Monday, May 21, 2012

Baseball


Last Friday morning, at the weekly coffee gathering, two of your companions were speaking of baseball in the near-code language of the fans of any sport.  ERAs and RBIs, IPs and DPs hung over their conversation like the glow from the lights being turned on for the second game of a double-header.

You knew what they were talking about but not who.  There was a period of about twenty years when baseball was the equivalent in your life of a youngster in class, waving his arm to be called upon, not so much to show off his knowledge (although there was some of that at all times) as to add his ingredient to the stew of the subject at hand.

For all you were—and are—a book and journal person, you had more than one foot in the dirt of the batter’s box, both feet in the grass of the outfield, where the sound of a baseball being met by a Louisville Slugger bat was as resonant for you as Charlie Parker’s chord changes on “Donna Lee,” which, even then, you knew to be at heart “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

You could tell from the sound where the ball was likely to be sent and how, as a lazy, can-of-corn fly ball, a snarling line drive, or a grass-chewing grounder, perhaps the most notional of all species of the ball propelled by the bat.  At some point after hearing the sound of bat meeting ball, you’d begin to look for it, determine its intent, its estimated time of arrival in your vicinity.  You batted and threw right-handed.  

After hours of practice, you’d achieved the muscle memory of shifting your weight to your right foot if the trajectory of the ball were in any way a fly, allowing you on catching the ball to shift your weight to your left foot as a part of a seamless catch-and-release relay of the ball to the infield cut-off person.  No one on base was going to advance on you after you’d made the catch.

Such calculations and games and moments were likely the closest you’ve ever come to coordinated grace.  Even then, you knew your affair with playing baseball was of a comparison to your date for the senior prom, a fluke of sorts, a cosmic anomaly.  

Before you’d ventured on the first dance at the prom, aware of your lackluster dancing abilities, you told your date, Anna, that while you were no Fred Astaire on the dance floor, you were the equivalent of Gene Kelly when it came to fetching punch.

You happened on a preference for playing positions in the outfield because you associated the remoteness from your teammates as an expression of individuality.  At times, while playing, you went so far as to have a paperback anthology of poetry in your pocket, in case the opportunity arose.

Your association with baseball was not through high school or college sports but rather the pick-up game, where the demographics of the sides—for you could hardly call them teams—often depended on the whim of when third base or catcher were called home to supper.  In later years, the games included screenwriters, novelists, attorneys, book publicists, and newspaper reporters.  They often included one or more of the players being handicapped with a raging hangover, something the young, neighborhood fill-in players were yet to appreciate.

Baseball is a young person’s game, a fact you began to appreciate at these later games where many of the players had joined you in your thirties or were senior to you by upwards of twenty years and the younger players would without guile urge you, “Over here, sir.  Throw it over here.  Sir.”  As the years progressed, you even heard some of the younger players, coaching the pitcher about one of your contemporaries, “He can’t fucking hit breaking stuff.”

Your first major league baseball game was a key factor in the romance you were to have.  Fenway Park was, and still is, for all its boisterous fans, the equivalent of the hushed silence of a museum or art gallery.  Most of the Red Sox players on that day were not mere men, they were heroic.  Ted Williams.  Dom DiMaggio.  Johnny Pesky. Bobby Doerr.  Could it be that these men were not only able to play here but be paid for doing so?

There were other major league parks, but none so iconic as Fenway Park, and you’re glad of it.  Your favored baseball venue, Gilmore Field, home of the Pacific-Coast League Hollywood Stars, is long gone, fodder for some future cultural archaeologists, but the right field bleachers are as clear as they ever were on Sunday afternoon, where you sat through countless double-headers with your father, keeping score in your rumpled handwriting.  Bases loaded.  One out.  Things look bad for the Stars, but the batter connects with a high-chopping grounder to shortstop, and before your adrenaline had a chance to alarm you, you’d written down the code.  6-4-3. Double play.  Short to second to first.

Games and contests are ephemeral.  You knew that then; you know it now, which in part explains your evolved indifference to most games.  The game is only the background, the subtext, the counterpoint.  The people in the bleachers and the rise and fall of interests, passions, admiration for a particular moment; these form a code of their own, which you’ve set forth to decipher, to make some sense of in a world where such ironies attach themselves to the need for making sense.

You and your sentences often do not make sense, although you do try to decode them and the intense sense of longing behind them.  You find it easy when talking about your father to speak of the ways in which he was able to communicate so much of his person without words or with few words.

When you needed him and his words, there were those endless Sunday double-headers and the walk home afterwards.

Baseball made a splendid subtext for you watching events, trying to capture them in codes related to batting averages, innings pitched, stolen bases, and the scorecard numbers representing their positions on the field.  You were an 8.  Eight is always center field.  Sometimes you were a 7, right field, which position you’d often be assigned if there were an unusually high number of left-handed batters.  Possibly a 9

You caused yourself great gastric uproar when chasing a well-hit fly ball that sailed over your head, inducing you to swallow the wad of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco you’d taken on as some kind of status symbol.  You caught the ball, but your stomach could not tolerate the mischief you’d subjected it to.

You subject yourself to mischief, watch for it, and try ever so much to find a code for it.


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