Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Poetry of Baseball

I’m told by friends, who don’t want to hurt my feelings, that they enjoy my blogs…. except for those about baseball. Of course I sympathize with their impoverishment and must also take up the challenge in remedial education.

Many great poets and writers have embraced the game. Among them are May Swenson, William Carlos Williams, John Updike, Marianne Moore, Donald Hall, Jack Spicer and Shakespeare. I just threw him in to see if you were paying attention.

To turn away from baseball is to reject your ancestry. Rumors have it that early man broke off a branch and swatted away an approaching rock thus giving birth to the rudiments of the game. The wood became a natural extension of an arm and the incoming missile could be the moon or any spherical celestial object. Perhaps it was the paradigm for our space program. When running, throwing, and catching were no longer necessary for survival they died as essential tools and became an art form or sport.

I can see this was too much of a stretch. It didn’t even convince me. Let me try again.

As if ordained by the gods themselves and brought down from Mt. Olympus baseball celebrates Euclidian geometry. It turns a square into a diamond punctuated with three pillows, as safe stations, and a metaphoric home. The navigation around the bases is a hero’s journey, Odysseus-like. When home plate is finally achieved it is often accompanied by a cloud of dust to signify the arduous circumstances, with a god-like umpire passing judgement. Perhaps Zeus took pleasure in watching men fail. Sisyphus was not alone in futility. Baseball is so designed to reward a seventy percent failure rate with millions of gold pieces. Add to this the amazing correspondence of nine innings to our allotted decades on earth, with an allowance for extra innings here and there.  

Still not persuaded? Let me put it this way.

Can you hear it? The crack of the bat. The twack of ball into mitt. The smell of green grass and hot dogs.  Baseball is so pastoral, so American, so deliberate and so inconsequential. Games will be won and lost setting fans in anguish or jubilation yet nothing will be really changed. Trump is still with us, the polar ice continues to melt and the NRA still supports weapons of mass destruction. But here’s what changes: From Opening Day on Thursday to sometime in late October a human drama will unfold without script. It is neither rigged nor predictable. An alternative narrative is enacted in real time which makes more sense than this one we gnash our teeth over listening to Cable News. The game of baseball offers the illusion, at least, of order, strategy and control. Every stance and swing will be scrutinized and the mountain of verifiable stats may not amount to a hill of beans for the uninitiated but to us the fan(atics) it is its own universe, a ritualized life and death, only to live again the next day regardless.

The game allows men of all sizes and shapes, beer bellies, hulks and shrimps, cerebral and instinctual. It attracts physically endowed jocks and bespectacled nerds. Harvard graduates are now general managers of several teams trying to outwit their counterparts with new data yet the core of the sport is an unquantifiable human element. What is more mysterious than a sudden slump or streak? Even the dimensions of the playing field are inscrutable with the precision of an infield contrasted with haphazard measurements of the outfield. All of which add to the bafflement of each nine innings.

Baseball is our answer to the impermanence of life. It defines our seasons. There is an intimacy between pitcher and catcher in a shared fluency of silent gestures. Players are widely positioned spatially with anticipation coiled in their legs to dart at the instant of contact between ball and bat. And all this time the poet watches in the stands with time to ponder how life, itself, is simulated on the field.

Finally I am left with the nagging realization that I am really trying to understand why it is that I still care. The Bible says to put away childish things so I put away the Bible. At my age there is no messianic urge to convert the heathens. Only Peggy has the irrational exuberance to take on the game, as she has, late in life. Otherwise rationalization is as hopeless as hitting a 100 mph fastball.

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