All my life I have hated being asked to explain what I am doing. I hate the question because I very seldom know the answer.
–Paul Theroux, Pillars of Hercules
A thin, silver-haired man approaches me while I’m sitting on a bench near the koi ponds at Ala Moana Center in Honololu as my wife shops. He wears shorts, shirt, and shit-eating grin as he points at my head and says, “I love the hat. I know it’s a beaver, but what team is that?”
I’d bought it in Portland, in 2010, the final season minor-league baseball was played there. By then, everyone in town knew the team–a Padres affiliate–was dead and the stadium would be converted to a more lucrative soccer-only venue.
The two nights we attended in August, there were maybe 1,000 people at the ballpark, which could accommodate more than 20,000. It felt less like a ballgame and more like a funeral, which in a metaphorical sense, it was.
During a lull in the action, while Josh Geer of all people was busy spinning a shutout, my wife wandered to the team store. Most of the Beavers gear had been sold off already, but she managed to find me some flip-flops and a cap with the Portland Beavers logo at discount prices.
The man is still grinning. He speaks with misplaced urgency: “What level is that?”
“Triple-A. High minor leagues.”
“Like the PCL?”
“You know, Joe DiMaggio played in the PCL.”
“Yes, for the Seals.”
I could have mentioned that Ted Williams, who should have won the American League MVP Award in 1941 over DiMaggio, also played in the PCL. Williams, a San Diego native, was a member of the original Padres. He hit .271 for them in 42 games as a 17-year-old in 1936. The next year he hit .291 and finished third in the league with 23 homers.
Or I could have mentioned that another Padres great, Tony Gwynn, once played in the PCL. Right here in Honolulu, for the old Hawai’i Islanders in 1982. Gwynn and Williams later became friends, San Diego icons who were good at hitting pitched baseballs.
“You are very interesting,” says the man, “and seem to know a lot. What do you do?”
“Ah, I should have known.”
The Beavers moved to Tucson in 2011 and were rechristened as the Padres. Because Tucson Beavers makes no sense. Like Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers, but never mind that.
That spring, my wife and I drove around the American southwest. We saw up-and-comers Dee Gordon and Trayvon Robinson play in Albuquerque. We saw then-Padres phenom Anthony Rizzo in Tucson, as well as Will Venable, who was trying to rediscover his misplaced batting stroke.
We also saw former Padres Brian Lawrence and Paul McAnulty in Tucson. They were clinging to their careers as members of the Salt Lake Bees. I have no way of knowing, but I’d guess that there are more bees in Utah than there is jazz.
In Santa Fe, en route to Albuquerque and Tucson, we ate green chile stew for breakfast at a recommended local joint. We developed a serious taste for green chile stew on that trip, and my wife still makes giant pots of it on Sundays–using Hatch chiles, of course; we are civilized people.
As had become my custom, I was wearing my treasured hat from Portland. “Nice beaver,” said the cashier as I paid our bill.
I didn’t laugh, not because it was offensive but because it was predictable. He tried to explain the joke and things got awkward. Then we left. At some point I ended up at the library and read a book about baseball in New Mexico, where I learned of the great Joe Bauman, who hit 72 home runs for the Roswell Rockets in 1954.
“I’m a writer, too.” The silver-haired man reaches for his wallet and pulls out a business card, which he hands to me. He produces television game shows. They sound awful, like the sort of thing that would do well on television.
I give him my card. He says he’ll email me and excuses himself to go have a smoke. “I need one every hour. I was on my way when I saw your hat. I love icons.”
On another trip to the southwest, in Scottsdale, I wore the Beavers hat while wearing a Tucson Padres T-shirt. My wife and I were “enjoying” the hotel breakfast buffet when an older woman came up to us. “I’m confused,” she said. “Are you from Tucson or Portland?”
“San Diego,” I replied.
She walked away. We never spoke again.
Before the television game show producer leaves, he spots an attractive young woman wearing a Minnesota Twins jersey. “Go Twins!” he yells, but she keeps walking.
He sees that I’m reading Theroux and comments on the book’s title. He explains that the Pillars of Hercules refer to the rocks on either side of Gibraltar Strait, which I already know on account of Theroux having explained it in the book.
Eventually my wife returns. The man introduces himself to her, then disappears for his hourly smoke. I’m still waiting to hear from him.
All because of a hat.
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