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MY TURN AT BAT

Why Baseball Matters
By Jack Bushnell

 

If the fans is in a hurry to get home they should not of come out to the ballpark to begin with. —Henry Wiggen, pitcher

 

Middle of June 2001. My nearly-three-year-old daughter Addie and I sit behind home plate one afternoon watching our Wisconsin town team, the Eau Claire Cavaliers, play the Minneapolis Angels. We crack peanut shells and litter the cement floor with the broken pieces. Addie works in her coloring book while watching the game, pours the crayons out of their box and chooses them distractedly. We clap when something good happens, for either team. Addie yells, "Good job!" when a batter fouls a pitch back into the netting in front of us. In the covered grandstand and in the bleachers along the baselines, the hundred or so fans who've come out today chat among themselves, stretch, wander off to get a hot dog or beer. Quiet laughter erupts in a small group; heads shake in amusement at something apparently unrelated to the game. In the warm, humid air above the field, small white butterflies shimmer with reflected sunlight, and now and then I hear the faint whistle of the miniature train that gives rides to children near the ballpark.

Across the aisle from me sits a young man in his twenties reading a book. Beside him is a stiff old man who gapes wonderingly, with open, toothless mouth, at everything he sees. I notice that he is especially impressed by a helicopter that flies over the field during the fourth inning, but he also watches intently the movements of batboys and batgirls, as well as the drifting yellow balloon that clears the outfield fence at one point and rises out of sight in the hazy, blue sky.

The young man looks up from his book and turns to me, a slightly vacant expression on his face, as if he's vaguely surprised to find himself here. "This is the first baseball game I've ever been to," he says. "It may be that I'm nostalgic for what I know—I'm thinking of the time of Babe Ruth—but I expected there'd be more action, more running around the bases."

"It depends on the game," I tell him.

He seems to consider this. After a few moments, he asks, "What does the 'H' on the scoreboard stand for?"

"Hits. There aren't many," I say, "but you can see that the teams are nearly even in that category." What I mean, of course, is that this is a good game, no matter which team you're rooting for.

The young man checks his watch, turns back to his book, while the old man stares rapt at the field. They are not father and son, as I had initially thought. The young man is a chaperone and they are on an "outing" from a local assisted care facility. In a few minutes they stand and leave, holding hands. It's only the fifth inning.

 

In his book How Life Imitates the World Series, Thomas Boswell writes, "Baseball is often praised as the sport with a relaxed, sane pace. It supposedly serves as an antidote to modern life, a free pass back to the tempo of an earlier time." I guess that's one of the things the young man at the game missed. Baseball isn't really about rushing around the bases (nor was it when Babe Ruth played). It's not frenetic or even cathartic in the way some other sports manage to be. But despite Boswell's claim about the game's supposed function, it's also not simply a respite from modern life, a temporary escape. I rarely feel nostalgic as I watch, nor do I find myself hankering after "the tempo of an earlier time." I'm not even sure I know what that phrase means. Instead, I'm increasingly interested in what baseball can teach me right now, about myself, about what's important. Our games reflect us, after all, but they also help shape us, especially as we pass them on to our children. I think I'm interested in baseball's potential for critiquing a prevalent modern sensibility by offering us an alternative. Not an old-fashioned alternative, but one that has relevance (perhaps particular relevance) today. If we pay attention, it can show us who we are or at least who we could be.

 

Every summer, my family and I spend a month or so on an island off the coast of Maine. I almost always arrive jittery and impatient with the energy of job and mainland, needing things to do, needing to be productive. But the island resists me. Our two-holed outhouse; daily trips to the well for buckets of water; the rutted roads through fields and woods; picnics on the boat or a nearby island; walking the rocky coast with binoculars and a lunch in a knapsack—all together these insinuate themselves, force me to take on their rhythms. My wife Jenny and I, thinking we're embarking on a hike with a particular destination, must instead stand and wait for Addie to pick blueberries. With no concern for time, she settles down into a patch and eats contentedly. Eventually we give in and join her. Or at the shore, Addie insists on searching for crabs among the sea wrack and under the edges of large stones. She can do this for hours it seems, finding them, picking them up, and returning them carefully to some cool, moist place where they can scurry away again. In these ways, Addie reminds us to adopt the vocabulary of the island. It's not the other way around. We can't impose ourselves on it; we can't make it act like the world we've left back on the mainland. Instead, we must settle into it, lazy and warm, with blueberry juice on our lips, empty of any desire except for what is happening right now, right here.

 

Think of a pitcher's repeated throws to first base to hold a dangerous runner in a crucial, late-inning situation. Over and over, without a single move toward the plate, unconcerned with forward momentum, as if saying, "I don't care about time. I don't care about hurrying. I could do this forever and I would still be playing the game." Think of the rituals of the batter, stepping into the box, stepping out again, refastening the batting gloves, tapping the cleats, hefting the bat, looking to the third base coach for instructions, asking the umpire a question, eyeing the infield and then the outfield to check where players have positioned themselves, stepping into the box, taking some practice swings. And this before every pitch. Think of the other spaces of the game, between each half-inning, during pitching changes or mound conferences, in which nothing seems to happen, just people warming up or standing around talking. Yet all of this is actually part of the game; that is, it signifies that the game is in progress.

Imagine any other team sport in which this would be tolerated. A football quarterback standing on the field, loosening up between plays by throwing the ball back and forth with someone on the sideline, as the clock ticks away. A huddle that goes on and on, players talking among themselves, gazing off into the distance, spitting occasionally, scuffing tobacco juice into the artificial turf, until a referee wanders over and tells them to play ball. Or basketball players crossing and recrossing the lane, adjusting and readjusting their positions to delay an opponent's free throw attempt. Consider the possibility of a couple of warm-up shots after every basket, before a team is ready to put the ball in play. No, these games depend upon a kind of furious rushing ahead, a clashing of helmets and pads, the crunch of the "war in the trenches," the swoop of rebounders "crashing the boards," the brick-wall impact with players setting what commentators call "vicious picks." Like their cousins hockey and soccer, they are frenzied cavalry charges down the field or the court. There is little room for rumination, little desire for it.

Partly for this reason, football and basketball are marketers' dreams. They raise the levels of adrenaline (and testosterone?) in their viewers and thus increase receptivity to messages of all sorts, messages about Internet companies and investment firms and pickup trucks and power tools. They celebrate aggressive competition, physical power, and the constrictions of time above all else. They are peculiarly susceptible to the machinery of hype, the quick-cut, Dateline, MTV, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, dot-com, real-life-cop-show, Temptation Island, instant-culture surrender to sensation. They are adjuncts to the sales paradigm; they have increasingly adopted its rhetoric. They are sports-as-products. The "smash-mouth" XFL, arena football, and summer football were simply line extensions of the flagship brand. Basketball's time-pressured "Slam Dunk" and "3-Point" competitions are primarily means for selling basketball and its related products: shoes, clothing, sporting goods, male accessories . . . and the networks that televise the events to begin with.

Walk into Madison Square Garden to see a basketball game, after jostling through the crowds on Seventh Avenue or Thirty-fourth Street, or the subways beneath Penn Station. No difference, except that there are more people per square inch inside than there were outside. Enter Mile High Stadium or Lambeau Field, where hundreds (perhaps thousands) of your fellow fans are waiting for you to die so as to free up your season tickets to the next in line. The frantic energy, the movements of the crowds, the yelling, the noise-making—they are heightened, focused, intensified versions of the hawkers, taxis, flashing marquees, and traffic you passed and passed through on the way in. "Check it out! Check it out! Check it out!" They are the competitive outside world, only more so. They are commerce writ large; they are the sales pitch that keeps you on the edge of your seat, teeth clenched, blood rushing, full of wanting. The crowd as single-minded organism. The mass market.

 

Here's what I've decided: baseball is bad for business. Not because it's immune to marketing; hell, even Little League fields display advertising along their outfield fences. And not because it's simply an "antidote," a two- or three-hour respite from the world of commerce. Baseball is bad for business because it can't be manipulated to mimic the rhetoric of hype, nor can it be manipulated to reward that rhetoric (except sometimes, I suppose, in the case of the playoffs or World Series). How can a network and its advertisers manufacture artificial urgency around a game that not only has no clock but that is played more or less every day from April through September? Urgency is about desire, about looking ahead for satisfaction. But baseball can't be hurried. It is the archenemy of marketing because it is about not only accepting the present, but being content with it: the season (like life) is a long haul; might as well settle in today and let tomorrow take care of itself. If you're in a hurry, if you crave urgency (to paraphrase Henry Wiggen, the narrator of Mark Harris's The Southpaw), don't bother coming out to the ballpark. Football and basketball subordinate themselves to the demands of television advertising. They make room for all sorts of "official" time-outs, intended solely to create gaps for the regular interjection of commercial messages. Baseball insists, however, that television and its sponsors submit to the rhythms of the game. If a half-inning goes for twenty-five minutes, then the advertising will just have to wait.

But there's another reason that baseball is bad for business. It's too individual, too personal. We're not simple spectators. We don't act in unison. With all those generous spaces in the game, the long drawn-out narrative of nine innings, we can't help but enter it, join its rhythms, and "write" it anew—for ourselves—each time we watch. Going to the ballpark with Addie reminds me that a single game is as much our creation as it is the creation of those playing it on the field. She demands my attention. I worry, for example, that she might drop between the slats of the bleachers and so I keep one eye on her and one on the play before me. She asks questions that need answering.

"Why did that man fall down?"

"He tried to catch a ball that was hard to catch."

"Why is that man so dirty?"

"Didn't you see? He slid into second base."

"When can I play baseball?"

"When you're a little bigger. It won't be long."

Likewise, she notices and comments on things that seemingly have nothing to do with the game on the field. "My shoes have bows on them." "That girl is wearing my favorite color. Blue." "Daddy, don't take all the popcorn." I know that each time we go to the park, each game we watch, will be different from the last, with its own personality and meaning, even though it is the same game (in all those important ways that baseball is continuous) in the same park. Like the players on the field, we baseball fans have a common interest but also tend to behave independently of each other. We're not spectators so much as participants, participants in a game personal to each of us. That makes us harder to sell to. Which is why, I suppose, when September rolls around, the TV networks start broadcasting meaningless, preseason professional football games instead of baseball, as if the country can't wait to speed things up at the first sign that summer might be over.

 

One day, Addie and I watch as the Cavaliers shortstop ranges deep to his right, backhands a groundball on the run, and leaps, whirls, and fires a one-bouncer to first for the out. Beautiful. In the same game, our team executes a perfect hit-and-run play, drawing the opposing second baseman toward the bag on the apparent steal, while the hitter pokes it through the hole now left open. The second baseman even tries to reverse his direction in mid-stride when he sees what is happening, but of course it's too late. Without pausing, the runner goes on to third. It's so satisfyingly simple in concept and in execution when it's done well. In this case, the pros couldn't have done it better. And I try to explain it to Addie, not really believing that she'll understand but still wanting her to hear the baseball words, the talk that fills the spaces of the game.

But later in the summer, playing a team from Lombard, Illinois, our right fielder makes a casual attempt at a short hop single that he could have caught on the fly, and it skitters between his legs for a "triple." Our third baseman, expecting a clean bounce on a grounder, watches instead as the ball catches the lip of the infield grass, stays low, and slips underneath his glove. As if that weren't enough, our pitcher fields an easy one-hopper, turns, and throws well over the head of the first baseman. It's not pretty to watch; it points up the sometimes stark disparity between play at this level and play in the major leagues. And I find myself becoming irritated, impatient. I wonder what I'm doing here, on a warm summer day, when I could be home or in my office getting something accomplished.

Then I remember a game in late May, against the St. Paul Merchants, with my friend David and his daughter Charlotte. The girls have decided they need to run around a little, so we're standing behind the fence along the first base line, just beyond the edge of the bleachers. The Cavaliers shortstop makes a good play on a ball to his left, but tries to hurry his throw to first and ends up sending a sort of dribbly hook into right field. David and I watch quietly, our faces close to the chain link. We've been talking strategy at various points in the game, trying to guess the thinking behind defensive decisions by the two managers, trying to anticipate the problems those decisions might cause for the teams. At this moment, however, there's really nothing to say about what we've just seen. Yet David says it anyway, with unintended understatement, as he turns to retrieve Charlotte, who has just disappeared into an alley beneath the bleachers.

"That was kind of a weird throw from the shortstop."

A straight man's line, delivered almost without inflection, that lifted that particular play out of the realm of simple sloppiness or even "bush league" incompetence into the realm of story, the realm of words, our words. David's comment made that game for me. In fact, except for the throw from short, it's pretty much the only specific thing I remember about that day.

So, I'm learning to watch baseball—and, by extension, live my life—the way Addie does, without false urgency, without so many expectations. I try not to demand a lot of running around the bases, or errorless defense, or even that the team I'm rooting for should win. I try not to impose my criteria on the game in any way, instead letting it play itself out, a brand-new thing every time, a collaborative effort between all of us, in the stands (or in front of our televisions) and on the field. Addie's never in a hurry when she's at the ballpark. She's just there. She eats peanuts, nibbles her hot dog, has something to drink, pulls out her crayons, applauds. And she watches. In her own way she seems to know what I've come to know: that baseball matters. In an age when we rush to fill up the spaces of our lives with whatever we can, with trading, deal-making, moving inventory, using our time (all of it, every second) as efficiently and productively and gainfully as possible; an age when the phrase "Time is money" is a clichÈ only because we so faithfully invoke it every chance we get; an age that prizes violent action over contemplation, and airplanes full of people are flown into buildings full of people in the name of an angry god
. . . baseball matters.

Unfortunately, Addie and I seem to be members of a shrinking minority. Baseball isn't really the "national pastime" anymore, not in the general consciousness, not in a culture that values speed and hype and aggression, and it probably hasn't been for a long while. After all, it's just too damn slow. But of course that's the point. It's the only game that allows us—indeed, forces us—to slow down and think and talk and daydream. And be.

 

Mid-June 2001 again. Top of the ninth. Addie and I sit alone under the big wooden rafters in the uppermost seats of the grandstand. Our view of the field is partially blocked by tall posts and the sloping roof. Suddenly Addie starts singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," loudly and confidently. So I help her finish it. People turn and smile from below. A couple of other kids join in. Soon after, the game ends with a high flyball to center field, a smattering of applause, and a lazy movement toward the exits.

"Want to go to a game tomorrow?" I ask her, as we walk down the steps.

"Yes," she says.

"I wonder who we're playing?" I ask.

But she's already on her way out. Tomorrow is pretty far away. Right now, she wants a ride on the miniature train.

—EFQ

 

JACK BUSHNELL's essays have appeared in such publications as Michigan Quarterly Review, Tampa Review, and Sport Literate. He is also the author of two books for children, Circus of the Wolves and Sky Dancer, both from William Morrow & Company. He teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.

© 2002 Jack Bushnell

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