Waiting for the New Beginning

Watching the Nats game on TV last night was an eerie experience.  We’d had downpours off and on all day (totaling about 4.5”), and the air was that warmish, damp August mugginess that makes one yearn for autumn.  Tanner Roark, he of the W 8, L 12 record and 4.05 ERA, was starting a game that meant little in the great scheme of things for the 62-63 Nats.  Attendance was light on a weekday night that was a late summer “school night” for many kids in the region; random cheers and calls echoed through the sparsely populated grandstands and concourses.  You could hear occasional bats rattle in the dugouts, and a word or two of the many exchanged among ballplayers draping their arms over the railing as they watched the game.  There was a dank gloom, a sense of unfocused malaise, of things coming to an end.

Earlier in the afternoon word had come of two waiver-deal trades.  Daniel Murphy, two-time Nats All-Star second baseman, a student of hitting with a Nats batting average of well over .300, if only a passable fielder, had gone to the Cubs for cash considerations, a mediocre prospect, and the proverbial “player to be named later.”  And Matt Adams, a hulking first baseman/outfielder with huge tattooed biceps, owning 18 homers on the season, went back to St. Louis, where he had begun his career with the Redbirds.  This happened two days after a backbreaking 12-1 thrashing of the Nats by the hapless Miami Marlins, and a day after the dean of D.C. sportswriters, Tom Boswell, had proclaimed the Nats’ season to be deceased.  Apparently the Nationals’ management finally agreed, and was cutting salary obligations to realign the finances to allow off-season acquisitions for 2019.

After Roark completed the third inning, it began to rain.  An assistant showed the umpiring Crew Chief an iPhone image of the incoming precipitation pattern, the ground crew threw the tarp on the field in less than two minutes, and the participants and loyalists among the fans waited it out for nearly two hours.  The stadium looked deserted on TV.  The dank gloom intensified.  Some players apparently watched the division-leading Braves game in the clubhouse, as they throttled the Buckos behind the shutout ball pitched by ex-Orioles starter Kevin Gausman.  A team going nowhere watching a team going somewhere.

Stevenson celebrates homer

Andrew Stevenson celebrates his first big-league home rum

The rain stopped; play resumed with Roark’s start wasted and Matt Grace on the hill for the Nats.  Before you knew it, the Phillies, chasing the Braves and trailing by a single game, were up 4-1.  A “here we go again” sense pervaded the emptying stadium.   But in the bottom of the 6th, stuff started to happen.  Twenty-year-old rookie Juan Soto singled.  Light-hitting catcher Matt Wieters singled him home.  Callup Andrew Stevenson, who drove from Syracuse and arrived at the stadium after the game started, hit a pinch-hit homer sharply to left for a career first.  Second-base backup Wilmer Difo whacked one into the upper deck in right field.  By the end of the inning, a 1-4 Nats deficit was a 6-4 lead.  They later tacked on four more runs, one being a home run by gimpy veteran Ryan Zimmerman, only his 12th of the season.

What was left of the crowd went home happy, having witnessed a rare Nationals comeback win.  The Phillies went back to their hotel two games behind the Braves, beaten in a game they needed to win by a team with nothing to lose.  This is the way baseball fans of the many non-contending teams in each league enjoy the last part of the season.  They take each day as it comes, and savor the baseball played that day for what it means right then and there, not for what it implies for the “playoff picture.”  It’s the national pastime, after all.  Soon it will give way to the frozen tundra of football, the slick ice on the hockey rink, the drafty basketball gym.  And we will all look forward to the day pitchers and catchers report in February.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018


After Berry Picking

In Eugene the mission was to harvest the blackberries.  Parts of Matthew’s yard are grown up into blackberry patches, thanks to the vigorous, ubiquitous wild vines that seem to thrive especially well in the weather and soil of the Pacific Northwest.  From the June blossoming through summer fruit-set and growth, the vines keep throwing out stocky new shoots, which serve to protect the maturing fruit with arched branches of sharp, tenacious thorns.

Ripe Cluster

The Quarry: Ripe Blackberry Cluster

There’s something unique about wild blackberry thorns.  They aren’t long and spiky, like pyracantha thorns, which if the Romans didn’t use them for the Crown of Thorns they were missing a bet.  They aren’t small and stubby like rose thorns, which are easily avoided or handled with a bit of care.  The long tendrils of the blackberry drape many linear feet of thorn branches all around the berries.  You can’t reach in or walk into the briars without their sticking to your skin, entangling themselves in your hair (so they tell me), or grabbing your clothing in a veritable death-grip.  They are not barbed, but disentangling one’s hair, skin, and clothing from them is not easy.  A big part of the picking process is avoiding, removing, setting aside, and otherwise creating relatively thorn-free access to the boughs of berries.

I was an avid berry-picker when Matthew was a child.  Inspired by Euell Gibbons’ ‘60s classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I was a food forager, especially in the old I-66 right-of-way, which was cleared of houses (including one by Frank Lloyd Wright) and roads, and left to lie fallow during a ten-year court battle over whether to build the road inside the Beltway.  They finally built it, but not before our family had many servings of wineberries, blackberries, black and red raspberries, apples, crabapples, poke, rhubarb, sumac, watercress, and (yes) wild asparagus from nature’s bounty.

Picker's hand

Picker’s Hand: juice, dirt, blood

Matthew remembers our garden, where I later grew raspberries and blackberries.  But those blackberries were the thornless variety.  I was no fool; I was not going to bring into my garden the malice of blackberry thorns.  The thornless berries were big as your thumb and very tasty, but they lacked by just an ineffable bit that uniquely rich, complex flavor that made foraging the wild berries worth the bleeding hands and snagged clothes.  And all the old tricks came back when the patches in Eugene insisted by their fragrance and glistening black clusters of fruit that they must be picked the other day.

Three generations of Bradfords advanced on the brambles, since granddaughter Winnie—now almost 12 (!)—was in on it too.  Her job was to pick the easy stuff, with Matthew’s help, and eat all she wanted.  Matthew, armed with stainless steel bowl and clippers, did some serious picking as well as trimming, and I was a relentless picker, using my instinctively recalled tactics to avoid the thorns and strip the abundant clusters of their ripe fruit.

Picked berries

Some of the harvest, destined for jam.

The good thing about having your own backyard patches is that nobody else picks them.  Blackberry clusters do not ripen all at once.  The ones at the tips of the fronds are ready first, followed closely by about half the berries.  The others remain in various stages of green-pink on down to black.  They’re ripe not when they get glossy black, but when that gloss is accompanied by a bit of softness, and a gentle tug is enough to pull them off the stem.  The seemingly-ripe but still-firm berries need more time, because their sugar levels are not high enough.  That’s where Winnie becomes invaluable; by sampling them now and again she can confirm we’re getting the ripe ones.  Even gentle tugs can cause slightly overripe berries to fall to the ground.  When you have the abundance we did you can let them go.  Or you can pick the ones that just dropped.  And you can pick clusters down to the ground, without worrying about “salutations” from pets, which is a problem with trail-side berry patches.  There’s also no poison ivy to look out for, another occupational hazard.

In a short time we had well over a gallon of blackberries.  Our first picking, a couple of days earlier, had yielded a delicious cobbler.  But this lot was for the long haul.  Matthew made almost three quarts of jam.  Next winter the aromas and flavors of that jam will remind us of the rich abundance of nature in the Northwest, the warmth of a summer’s day, the joy of a family together.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2018