. Now, I’m happy to explain whatever you’d like to know. 

“Thank you, let’s begin with this game on the television. Tell me about baseball.“

“Oh no, I’m not going to start you out with baseball. Baseball is too complicated. Let’s begin with something easier.”  I then said, “The way I see it, most sports can be divided into three categories.”  (One of those categories is golf. We’ll skip that for now.)

Leonard smiled.  “The people on my planet find harmony in dividing things into three categories.”

“Good. Category One I call, ‘My Side, Your Side.’   From soccer to badminton, there’s an object — a ball or a puck or a shuttlecock. The player or players on one side of the field or court or table or swimming pool need the object to be propelled or escorted to the other side of the field or court or table or swimming pool towards a terminal point or within certain boundaries, without being thwarted in these efforts by the opponent or opponents. In some games, to get the object to the given point the players might travel along with the object, transporting it and passing it along by various means. In other games, the player or players might stay put on one side – usually separated by a fabric fence – and clobber the object with a racquet or a paddle or a hand.”

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Leonard was typing madly on his device. He said, “Like Soccer?”

I said, “Sure.” Explaining soccer to Leonard was a piece of cake.

“Hockey?”

Same.  

“Polo?”

“Hockey on a field on a horse.”

“Water polo?”

“Boring to watch because the horse is underwater.”

I kept going. “Now the sub-category. Those stay-on-your-side-of-the-fabric-fence games: volleyball, badminton, ping-pong, tennis  — the scoring for that last one is complicated and silly…”

Leonard said. “Yes, yes, those games are all fairly straightforward. Now, please tell me about baseball. I have learned that baseball is the only sport in which fans ceremoniously rise in a later portion of the game to sing the chorus of a song which has become an anthem to the sport’s glory. I have noted that few people know the verses or can even hum them.”

I do know the verses and I sang him the whole song. 

I told Leonard, “Few people know who Katie Casey is.” (If you, gentle reader, have never heard of our dear Katie, go ahead and look her up. This is an interactive story. Mine is the column that keeps on giving.)  

I explained to Leonard the rules, workings, and elegant complexity of baseball as best I could. 

Then, I told him, “Baseball is mystical. Baseball touches the infinite; any game can go on, theoretically, forever.  Heck, any at-bat can go on forever. 

Within a baseball game are never-ending and varied strategies. These strategies within specific situations form the narrative. The late, great sportswriter Frank Deford once pointed out that Americans love baseball because each game is a narrative, and Americans love a story.” 

Leonard said, “What you just said is the one thing we on my planet know of your game. I was sent here in hopes of finding one who understands that.” 

And then it hit me. I said “TIME!  Oh! I’m at an airport!  I gotta go, I have a flight to catch!”

Leonard said, “Don’t worry, silly. Look at the television.” 

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It was still the top of the ninth, one out. I hadn’t missed a second of the game. On the 3-1 pitch, Hayward crushed the ball straight to first baseman Freddy Freeman. Freddy touched the bag, doubling-off Javier Baez. Braves win.

I said, “Hey! Where’d the time go?”

Leonard said, “Don’t you remember?” He pointed at himself.  “Alien here… Intergalactic travel?… Time-space continuum?… Hello-oooo…!” 

Then Leonard became serious. “Andy, listen. Next year’s baseball season… in 2020… it’s going to have… well… The whole season is going to have an asterisk.”

“What do you mean?”

“The season will be shorter, and spectators won’t be allowed in the games.” He smiled. “But for $50, a cardboard cut-out of you can have a season ticket.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, and when a game goes into extra innings, each team will begin their turn at bat with a player already standing at second base.” 

“WHAT TH’ !…”

“But listen, Andy…” Leonard put his left hand on my right shoulder as people had done in The Before Time.  “Do you remember what you said about a game theoretically going on forever?”

“Yeah.”

“No game ever has, has it?”

“Well, no.”

“And no game ever will. And all the things that are going to make the 2020 baseball season … so difficult… well, those things won’t last forever, either. It’s your job to tell other Earthlings what I have just told you.”

Leonard presented his hand, and he and I touched palms and grasped as Earthlings had done in The Before Time.  Then he said, “Go and catch your flight, Andy. I left you time to go to the restroom before boarding.” 

Andy Offutt Irwin is an American storyteller, singer-songwriter, and humorist. He was born and raised in Covington. He may be reached at [email protected]



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