Thursday, July 2, 2009

Baseball As Life

As those of us know who live the well-examined life and yet are still seventeen while pushing eighty, baseball makes life coherent. It's the geometry of the thing, the measured dimensions of the infield which seem divinely inspired along with the random configurations of the outfield which lend it the frailty of humanity. More than most sports baseball is a game of defeat. A 70% failure rate almost ensures a place in the Hall of Fame.

It's the permutations of the game that made it playable on the streets of the city with manhole covers and fire hydrants serving as bases and sawed-off broomsticks as bats. For many of us baseball became punchball or stickball with a list of ground rules that might served a paralegal mind.

Why, I ask myself, has my interest persevered lo these many decades? The game must have a corresponding resonance with the rhythm of my life; an appeal in ways elusive to analysis.There is the on-going dialog between the pull of statistics and the allure of the hunch and the illusion that life is under control in this alternative universe.

Baseball seems to be teeming with metaphors; its pastoral beginnings, the inherent disregard for the clock, the arcane hand signs, the safety of the base and risk of stealing or stretching, the smell of green grass and hot dogs, the way a batter comes to the plate with his own ritual to keep from thinking too much and even the counter-clockwise path of the baserunner as if winding back time itself and finally the exhilaration and exhaustion at the end of life's odyssey....home plate

So many of our geo-political dramas unfold according to lines drawn years ago and articulated in altogether expected ways. Spectator sports can serve as a form of unscripted theatre which incite great passions and seem closer to our understanding if not control.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between fans and the game. How many of us believe,on some level, that our actions determine the outcome? The scene was Kirk Gibson hobbling to the plate in the 9th inning. Raise your hand if you think that my dear step-son, who remained seated while the crowd was on its feet, did not cause that home run. He never saw the immortal drive into the rightfield stands but can take credit for it. Ron stayed in contact with the wood, the tree, the bat, the forces of nature. Crazy but lovable.

On a more rational level I wonder how we fans (the Greek chorus) are complicit with the players (the actors). Do we not push them up on a pedestal as if to extend ourselves only to tear them down when they are detected with suspicious pee or even when they lose some bat speed and half a step? How much can we forgive? And how much do we forgive ourselves.

I wonder, too, about slumps and streaks. After all the numbers are in and films of past performances are studied no one seems to know what went wrong or what went right. There is always an X factor just as we go through our lives in inexplicable ways.

My earliest baseball memory happened in the 1941 World Series when my beloved Dodgers let the 4th game get way after the Yankee hitter seemingly struck out to end the game. The pitch eluded Mickey Owen, the catcher,(or was it the Hugh Casey spitter?) and Tommy Henrich took first base starting a rally they never got over. Nor did I. My team was a perennial loser and the Yankees were a product of providential intervention.

My guess is that Yankee fans grew up with an expectation of success; perhaps even a sense of entitlement. For years they bought their teams using other clubs as their farm system.They were paragons of capitalism. Don't tell me identification doesn't work on the psyche.Are they not the ones who bought Intel at three...and sold the day before the crash?

I owned my subordinate role; the hard-luck but well-intentioned guy identified with underdogs and the down-trodden. When it was Dodgers who broke the color line with Jackie Robinson it seemed a given to me. When they followed me to Los Angeles it felt like compensation for all those losing seasons and almost made me a believer in that great puppeteer in the sky.

Through the years my team has won their share and their ownership has displayed greed and stupidity. The players also have tested my threshold of tolerance but none of this is subject to rational scrutiny. In the last inning maybe that is its appeal.


  1. Magnificent Norm. Please send it to the New Yorker. It SHOULD be seen by others of our ilk. I would make one change however. It was not Mickey Owens fault but the spitter that Hugh Casey tossed that allowed the magnificent Yankees to once more prevail.


  2. It was because of my and Mike W.'s attention to detail that Gibson homered on that fateful eve in 1988. A colleague of ours who was with us explained, that it was his karma to watch the homer. For the record, we were on our feet as the ball cleared the right fielder, and we did see it leave the field. We just didn't see it leave the bat.

    This is a wonderful perspective. It is all about baseball, some just don't know it yet. Keep chuckin.