Hardball Theatre: The Usher
A Play in One Act by Keith Good
(Lights up on a ballpark. Late dusk. We’re in the lower level, empty seats facing the field. The dull thrum of a crowd crashes over us, calm like far-off waves breaking the shore. Vendors’ call like gulls: Hot Dogs! Peanuts! Hot Pretzels, three for five! The faint lilt of organ music drifts through the air.)
(A commotion sounds off stage. Harsh voices shout indistinct words. It’s the sound of panic. The lights flicker. JOHN runs on stage, looking back over his shoulder.)
John: God, these ballpark ushers take their job seriously. Put a man in a rented vest and all of the sudden he’s the gestapo. Lost ‘em for now, anyway. Bought myself a few more minutes.
(John considers the seats before him and finds a suitable vantage for the game.)
John: It’s always a quandary: where to sit. My tickets? Alphabet doesn’t go high enough. Back row on the International Space Station, probably. I figure these season ticket fat cats won’t mind if I borrow their vantage for the last half-inning.
(Looks to the empty seats around him.)
John: Best damn seats in the house and these lousy rich bums don’t show. Or leave early. Not me. That usher will have to drag me out kicking. Really, how many chances do you get? Not as many as you think, that’s how many.
Who was it, the Babe? “You miss all the pitches you don’t swing at?” Well I’m swinging, damn it.
(John, after careful consideration, chooses a seat.)
John: Ahh… Is there anything better? You can see the cut of the grass, smell the infield dirt. Hell, I could chat up the shortstop without straining my voice. I appreciate creature comforts as much as the next guy, but you can’t feel a 100 mile per hour fastball pop in your chest sittin’ on your sofa. (John claps as the players take their positions for the final half-inning) Attaboy! Game’s not over yet! 3 outs can be a lifetime! Let’s show these boys how we play ball! Look alive, now!
(John takes in a breath, watches as the players warm up for the final half inning. As he talks, the USHER creeps on stage, walking slowly, dolefully toward him.)
John: God, why didn’t I do this more often? Katie always told me to just take more time. Work less, worry less. I never did take stress well. I remember she bought me that meditation book. I laughed it off. “That buddhist stuff isn’t the American way,” I said.
But this here, the ballpark…this is meditation. Baseball is America’s Buddhism. Every phrase is a koan: “Keep your eye on the ball.” “Run out your grounders.” “Keep everything in front of you.” You could do a lot worse than meditating on “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Bet you Yogi was a Buddhist. Well, at least I’m here now. That’s all you ever have, really: here. Now.
Good eye, batter! Good eye now!
(John bolts up in his chair. The organ music seems to match his frenzy for a moment. The lights flicker ever so slightly again, the scared chorus babbling off stage. If John or the Usher hear the voices, neither acknowledges it. The lights return, the organ calms to slow undulations, and the voices sink back into the ocean of gentle crowd noise.)
John: You’re liable to give me another heart attack, sneaking up on me like that. I thought maybe I could watch the rest of the game. Didn’t think you’d catch me so quick.
Usher: No one does.
John: You here to kick me out?
Usher: Just enforcing the rules.
John: They’re down to their last three outs.
Usher: Three outs can be a lifetime.
John: I could run again.
Usher: You’re welcome to try.
(Usher looks around. Not a single soul. With a drawn sigh, he sits next to John.)
John: That’s a sport.
Usher: We go at the end. Nine innings. It’s in the rulebooks.
John: So are extras. White Sox and Brewers went 33 innings back in 1984.
Usher: Not this game, though.
John: Batter could walk, steal and score on a popout. We could be knotted at 2 forever.
Usher: No. You see enough games, you know. You feel it. You should consider yourself lucky; back in the old days, the Knickerbocker rules, games ended at 21 outs.
(Commotion offstage. The voices again, indistinct, but singing clipped staccato of panic. It seems as if they’re saying, “John…John…”)
Usher: They’re calling for you up there.
John: They’ll be okay for a few more minutes. The inning started with a walk; it’s a good sign. Besides, isn’t the whole point, parenting, having kids? That one day you can just stand in the wings and say to yourself, “they’ll be okay?”
Usher: I suppose so.
John: It was the only job I was ever really good at. (beat) What about you? You like your job?
Usher: Huh. You know that’s the first I’ve ever been asked.
John: Never too late for your first time.
Usher: I get to watch a lot of games.
John: Yeah, but you have to work, too.
Usher: Just between you and me, it’d be nice if we didn’t need guys like me anymore. If we could all just sit here, find our own seats, just the right vantage, and then watch the beautiful game. And after the final out we could all say, “that was a hell of a game” and file out, happy to have seen it together, to have breathed the air, full on stadium dogs and peanuts roasted in their shells.
John: Doesn’t usually happen like that, though.
Usher: I’m still here.
John: Sorry for making you chase me.
Usher: It’s the job.
John: You’re making me hungry, though, talking about hot dogs and peanuts.
Usher: Here. (puts an arm up in the air) I think there’s still a few vendors milling around. It’s the least I can do.
(After a brief moment, a bag of peanuts flies on stage. The Usher catches them. He pops open the bag, takes a few for himself, and hands the rest to John.)
John: Thanks kindly.
(They sit in silence for a moment, eating peanuts. John cracks open a peanut, examines it, then pops it in his mouth.)
John: God these are good. No. Better than good: perfect. You know why that is, don’t you, why ballpark peanuts are always a hundred times better?
Usher: I have my ideas.
John: (Holding up a peanut) It’s not about the thing itself, but the experience of the thing.
(John pops the nut in his mouth, chews.)
John: Perfect. Only wish I’d known that sooner.
Usher: You know it now. That’s better than most.
John: Big power hitter up here. They might pull this one out.
Usher: Listen, it’s none of my business, but, you could’ve gone anywhere…
John: What’s better than a ballpark?
Usher: (nods) “What’s better than a ballpark.”
John: Look around: it’s the last outs of a summer dream, the golden hour. The sky is cotton candy, so low and warm I could almost pluck a few strands and pop them onto my tongue. The fireflies are just coming out. We’re deep enough into July that summer has perfected itself, worked out the kinks in its delivery. The dog days are still a few weeks away. And from somewhere comes the lilt of organ music, like you’re in the best church ever built. Shelled peanuts crunch under your feet. The lull, the crowd like a breath held, waiting, and then…
(Crack of a bat! Crowd erupts with noise.)
John: The air is all electricity, infinite promise. And we all watch this ball, this tiny little sphere of rubber and rawhide. It traces mathematical perfection through the sky, and it’s like our own hopes and dreams push it further, further. Then all as one…
(It’s a home run. The crowd is going wild.)
John: It’s heaven.
Usher: And you got to see a win, a walk-off home run. Most games, the last three innings are a grind to the inevitable.
John: Hell of an ending.
John: Doesn’t seem fair though; I didn’t get a full 27 outs.
Usher: Some people get rain-outs in the fourth.
John: I guess.
Usher: Time to go. You ready?
John: What a dumb thing to ask.
Usher: I don’t know, is it?
John: I’m ready.
Usher; Shall I lead the way?
John: No, we’ll walk together.
Usher: I’d like that.
(John and the Usher stand. They sidle out from their row and take the steps up the middle of the stage, up to the concourse above. The voices return now, the lights dimming. Except now the voices don’t panic, but seem to sing in a strange, doleful calm.)
(At the top of the stairs, John stops. He turns around, facing the field. The Usher does likewise.)
John: It was a hell of a game.
(A pause. Then John turns back. He and the Usher walk together off stage. The organ hits its final, long note. The lights dim to black.)