Sunday, September 4, 2011
Baseball As Life
There is something about baseball that is irresistible to poets and writers. It could be the geometry of the field, the architecture of the game itself, its disdain of the clock, the sequential nature of the innings or the equipoise between going by the book versus the hunch. It is surely an exercise in frustration and nowhere has this inherent failure been more vividly enacted than in the book I just read called Bottom of the 33rd.
New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Dan Barry, details the longest game ever played. It happened on Easter eve in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1982 and lasted eight hours, barely beating out Jesus in his annual resurrection. The paid attendance was 1,700 with 19 diehards left in the stands at 4 o’clock in the morning. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees. To keep warm fires were lit in oil cans. Actually the game was called after 32 innings and resumed two months later only to be abruptly ended the next inning.
The futility of the players to end the marathon earlier is overshadowed by their persistence in playing out the ritual as if they recognized their role in some archetypal struggle. It was a re-statement of the adage that one finishes what they start. Their devotion to the game and the umpires reluctance to end it earlier became a national news story at the time; a reminder that our National Pastime possesses a defiance of time itself. Every at bat is a re-winding of the clock as the runner goes around the bases counter-clockwise. Baseball, our pastoral sport, has persevered a century of the tyranny of the stop-watch, two-minute warnings and urban razzle-dazzle.
The Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s farm team, finally prevailed over the Rochester Redwings, the Baltimore affiliate, in the Triple A International League. The author gives us the personal lives of several players in great detail; their marriages, how they got there and what glory or ignominy was to be their script. Two players on the field that night went on to The Hall of Fame, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripkin Jr. Others also made it to the Major Leagues but most were either has-beens or wanabes
Minor League players have Major League dreams and when they die it is with a thud. The saddest story belongs to a Pawtucket player, Dave Koza, who was never called up to Boston. His hit finally won the game but his seven years in expectation followed the myth of Sisyphus. He pushed the rock up the mountain expecting to reach his goal only to watch it dribble down, season after season. The killing of the dream led him to alcoholism and the end of his marriage.
The early adulation an athlete receives often ends in bitter disillusion. For most aspiring ballplayers the minor leagues are a graveyard. They have gambled a valuable decade in pursuit of fame and fortune often the last to see their own limited skills.
Baseball is an alternative universe for fans like me. It keeps the child alive. No rational argument to the contrary dissuades me. Not the greed nor the swagger, nor the inconsequential outcome. It could be a metaphor for life itself. One of those inexplicable indulgences I’m happy to leave alone.
Dan Barry also presents us with the supporting cast on that historic night………umpire and bat boy, official scorer and vendor. Everyone has a story. It reminded me of Our Town with each life recorded in the great ledger. There is a symphony of voices to be heard even in a dilapidated ballpark on a chilly April night extending into Easter morning. It sounds like a hymn to America.