The Bushleaguers (part two)
Publication date: 28 March 2020
III. Brief account of an international conference
The ecological conference ran from Tuesday to Friday, and it was everything I had expected it to be.
First, there were innumerable slides crammed with small text that were read verbatim. By the middle of the first morning, I'd already seen as much information as I would want to across the four days.
Secondly, each lunchtime saw huge mounds of wasted food. Knowing that this would be the case, I brought my own food each day and asked the organizers to not include me in the catering numbers, but I doubted that they made the adjustment.
Thirdly, the quality of interactions was rather limited. I happily acknowledge that in some ways it was remarkable how people from so many countries were all conversing in a single tongue. But for many, English was a second, third, or fourth language. And the real value of these face-to-face events lay in the nuances and subtleties that could be only really be gleaned from personal interactions. Many presenters struggled to understand the questions that were being asked at the end of their sessions and, as a result, were unable to answer them adequately, if at all. I wondered just how much was being lost by our obsessive drive toward a globalization of everything. (On one of the days, I wore a Sea Shepherd T-shirt, and I hoped that it might at least spark up a few conversations. Of the hundreds of people I must have walked past, almost all ecologists, there was only one who mentioned it; and they were not one of the conference attendees. Rather, they were an audio technician who worked at the venue and who had spent some time on one of the boats. The conversation I had with her was easily the best I had in the entire four days.)
Fourthly, in terms of my own contribution, it was hardly worth me being there. I manned my poster for the two allotted sessions and received a combined total of one visit across them. My one-minute lightning talk had not fared much better in generating interest. I got two questions and both were on the source for the photos I used rather than the actual subject matter. That gave a rate of one interaction for every 2200 miles of air travel. Still, I now had an international conference to my name. I was furthering my career.
As I sat in one after-lunch session in which there seemed to be more people asleep than awake—at least in my row near the back—my mind drifted back to Sunday. There had been something wonderful about the way the players rolled up the fencing, repaired the mound, raked the dirt, and returned the equipment to the locker, all without anyone having to ask them. They were giving up their spare time to play baseball and had to pay subs annually in order to do so. This was pure sport—for the love of the game. This was not Major League Baseball. There was something deeper to their enthusiasm for the game, which was at a level I'd not even seem during my high-school days. To them, baseball was a privilege, whereas in the States it had always been seen as a right.
During the conference, I got a text from Chip saying that he wanted me to play first base at the weekend, if that was okay. My shoulder was getting better each day with the rest, and I spent much of my spare time at the conference sitting in quiet corridors, learning what to do in different baserunner scenarios at a position I'd never before played.
IV. My return to the mound
"Ball. Take your base," croaked a voice from behind the plate.
"Where was that, Chip?" asked Chewie, loud enough for the pitcher and corner infielders to hear him. "Sorry… Where was that, Blue?"
"High and outside," came the equally audible response. Our manager had been forced to umpire the double-header with the Starlings after the league had said that there was no neutral official spare. Rain had been coming down in a fine mist throughout the pre-game, and no one seemed confident that we'd get in even one of the games.
As the lead-off hitter jogged down the line to my bag and the next batter in the line-up appeared at the plate, Chip clarified his impartiality: "It's the only zone I know, and so I'm going to be giving it to both teams."
"Fine," continued Chewie in his playful tone. "I just wanted to know that you won't be sitting me down on that pitch."
The first pitch to the next batter was a ball in the dirt, and the runner set off for second. The runner's struggle for traction on the damp grass was cancelled out by Chewie's difficulty in getting a grip on the wet orb and in the end he thought better of releasing it.
"Hey, Alan," shouted the first-base coach to the runner. "Take the piano off your back!"
The rain had increased from a mist to a drizzle, and two small puddles were already forming in the shallow, barely marked depressions that constituted batter's boxes.
In delivering the next pitch, our hurler, Az, slipped and tumbled in front of his hill of dirt. The ball was popped up back toward him and I scampered over to make the catch on the hill (the mound where my pitching career had begun and ended on the same afternoon). We called time to be able to check on Az, who was holding his ankle and looked to be in some pain. By the time we'd helped him hobble off the field, the rain was falling harder and so both teams returned to their folding chairs. We sheltered under golf umbrellas and watched a blackbird bathe in the deeper of the two puddles near the plate, the one for right-handed batters.
There was no let-up on the rain and so after half an hour Chip called the game; it had lasted just six pitches. By this time, a small flock of geese had landed in the outfield.
Chewie took Az off to the local hospital to get his ankle looked at. The rest of us packed away the wet equipment and changed into dry clothes. The early termination gave us most of the afternoon to spend in the Dragonslayer.
Chip started proceedings by buying a monster round, and the pub agreed to let us eat our lunches at the table. They knew we'd be sending a fair bit of business their way before the session was done.
L-Ma, after helping Chip ferry the drinks over to our table, started to speak to the landlord. He made up for his lack of English with an impressive range of improvised hand signs. First, he pointed to the television screen nearest our table, then he made pedaling movements with his fists, and finally he brought his hands together as if in prayer.
I joined in with P-Rod's laughter as L-Ma returned from the bar. He sat down across from his original seat so that he could see the screen and waited hopefully as a flicking of channels began. A yelp of joy escaped from the Colombian as the switching found, and settled on, a cycling race. It was the Tour de France.
"His whole family's loco about cycling," P-Rod explained. "His parents named him after Luis Herrera, a great Colombian mountain climber of the 1980s."
With P-Rod's help, L-Ma began to tell me about a new national star, who was riding his first Tour de France. The three-week race had begun the previous day with a short time trial. The Colombian rider, who was a natural climber, had struggled. But that was to be expected. In the first proper stage, which is what we were watching in the pub, his job was simply to finish in the peloton. The road would not curve uphill until the end of the first week.
L-Ma squirmed in his chair in response to the first shot of the rising star. He was riding by himself and, according to a graphic that popped up on the screen, trailed the main group by over four minutes. A close-up showed blood dripping from a gash to his right elbow, and the camera then panned down to reveal a passport-sized graze that was visible through the shredded lycra previously covering his right hip.
Next came a replay of a helicopter shot. A magnified circle at the back of the peloton showed a rider turning suddenly to the side—presumably to find some room to maneuver up through the pack—and falling to the deck as if he had been picked off by a sniper. It was the Colombian, and it looked like he had made his move just as the conveyor belt of asphalt presented him a diagonally crossing, embedded railway line. He was too far off the perpendicular as he hit the channel, resulting in a jerk of the front wheel and the crashing down of the bike and its rider.
The young cyclist's facial contortions hinted that he might retire at any moment. I was not particularly interested in spending the rest of the afternoon watching cycling and I had a guilty sense of relief.
L-Ma, however, was transfixed as the cameras switched between the front of the peloton and the lone trailing rider. Amazingly, the gap started to come down.
Although a reasonably keen road cyclist, I had never up to this point found even marginal interest in watching a group of other people cycling round France in a generally close, and occasionally fragmented, huddle for three weeks. I appreciated that they had to work harder for their paycheck than most other sportspeople, but the shadow of doping had made it too easy to throw it into the same bucket of disinterest that had Major League Baseball scraped down its side.
But slowly L-Ma's state of engrossment spread to me. Gripping me most was the wincing of the lonely rider's angular face while he fought to eat up the gap—second by second—between him and the peloton that hurtled along the flat road in front of him. A rider in the same jersey as the Colombian prodigy was shown several times to be shouting at the cyclists leading the main group, presumably asking them to ease up. He was batted away like a pestilent fly.
On at least three occasions, the injured rider got a dose of risky respite as he clung onto the door of a moving team car while a doctor gave him rolling medical attention.
After an hour and a half, the gap had been reduced to thirty seconds, and the battling angular-faced figure could be seen in the same camera shot as the bunch. A line of riders in matching jerseys, each one taking his shift at the front, led the peloton in a diagonal formation. This, I learned from L-Ma via P-Rod, indicated that there was a strong cross-wind.
As the gap continued to shrink, L-Ma and P-Rod combined to tell me about the honorable side to cycling, and the old code of the peloton. If the fallen rider had been wearing the leader's jersey, for instance, his rivals would have sat up rather than blowing open the advantage. I'd been rather hasty in writing off the sport, I reflected.
Having the peloton in sight on the long stretches of straight road must have psychologically helped the South American in his internal battle to press on, and the seconds of separation began to tumble, where before they had only trickled away. At last, he made contact. But just as he did the camera flicked to the middle of the peloton, where there was suddenly a schism.
L-Ma slapped the table and looked as if he'd just learned of the death of a parent. Almost instantly the peloton had become two distinct large groups, with the Colombian prodigy stuck to the back of the trailing one. "Qué mala suerte," winced L-Ma, which I knew to mean 'what bad luck'. He then kept on repeating a word that sounded like 'Poy-o'. I figured that the cyclist's nickname must be Pollo, and only then did I appreciate the trinity of his incongruously scrawny chicken calves, the wing-like angularity of his elbows, and his beaky nose.
The groups never re-joined. Thus, despite all of his bitter fighting, the young star lost a minute and twenty seconds to the race leader. At least he had been sheltered from the wind during his ride into the finish.
Later, we got a text from Chewie to say that Az's X-ray had come back all clear. I was hugely relieved, mostly for Az, who was a nice guy, but also, selfishly, because it meant he'd still be able to show me round the nature reserves where he worked.
# # # # #
I didn't think much more about the Tour de France until I spotted the following headline on the first Friday of the race: "Colombian star wins stage with gutsy solo break." I didn't click through to the story, instead deciding that I'd watch the highlights on television.
The peloton reached the bottom of the stage's third and final climb still chasing the remnants of a twelve-man break. The escapees had collaborated brilliantly and at one point held an eight-minute lead. Now they were strewn across the lower slopes of a zigzagging ascent, pedaling with noticeably different cadences. Just as the peloton began the climb, the Colombian exploded from the pack, not once looking back, and had put fifty yards into the group before there was any kind of organized reaction. He seemed so easy on his bike that he made his machine look almost weightless.
Pollo picked his way through the riders up the road and in a short time was leading the stage. At the finish he zipped up his jersey, so that the team sponsor's name would feature in the media coverage, and he punched the air with his scabbed-over right arm. Forty seconds later, the front of a thinned-out peloton powered through the line. Pollo had halved his deficit in the general classification. There were more mountains to climb the next day and the stages was being shown live.
The following day's cycling was exhilarating. The Colombian attacked on the penultimate climb, and had the panache to never look back. By the time the whittled-down group of elite riders behind him crossed the summit, Pollo was fighting his way around the dangerous hairpins of the descent, and the gap had grown sufficiently to make him overall race leader on the road.
From a shot of a leading rider back in the bunch zipping up his jersey for the descent, the screen flashed to a fallen rider in a ditch on a corner. A replay showed how a wobble turned into a skid, which then became a horrific tumble off the side of the asphalt. The live picture showed a shaken Pollo step out of the ditch with his left arm held limply across his chest. "He must have broken a collar bone," suggested one of the commentators. "That will be his Tour over. What a sad end to the first Grand Tour for this great young talent."
My interest in the race was over, and I didn't even watch till the end of the stage.
The next day, as we had a gap in the schedule, Az and I had agreed to spend the afternoon visiting the nature reserves where he worked. First, he took me round a piece of heathland, which I thought small in size for a protected area. It was being restored after years of neglect and mismanagement and he was excited about its future. After that, the reserves got smaller not bigger. I realized that everything in Britain was done on a different scale to in the States.
The final place that he showed me was a reed bed. It was barely the size of an end zone, but it was an important site nonetheless. As we stood with field glasses in hand looking for a grasshopper warbler, which we could only hear, we got to talking about the end of my trip.
"So, you're flying home next Monday morning then, then?" Az asked.
"Yep, the flight's all confirmed. I'm going to miss this place. I'd have loved to had more time to spend at these nature reserves. And I like the guys on the team."
"You can still play for us at the weekend. We're in a tournament."