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MY TURN AT BAT

Why Baseball Is the Sexiest Game
By Elizabeth Bales Frank

 

Baseball is as sexy as a spectator sport gets. Let me tell you right off the bat (as it were) what I don't mean by that. I don't mean anything having to do with groupies, so you can forget about Bull Durham and its only-in-Hollywood Whitman-spouting, financially carefree heroine. And you can forget any one player's private stupidities, covered so excessively by the media. In fact, forget about the players altogether, at least as far as their relative sexiness in the world of regular men goes. The players are only as sexy as the sport they're in. Tom Seaver was Tom Terrific, sure, once upon a time, but now he's just a guy in a crewneck with a 1969 haircut, sitting in an armchair pitching Oldsmobiles on television.

No, when I say sexy, I mean the nature of the intimacy between the game and its fans, between those who make baseball and those for whom baseball is made, which is all of us. Look at it this way: Football is a game, basketball is a sport, but baseball is a state of mind.

Baseball is the only game that invites you in as it unfolds at its own pace, not predetermined but dependent—like romance—on the mood, condition, energy, and skill of the two sides in question. Every romance has at core its peculiar myth: "We have a lot of fun" or "The two of us are really hot together" or "We're friends at the bottom of it all." So does every baseball team that makes itself a legend: the team is a stormy rotation of power and clean-up, for example, or a harmonious squad of speed and stealth. Will you ever forget your first love? Will you ever completely forsake the first team that grabbed a piece of you and wouldn't let go?

Baseball courts you. The action hovers coyly, flicking glances at you (still watching me up there?), and then everything explodes into some wholly unanticipated activity that just delights you, that takes your breath away. Football, basketball, hockey, on the other hand—they scamper along within regulation lines, guided by a regulation clock, with contact limited by heavy protective gear, with penalties imposed for all kinds of nasty personal fouls.

This is not how friends behave.

I've heard men say that when they think of sex and sports, they think of football. Huh? On whose behalf were you thinking, dear? Perhaps these guys were distracted by the image of the homecoming queen bonding with the glamorous quarterback. This is not sexy. This is a couple archetype. Ron and Nancy Reagan were a couple archetype. Were they sexy?

Football is about as seductive as a stag party. Football, in fact, is a stag party—a group of macho guys behaving like louts, destroying property, trying to do maximum damage to and impress the hell out of one another, and then bringing on the dancing girls when they want to take a rest.

Baseball on the other hand, is for adults. In other sports, you can get all your buddies to beat on all the other guys' buddies on your behalf, but in baseball, when you stand out there on the field, even though you're with your team, you're standing out there all alone. This makes the players partly independent, partly vulnerable; part of the community, yet loners at heart—kind of like Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Yes, well. Other sports provide continuous action (all the way down the field, hey!) but, along with it, a mob mentality. Where is the finesse in watching eighteen men fighting the clock and each other for possession of some oversized misshapen piece of leather? In baseball, the player cups the ball in one hand, and it fits perfectly. Think about that.

You see faces in baseball. You learn to recognize the code in a player's smile, in a pitcher's sigh on the mound, in a catcher's rueful shake of the head. You learn the trademarks, the quirks. He's favoring that knee. Better pull him. Can't you see that? What are you looking at? It's a game of thought, of pauses, of strategy, of a whole series of odd, intimate gestures that signal volumes of meaning between coach and player.

When I first began telling men that I wrote about baseball, I would receive a "heh-heh" kind of nervous reply, which puzzled me until one rattled soul pulled me aside to explain that, well, it was kind of an encroachment, wasn't it, to hear a girl talk about baseball, something he's always shared with his dad, something that's always been male. And now here comes a woman possibly looking at the players as sexual objects. I'm only glad I didn't grow up in his neighborhood, which sounds like a frightening, primitive place.

No wonder this guy is still single. Doesn't he realize that "avid baseball fan" is the best thing a woman could say about herself in a personal ad? Doesn't he understand the goodwill and physical well-being this phrase connotes? Does anyone really consider it feminine for a woman to profess (or truly stand behind) a disinterest in sports?

Listen. A woman who finds baseball boring is probably not very good in bed. She cannot tolerate tension or suspense. She lacks imagination and flexibility, and she lacks the wherewithal to fill her own empty spaces. A woman who does not like baseball is a woman who drains men with her monotonous penny-for-your-thoughts demands for constant entertainment. A woman who can't understand the fierce dance of wills between a champion base thief shuffling off first, teasing the mettle of a pitcher who has never thrown him out, who will abruptly pivot and fire and just miss . . . well, such a woman will never understand the first thing about seduction or about the pleasures of a real, grown-up flirtation.

And watch out for the woman who says, Sure, she likes baseball some, but not the really slow games where nothing happens (an Action Annie). No, she only likes the high-scoring games with lots of home runs, and she really only watches at World Series parties. Stay home! Life is not all high-scoring games, sweetheart; life, in fact, is mostly batting practice. A woman who cannot maintain her enthusiasm through a 1–1 extra-inning game that goes on into the middle of the night in an April sleet cannot be counted on to stand by a man's side through the long years ahead. A woman who would buy an extra scorecard in this situation, on the other hand, is the same woman who will, decades from now, turn and smile at her husband's gray temples in the bottom of the eighth during an afternoon game and gesture to deep center: "Look, dear, how the shadows spread across the field!"

All right, here it comes. Baseball and sex have much in common. Rhythm and timing are integral to both. Both, in their most sublime manifestation, unfold very slowly and explode into moments of ecstasy that are gone so fast there is nothing to do but marvel at them (or go to the instant replay). The difference—in both baseball and sex—between the good and the great is a difference of nuance, dedication, and a click that can't be summoned but then echoes in the air like divine applause over the pure of heart. Both can have season schedules lasting just long enough for us to begin to take them for granted. But in both cases, we would be advised to learn to appreciate. The Dodgers left Brooklyn, after all.

With baseball, as with romance, you get out of it what you put into it, unless you happen to be blessed with an exceptional team that takes care of everything. But that's usually not the case. Baseball is like love too—at least love as defined by the Supremes: It can't be hurried, don't come easy, and most of the time, you just got to wait. It's a game of give and take.

—EFQ

 

ELIZABETH BALES FRANK, a third generation Cardinals fan, is a novelist who lives in New York City. This essay originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine and is reprinted by permission.

© 2001 Elizabeth Bales Frank

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