Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Winter Thoughts on the Boys of Summer

Football is gone…and I’m not sorry. It reminds me too much of trench warfare, helmeted men in hand to hand fighting over yards of territory with casualties carried off the field on stretchers. Besides, without a team in Los Angeles I can’t get interested enough to un-cage my beast within, grow fangs and snarl from the couch.

Now that February is five days old, spring training will soon begin in baseball, the thinking man’s game; at least that’s how I prefer to see it. Not to suggest that the players are any brighter or the plays on the gridiron not complex, but the game of baseball seems to attract poets, essayists and nerds.

It could be the deliberate pace allowing time for rumination or the geometry of the field with its Euclidian exactitude in the infield and random irregularity of the outfield that suggests the full dimensions of our humanity. And to top it all it is apportioned in innings, nine of them, more or less corresponding to our new life span; I can say this because I am about to enter my ninth decade. There’s even a possibility of extra innings.

Then there is the polarity of Dionysian hunches versus the Apollonian stats. The way a manager must weigh the pull of the record book with its data of past performance against his intuitive, inarticulate, inchoate decisions made by the seat of his pants which defy rationality. I can imagine Plato relishing the sport, or Schopenhauer discoursing with Spinoza in the dugout over a squeeze play.

When one umpire says, I don’t call ‘em as I sees ‘em. I call them as they are, and another proclaims, They may be balls and they may be strikes but until I call ‘em they ain’t nothing…we have the difference between objective materialism and subjective idealism.

Baseball taps into something primitive in us. Its origins go back to the time when man first swatted away a fly or a caveman took his club to the head of a creature which became dinner for six. Bat against ball, stick against rock or the confluence of any projectile and the extension of an arm. 

The more I have learned about baseball the greater the mystery… as in all things. There is an X factor at its core which is another way of saying that baseball is life, seemingly coherent yet hidden and inexplicable. It is also high drama and inconsequential in terms of cosmology. The outcome of any game changes my life not at all…unless I allow it to.

One of the more arcane features are the signals, the silent messaging that never stops between pitcher and catcher, manager and coaches, coaches and players, infielders and outfielders and even umpire and umpire. It is estimated that 1,000 signs are exchanged over the nine innings. To the casual fan the proceedings can be watched and enjoyed without any knowledge of this cryptic game within the game. But the strategies and counter-strategies abound with every tip of cap, scratch of the nose, hitch of the belt or shuffle of the feet and then there is the acknowledgement of the sign. Half of them  may be decoys. Catchers must hide their fingers; base runners are charged with stealing them. Not only does the pitcher need to get it but all the position players, as well, must know whether to move a step to the right or left if a fast ball is coming. It’s a chess game on a board of green grass. However for the athlete too much thinking can take him out of his muscle memory…..think of that.

As a fan, with a smattering of inside knowledge, I get to second-guess every move not only on the field but off it starting with winter trades and ending with the last pitch of the season. It’s my alternative universe which stretches back in time beyond my first game at Ebbet’s Field in 1939, to the bubble-gum card years, the games imagined on the radio and the heartbreak and joy that come with identifying. There is the life lesson of accepting loss and disappointment inherent in a game where success is accorded to a batter who fails two-thirds of the time

There are ample reasons to walk away from it all starting with the biblical injunction to put away childish things to the spoiled players, arrogant owners, high ticket prices, performance-enhancing drugs and free agency which undermines team loyalty. But my inner child requires it and after the Dodgers followed me from Brooklyn 55 years ago this is the least I can do.  Play Ball!


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