It was my last morning in Mesa. I’d checked out of my hotel and was heading to the airport. I got to the bus stop and there was a guy waiting there; a casually-dressed but smart-looking gentleman, maybe five years older than me. Nice smile and a “beautiful morning” greeting.
We started chatting and he said he’d been at yesterday’s game. Lived locally but worked in Phoenix so was heading into the city. He was wearing a lanyard with an ID badge from whoever his employer was, so I could see his first name but not his last. The bus came on time and I sat opposite him upfront.
We talked about what a nice day it had been for a game and how great it was to see the ballpark full. “Plenty of folks from the Midwest. They come here because you don’t have to shovel sunshine,” he said with a smile, referring to the recent snowstorms in other parts of the country.
He started reminiscing about how wonderful Spring Training used to be when it wasn’t as commercialised – “but then everything is these days” – and how when he was younger going to a game was a treat. He said he used to go to games with his dad, and I assumed he was still talking about Spring Training, rather than a big league park somewhere other than Arizona.
It was a typical, laid-back few minutes of casual conversation that you might have on a bus with anyone, anywhere in the country, where baseball was a common denominator and an easy ice-breaker. And it was the sort of chat I’d had many times at or around games since I started this project.
Usually what happens next is that I reach for a business card, tell the person I write a blog about baseball and American society – “take a look, you might be interested” – and then the random encounter ends. (Sometimes I hear back, sometimes not. That’s ok).
But then things with “Robert” took something of a turn.
Maybe it was his easy reminiscing about better days, or maybe my unconscious nodding along convinced him that he had a sympathetic ear, but literally, unprompted, within a couple of minutes he’d started with “illegals” moved onto “drug cartels” “fentanyl trafficking” (although he pronounced it “fentanol“) and how “all this violence is targeted at the American family”. It sounded like a well-worn record and he took great delight in recounting the graphic detail of a video that had recently been on TV of American tourists being kidnapped in Mexico.
It was a classic airing of grievances, the kind that comes out when you maybe don’t talk to another person for a while.
I’d figured it was only a matter of time before I ran into someone like this, and in the moment was thinking two things: how did we get from Spring Training to this so quickly? And should I still give him a business card? Dobson Road isn’t too long and our bus was about to pull into Sycamore and Main, where we’d pick up the light rail towards Phoenix and the Sky Harbor Airport.
Even at that point – when I knew where the conversation was going – I was thinking there might be some value in asking him what’s behind the kind of fear that I’m sure he shares with plenty of others, and trying to get an idea of what it might mean politically. But then he finished up with a flourish, and in the process answered at least the second of those questions.
“And Obama Bin Laden never did a damn thing about any of it,” he said, sitting back like that’s all there is to say.
For me, that crossed a line. On the one hand, I wanted to know – in his own words – why he was so angry, since it’s part of the story of why the country is how it is right now. On the other, I don’t have to give a platform to his racism.
We got off the bus and walked across to the light rail platform. I stopped at the ticket machine and he walked on up to where the first car would stop. When the train came, I got on the last one, and still didn’t feel I was far enough away from him.
Everyone has a story. We might not want to hear it, but it’s not going away. And you can be sure “Robert” votes.
I began the 2023 season in Arizona to watch the World Baseball Classic.
Go here to read brief accounts of the Pool C Games I went to in Phoenix (scroll down – chronological).
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