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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Sacred Thieves
By Kelly Candaele

There was a time when I thought that Los Angeles Dodger basestealing master Maury Wills was immortal. When I saw him play on television, or when I was old enough to attend a Dodgers game, I never witnessed Wills being thrown out attempting to steal. He seemed unstoppable.

In the 1950s, basestealing leaders swiped an average of thirty bases a year. (One year, 1950, Dom DiMaggio of the Red Sox led the American league in steals with just fifteen.) In 1962, Wills stole 104 bases, breaking the single season record of ninety-six that had been held by Ty Cobb since 1915. By his own description, Wills "revolutionized" the game. Not only did he challenge the Ruthian paradigm that had ruled baseball the past four decades, Wills's go-go baserunning style announced that the conservative Eisenhower years were over. If Americans were going "on the road," as beat writer Jack Kerouac admonished, then Wills would be too.

It's not inappropriate to ascribe godlike qualities to Wills and to those (like Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson) who followed him in basestealing glory. In Greek mythology, the fleet-footed Hermes is both messenger and evasive trickster, a "god of the crossroads" who shook up the static cosmos of the Olympian world. As St. Louis speedster Brock once said, "first base was nowhere," so far from home.

Kids today revere players like Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa, the home run sluggers who periodically trot around the bases, never having to strain to beat out an infield hit the way Maury Wills often did. No doubt about it, a home run can be thrilling to watch, and there is a definitive quality to the longball that is somehow reassuring: One swing and the ball is gone, out of the park, no questions asked.

The great Japanese home run king, Sadaharu Oh, describes the home run as a kind of Zen utopia—the long arc of a ball hit squarely and for distance allowing him a temporary release, free of all the "complications . . . and obstructions" of real life. He cruises the bases unfettered, liberated from the constraints that slow us down on our daily journeys away from and back to "home."

The home run can be a rush—yet it is only momentarily satisfying for fans. In contrast, watching Wills run the bases was like viewing an exquisite drama. Each attempted steal was formed by the same basic structure but acted out in an infinite number of variations depending upon the opposition, the game situation, and Wills's psychological preparation. There is a crushing logic to a home run; a stolen base is all chaos and romance.

Wills explicitly understood that there was both a transcendent and a dark side to his athletic gifts. He spoke of the "divine benefits" and skill that were bestowed upon him and claimed that his record-breaking feats were his way of communicating with God. When Wills reached first base, he felt there was a higher power urging him to run.

But he also recognized the less sublime motivations that drove him, the illicit delight he took in torturing countless pitchers and catchers who couldn't bring him down to earth. Often Wills would steal a base, he explained, not because the game situation demanded it, but just so his opponents would "hate me more." Like St. Augustine describing his own "confessions" (the theft of fruit in his case), what made his desire sinful was thievery for its own sake—the simple pleasure of doing what was wrong. To opposing players, stealing a base when it's not needed—a form of hotdogging—is a violation of an individual's integrity, an undermining of baseball's unwritten moral code.

After Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982, Wills expressed fear that things were getting out of control. He predicted that someone would soon steal two hundred bases and that it would upset the competitive balance of the game. The finely ordered universe of baseball might soon have someone who dominated the game through absolute success.

Wills shouldn't have worried. Henderson's 1982 record is still intact. Only one other player, Vince Coleman, has stolen more than one hundred bases since then. Last year, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki led the major leagues in steals with only fifty-six swipes.

The decline in the art of basestealing is no accident. Home runs are now part of baseball's economic bottom line, and ballparks are built for hitters, not runners. The home run, with its quick run allure, fits snugly with our get-rich-quick culture and its thirty-second-sound-bite attention span. But there is a price to pay.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thought a great deal about American culture, pointed out that there is no way to avoid the tax that the universe imposes upon those who abandon a sense of limits. In his essay "Compensation," he wrote that "equity adjusts itself in all parts of life" and that the "deep remedial force" of nature must eventually bring balance back to an unstable world. Capitalism's logic has once again taught our new dot-com millionaires that what goes up must come down. But we wait for the redemptive grace of a great basestealer who will release the game once again from its overdependence on the ephemeral pleasures of the longball.

 

During my years as a high school baseball player, I learned the limits of "progress." I believed that my teammate Bobby Grossini would become the next Maury Wills. In all the years I played either with him or against him, I only saw Bobby thrown out once trying to steal.

We were certain that when Bobby reached first base, within a couple of pitches he would be on his way to second. When he shook up the opposing pitcher or made the infielders move in unorthodox ways, he gave us confidence. When Bobby stole a base, as we knew he would, the world was as it was meant to be.

Bobby's exploits on the bases took on mythological proportions. Myths, according to the people who study them, bring order to the world. In all of the randomness and unpredictability of life, myths provide a narrative pattern that give events a sense of continuity. In my adolescence, Bobby's physical and spiritual courage was dependable, something I wanted to emulate. His individual achievements served a collective team goal. If one of the most powerful myths involves leaving home and returning with a special gift, Bobby embodied that journey.

In the summer of 1972, when we were both eighteen, Bobby was thrown out stealing. I don't remember whom we were playing, the score, or the outcome—just that one play. I recall his jittery lead, his jump after a moment of hesitation, the quick throw by the catcher, and the dirt that flew up as he slid. The umpire jerked his thumb backward behind his ear and called it right. Bobby was out; it wasn't even close. He was gunned down, nailed, hung out to dry. Our thief was captured and convicted. His sentence was a long slow walk to the dugout with all eyes on him, not exactly humiliated, but no longer invincible. He left the field with his head bent down to the finiteness of the earth. I didn't realize it at the time, but at that moment the recognition that we were all creatures of limits somehow sunk in. The search for perfection was a chimera.

The writer George Plimpton rhapsodizes that ". . . a home run stamps itself upon the memory like nothing else in sport. . . ." I've played and watched thousands of baseball games in my life and seen many home runs that are now merely a blur. But the memory of Bobby being thrown out that day has stayed vividly in my mind.

When Bobby was caught stealing, part of my innocence disappeared. Something that I had relied upon was no longer dependable, and somehow I realized at that moment that life would be filled with "complications and obstructions." Psychoanalysts would call my reflections a "cover memory," a condensing of a childhood trauma on a dramatic scene. Whatever my recollection's origins, from twenty-nine years' distance, the perfect throw from the catcher that nailed Bobby also captured some of the sadness and disappointment that is inextricably part of life.

Defeat and loss can often contain their own reversal. Sure Bobby was thrown out, and on some level for me that event was significant. But that play was about choice and chance, an existential challenge to the authority of the pitcher and the catcher and a willingness to disrupt the status quo. Bobby set what Thomas Wolfe described as the "desperate solitary atoms" of the waiting defense in motion. Bobby and Maury Wills both said, "I will not stay at home. I'm going on the road." In that first crossover step and the drive toward second they asserted their freedom, a kind of personal sacrament. I remember watching the quick turn of their shoulders, the frantic thrust of their arms, and the hunger in their pumping legs.

I feel today what I felt then. I'll take the mad dash of a great basestealer over a lazy trot around the diamond any day.

—EFQ

 

KELLY CANDAELE has written extensively for the Los Angeles Times and other national publications. His mother, who played professional baseball in the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League, stole 114 bases for the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1946.

© 2001 Kelly Candaele

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