“I imagined a ray of light passing through the cold silence of space at the speed of 300,000 kilometers per second. I struggled to grasp the bone-chilling vastness and profundity with my imagination, felt the weight of an immense terror and awe, and simultaneously enjoyed a druglike euphoria.”—Cixin Liu, author’s postscript to The Three-Body Problem
For me, the Monday of the 2017 total solar eclipse started in a Salem, Oregon, parking lot, between a Best Western and a Denny’s. Frightened by footage of jammed roads in the days leading up to the eclipse, my group of five had set out in a Subaru from Portland at midnight, hoping to arrive by 5 a.m. at Volcanoes Stadium, home of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, A-ball affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. There, we would pick up tickets to distribute to the podcast listeners who would join us at EclipseFest, one of five eclipse-viewing events organized by minor league baseball teams in the path of totality to observe the first total eclipse viewable from the contiguous United States since 1979, and the first to cross both coasts of the country since 1918.
All evening, we’d monitored map sites that promised progressively shorter trips to Salem, but we didn’t trust those traffic reports until we hit the almost empty road. Either the apocalyptic projections had been exaggerated, or they’d spoiled their own forecasts by convincing would-be watchers to leave very early or not at all. The roughly 50-mile trip took less than an hour, putting us in Salem by 1 a.m., which is why the parking lot (and the sleepable surface that lay behind its shrubberied border) beckoned. But that ignoble, behind-the–Best Western beginning wasn’t an omen of a disappointing day, despite the years-long buildup that brought us there. The moon obscuring the sun, it turns out, isn’t overhypable.
The Volcanoes entered the day 27-36, in last place in the Northwest League’s South Division. Their opponent would be the first-place Hillsboro Hops, an Arizona Diamondbacks farm team. This was, on paper, a prospect-rich matchup, particularly on the visiting side; Hillsboro had the Diamondbacks’ first three 2017 draft picks, including first baseman Pavin Smith, the organization’s top prospect and, some sources say, one of the 100 best prospects in baseball. Smith didn’t start, which might have been a letdown on any other day. On this one, most of the spectators in the sold-out crowd—the largest in the Volcanoes’ 20-year history, save for games on the 4th of July—weren’t bothered by his absence. They were there to scout the sun.
Even the most baseball-obsessed in the stands couldn’t look past the day’s real draw. The Volcanoes wore black eclipse jerseys with the numbers on their backs ringed by fiery coronae that undulated like the real thing as the players sprinted and stretched, warming up for the franchise’s first-ever morning start. With totality scheduled for 10:17 Pacific Daylight Time—when little daylight would be left—the game had to begin before 10 for the eclipse to stop play, a gimmick that helped persuade an announced crowd of 5,297 to see the eclipse at Volcano Stadium instead of somewhere else. It helped, too, that Salem would see the eclipse so early, when the sun would be high in the sky and not hidden by haze or human-made objects.
The Cooperstown-bound ceremonial first pitch was thrown by planetary geologist and Nationals fan Noah Petro, one of a few emissaries from NASA, which partnered with the Volcanoes to provide eclipse-viewing glasses as well as to NASA-splain the eclipse via the stadium speakers and scoreboard screen. The official first pitch, which followed Miss Oregon’s national anthem, was thrown a few minutes later, at 9:51 a.m., by Volcanoes pitcher John Timmins. That pitch got a grounder and an out, which was followed by three consecutive singles, a sacrifice fly, and an opposite-field homer that gave the visiting Hops the first inning’s fourth and final run.
Maybe Timmins could sense those celestial bodies aligning above him like the rictus-grinning moon in Majora’s Mask, their oppressive presences forming a natural clock counting down to the time when the umpires would have to suspend play. More likely, though, the late-round draftee from 2016, who was making his first minor league start, was suffering from the same problems that had produced a 6.43 ERA in his first 35 appearances, all out of the pen.
Either way, it’s likely that he has the highest ERA ever recorded in pro baseball during a period of partial eclipse, because by then the eclipse was clearly coming, forcing the umps to pull the players off the field as soon as Timmons mercifully completed the top of the first. With the two teams retreated to the top step of their dugouts, an amplified voice proudly proclaimed the inaugural “professional sports solar eclipse delay,” and a NASA employee announced that the temperature had already dropped 5 degrees.
At first, the moon had seemed to sidle into the sun’s spotlight reluctantly, stealing only a sliver of light. Eventually, the sun became the sliver, like Pac-Man swallowing himself. And below, we grew bolder, initially turning our eyes upward with a Trumpian full-face squint, not totally trusting the lenses we were wearing—and then, after our retinas survived, with increasingly open-eyed confidence. The glasses dulled the sun’s brilliance such that its disc took on the mustard-yellow tint we associate with a full moon seen through haze just above the horizon. As the eclipse neared totality, the star’s crescent shape only strengthened the sense that the sun and moon had traded identities.
It wasn’t until the sun was 70 percent or so hidden that any buzz started to build about the nearly cloudless sky seeming darker, which increased my respect for the sun’s output at full power; after that, the prospect of having the whole sun sounded like overkill. With peak eclipse approaching, the Volcanoes’ owner, Jerry Walker, grabbed the mic to deliver a Jerry Lawler–like promo, trying to pump up a crowd that was already maxed out on anticipation. Anything he could say to play on our emotions sounded small and insignificant compared with the natural high derived from the spectacle that we were witnessing.
In the moments before totality, the PA went silent, and what was left of the sun looked like the dying filament of a light bulb. The players, many of whom had been peeking at the eclipse through NASA glasses held up to their wraparound shades, relocated to short right field, where they sat side by side like kindergarteners assembled for story time. I moved several seats over, too, not wanting my view of a cosmic event billions of years in the making to be blocked by a bank of lights. The traditional barriers between player and fan evaporated; civilians sat on the dugout, and everyone in the park was staring at the same thing. Volcanoes manager Jolbert Cabrera, an eight-year big league vet, discovered along with the rest of the crowd that unfiltered smartphone cameras can’t capture an eclipse, freeing him (and us) from the pressure to preserve the moment in digital memory at the expense of our own.
The park was dark—not the directional dark of dusk or dawn, but a more uniform fade, as if polarized lenses had been surgically superimposed on our eyes. Outside of the stadium, passing trucks on I-5 turned on their headlights and hurried on, too beholden to deadlines or blasé about sightseeing to stop. As our eyes darted up and down and we summoned the nerve to look up without glasses, totality arrived. One second, the pinprick of sunlight was still too bright to stare at; the next, it was gone, replaced by a burning hole in the sky. Although the corona supplied enough illumination to fend off the Nightfall-esque starscape I’d envisioned, some distant lights appeared in what had just been bland blue sky.
For the next two minutes, we held hands and breaths and contemplated topics not often considered at ballparks before the bottom of the first: pride that our sometimes-stupid species could predict this phenomenon with such perfect precision; amazement at the impressions that events like this must have made on our ancestors, who had no warning that their constant light and heat source was about to turn off; awe at the inexorable forces involved. I tried to reframe my mind to make the moment 3-D—to form a mental model of the sun not as a flat disc, but as a sphere, so much more distant and so much more vast than the modestly massive object between it and the Earth—but I couldn’t quite do it. The blacked-out sun was still by far the best special effect I’d ever witnessed while carrying cardboard glasses.
Before we were ready, a slice of sunlight reappeared, and we reached for those glasses again. The world’s dimmer switch started sliding up again, and a swarm of startled birds wheeled in the air beyond the outfield fence. Timmins, who wasn’t stretched out as a starter and had been sitting for some time, gave way to a new pitcher, Peter Lannoo. In the delay before play resumed, 23-year-old outfielder Christopher Burks, a recent draftee, flirted from the bench with two girls in the first row, first miming that they should call him and then telling them to find him on Instagram. (Have at him.) Routine returned; Hillsboro won, and Salem lost. Of course, we weren’t the same, even after we went online and found that the eclipse had created a meme about matters that it had momentarily made us forget.
In the late innings, I talked to Dave Draper, the senior NASA official on site. Draper has worked at NASA for close to 20 years, but this was his first total eclipse, too. “Intellectually, I knew exactly what to expect,” Draper said. “I knew precisely what was going to happen, in what sequence. But I was unprepared for how I felt watching it. I was overwhelmed. I was crying. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it. It was an amazingly emotional experience.”
As an igneous petrologist, Draper’s work concerns the internal composition of planets and moons, but on Monday he admired the outside of the sun, drinking in solar prominences that he described as “ethereal and literally otherworldly.” Wearing a Volcanoes cap, he said that he couldn’t have conjured a better setting for his first eclipse. “One of the things that was a huge part of all that emotion that I felt was, we were being surrounded by people, and all of us feeling that same sense of awe and wonder. That coming together, that was a magic moment.”
After meeting Draper, I resumed my spot in the stands, surrounded by at least partially like-minded onlookers who’d come from 34 states and eight countries, according to a team survey. Soon we’d be sitting in traffic that would belatedly be as bad as advertised, but it wasn’t yet time to leave. I applied and reapplied sunscreen, not wanting to be burned at a solar eclipse.