Friday, November 10, 2023

Hope Came in April By James Lilliefors

When I was a boy, my father took us to see the Senators
play in twi-night double-headers at D.C. Stadium.
He wanted us to see the greats – Mantle, Maris, Yastrzemski – 
and we did. But I was always more interested in the home team 
– in men named Pascual, Howard, Valentine, Brinkman.

I brought a No. 2 pencil to those games keep score, 
and a freshly oiled glove for foul balls, just in case. 
I knew all the player stats, could recite them like a secret
code – batting averages, RBIs, home runs, ERAs.
My little brother often fell asleep during the second games,
while my father sat quietly, occasionally scolding the players
to do better, the way he did my brother and me.

The home team always lost more than they won,
but we had something the other teams didn’t have.
Our team’s greatness, my father once said,
was its potential. And, with time, I began to see that, too
– to recognize flashes of greatness out there
under the warm lights at D.C. Stadium.
It was how, as a boy, I came to define greatness:
as something that flashed, that appeared sparingly,
unexpectedly – but that could change
the world in an instant, with one thunderous crack.

The year that riots burned our city down,
the home team won 65 games and lost 96.
Opening day was postponed that spring
from April 8 to April 10 because a great man
had been killed in Memphis, and angry people
were rioting in our city. My father told us about it.

The funeral for that man was on Tuesday, April 9.
By then, D.C. Stadium had been turned
into a “staging area,” my father said,
for the 82nd Airborne soldiers
who’d come to town to restore order.

The troops pulled out on Wednesday,
so the Minnesota Twins could take the field
for the home team’s 2 p.m. season opener.
We lost that game, 2-0. And the next two as well.
But a week later, our team began a four-game
streak, and it felt as if something was beginning.
Hope was like that back then. It came every year
in April, when the tree branches thickened
with buds, when the breeze carried smells of cut grass
and hyacinth, and the whole city seemed to be waiting
to see what the home team would do.
If you listened closely on any of those afternoons,
you’d hear the sounds of fathers and sons, tossing
baseballs, back and forth, generation to generation.
Our team never showed us how to win back then,
but they gave us that other thing, and for a while
it felt just as good: they taught us how to hope.

Fifty-six days after the season opener, another
great man was killed, this time in California.
Our team was in the midst of its longest streak
of the season at the time (five games).
Seven months later, they renamed D.C. Stadium
RFK Stadium in his honor.

I think of these things on a hot summer night
fifty-four years later, and a thousand miles away,
after reading the news online.
Remembering the luminous circular stadium on the
Anacostia River, whose lush green outfield and
dusty clay basepath once seemed as wondrously
alien and self-contained as a small planet.
Where my brother, my late father, and I sat at twilight,
eating salty popcorn from cardboard boxes, drinking
watery Cokes from tall, waxed-paper cups.
Where I learned to pay attention, to hope,
to recognize what greatness looked like.

The news story said nothing about those things,
of course. It didn’t even mention the season
our city burned down, and opening day was postponed.
It said only that RFK Stadium was about to be demolished.
The news felt surprisingly personal, as if I was reading
the obituary of someone I had known,
and loved intimately, years earlier,
whose death notice somehow left out
all the important details of her life.


James Lilliefors is a poet, journalist and novelist, whose writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Washington Post, Door Is A Jar, Snake Nation Review, CandleLit magazine, The Miami Herald and elsewhere. He is a former writing fellow at the University of Virginia.