I found something else I wrote a little while ago that I can post today. It elaborates on an earlier point I made in this post, where I talk about baseball as having an advantage over football in terms of its language. It also hints toward my feelings on the disillusionment caused by the steroid issue this year and the supposed disillusionment of Red Sox fans now that the Sox have reached the Promised Land. I'll explore both these issues further as Spring Training--the best time to contemplate the game as a whole and your team as a singular entity before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the season--continues.
Hope you enjoy it. Promise to be back in form soon...
The Poetry of Baseball
For me, the fundamental moment came at Fenway Park in Boston, somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties. Though I have never been athletic, watching and occasionally clumsily attempting to play baseball were a large part of my upbringing, and this private study was supplemented with frequent pilgrimages to the storied ground of Fenway, to see the Green Monster, to see Stanley Steamer come out of the dugout with his rake, to see Wade Boggs hit home runs, to see Roger Clemens strike out batters in succession.
But of all the mythical men I saw sink cleats into the grass there, by far the most special in my memory was Dwight Evans.
Dwight Evans had been playing in Boston since 1973--before my parents had even met. He was a great hitter and an outfielder with, as my dad put it, "an arm like a cannon." By the time I came to Fenway to see him, though, his glory days were over, and he was kept around like a beloved teddy bear, revered like a grizzled veteran of a long-ago war. He was no one to me but a man with a funny black mustache.
On the day I am remembering, Dwight Evans came to the plate to bat. "Now batting-atting-atting..." the PA boomed, sounding like the voice of the Wizard of Oz, "Number twenty-four-our-our-our...the right-right fielder-eilder...Dwight-whight-whight-whight-Evans-evans-evans."
I was too young to know about Evans' batting average, his fielding statistics, his on-base percentage, his performance against the particular pitcher he was now facing. All that stuff came later.
But I knew what a "boo" was. I heard it often at Fenway Park, from the men who slopped beer onto my shoulder from the seats behind us, or the old men scrawling with their tiny pencils in their programs and chewing on cigars.
I turned to my father, and in retrospect the question was as filled with a kid's innocence and trust as any I have ever heard or witnessed--"Why are they booing him, Dad?"
My dad laughed. He said sidelong out of the right corner of his mouth, not looking away from the matter at hand, of course, "They're not booing. They're saying 'Dew'."
I listened again. Gradually I was able to pick out the subtle difference. "Dooooooo..." was what they were saying--the abbreviated version of Evans' nickname, "Dewey." Not "boo."
"Dooooo!" I piped, glancing up at my father for his approval. He finally looked down into my face and smiled. Thus rewarded, I attacked cheering for Dewey with my whole heart.
"DOOO!!!" I kept yelling, long after Evans had returned to the dugout. "DOO!!"
Dewey Evans was no one to me. I didn't know about his heroics in the 1975 World Series. I didn't know about Carlton Fisk's home run. I didn't even know about Bill Buckner's disastrous error. I was actually still kind of working on the difference between a foul ball and a hit.
But what I knew was that, for a reason I couldn't articulate, I loved Dwight Evans. And that somewhere in the back of my mind it had something to do with how much I loved my father.
That's how it starts. That's how people grow attached to a certain player, a certain team. It's hard to grow up near Boston, hearing your father cheer for Dewey, and not hold a certain fondness in your heart for any guy who wears a "B" on his cap years later.
It's not just a game--in fact, it's not even about the game at all, if the game is only the cold and abstract sum of winning and losing, base hits and walks and earned run average.
It's about fatherhood, and the way men want to share with their children the things that their fathers shared with them when they were small. It's about childhood, and the heartbreakingly inarticulate way young children idolize their parents.
And so generations of Boston children, adoring their fathers, learn to love the Red Sox. And they learn to hate the Yankees the way a child on the playground hates the bully who insults his father. The two become one and the same. Wins and losses, flubbed World Series, and the Curse of the Bambino have nothing to do with it.
And gradually those children become the next generation of fans. The species reinvents itself, and evolves.
Of course, one cannot live as a child forever. A man with a funny mustache is a perfectly suitable hero when you are seven, but as you mature, you need more. You begin to fall from grace, and you begin to need stories.
That's where the language of sports comes into play.
Frankly, I'm shocked that someone more learned than I has never investigated the peculiar linguistics of the American sports fan. It speaks so much to our evolution--our story.
In high school I was an artsy kid. I hung out with the drama geeks. Playing, liking or in any way having anything to do with sports beyond the marching band was anathema to the artsy kids. Football players in particular--brash, loud, confident, and, to see the way they were coddled by many in town, the future leaders of society--were convenient straw men for our half-baked counter-cultural sentiments.
I could not, in good faith, even pretend to be interested in sports in my proscribed high school role, and so I never took overt interest in our high school squads' struggles on the field. I attended football games, but sat among the low-brass section of the Marching Band. The only time I really paid attention to what was happening in front of the crowd was when the band played its halftime show; I had a crush on a boy who played a baritone horn, not one who played linebacker.
I'd left behind baseball, too.
In the story of the sports-fan kind, such departures are common as well. Every so often something else--a foreign war, Presidential politics, high school, steroid or gambling scandals--breaks in and demands our attention as a Serious Matter. And sports are just games. We look away.
But we cannot escape our upbringing. We can learn other tongues, but we stick to our native language in times of need.
It still may seem incongruous for me, a bookworm with an English degree, to be caught up in the Sox-Yankees rivalry, and arguing over batting averages and trade rumors.
But look deeper, and it's not so strange at all. Both literature and sports fascinate me with their language. Baseball would be nothing without narrative.
Take, for example, the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's the story of Cain and Abel all over again, and like any legend of the past, it imbues the present with meaning it would otherwise not enjoy. Every generation has its heroes--Williams, Fisk, Yazstremski, Clemens, Martinez--and its scapegoats--Ruth, Morgan, Buckner, Grady.
The names should be engraved somewhere, perhaps on two stone tablets.
Baseball is all about words. Each position has a distinctive name—first, second or third basemen, the word "basemen" in and of itself so professional, like "draftsman" or "businessman."
And has there ever been a title more crunchy and delicious than "shortstop"? He stops up the gap between second and third, of course, but it's not just a job description the way the name "linebacker" tells you that the man in question "backs" the "line." It contains an adverb--he stops the ball short as it's hit toward left field. It's a comment, an exhortation, as much as a name.
But delve further--look at the sounds of the word itself. The whisper of "Shhh" means the crispness of "t" and "p." The name is dynamic. It's alliterative. In the middle is an "awe."
Were baseball like football, the pitcher would be simply a "thrower" the way the guy who kicks the ball is, simply, a "kicker". But pitchers don't throw. They pitch. "Pitch" is an entirely different word.
In noun form, it's the sticky substance given off by pine trees--perhaps not coincidentally the stuff pitchers themselves put on their hands.
In verb form, when you put up a tent, that's pitching, as in, erecting a structure. The pitcher is the centerpiece of the team much the way a pole holds up a tent. If he collapses, so does the rest.
You can pitch over, much like pitchers do when they fall forward to deliver the ball to the catcher.
But, most importantly, when you huck a ball at 100 miles an hour--one of the more miraculous achievements of the human body, ever--that's not throwing. That's pitching.
These subtleties, like the difference between "Boo!" and "Doo!" are of the utmost importance. The word selection is as delicate as poetry.
Baseball is never short on poetry. If the stories of teams like the Sox and Yankees are Homeric, the every day language of the game is like the intricate wordplay of e.e. cummings.
One of my favorite baseball expressions is "bloop" as in "bloop double." It's more than a description--it's onomatopoeia for you word-geeks keeping score.
Or how about what we say when a batter hits a long home run, especially off a dominant pitcher? "He took him deep," or "He took him over the wall." As in, it's not the ball the batter hits and tosses out of the park--it's the pitcher himself. It's such a deeply personal, deeply metaphoric expression--a pitcher's chagrin at giving up a home run is such that he might as well leave with the ball.
Of course, the notion of "home" is explicitly present in baseball, but its connotation is entirely different from that of football. The lone base runner crosses the plate--also known, delightfully, as "the dish"--like the adventuring explorer tops Everest: alone and after taking a roundabout route. A journey around the bases is a solitary quest with obstacles along the way, rather than an organized assault by a unified army.
As if the game needed more solitude, the batter stands in a "box." The pitcher looks down upon his counterparts from a "mound"--which has grown to a "hill" in the popular vernacular.
Baseball players are only loosely affiliated with one another as they take the field. Each has a huge stretch of ground to defend and control. Errors, runs, hits, walks, and any other currency of the game is rewarded to individual players rather than whole lines or "packages". Baseball is a slow, contemplative, lonely game.
Pitchers who come in late in the game are otherwise kept in the "bullpen."
A pitcher with lots of longevity is known as a "horse."
Yep. Lots of time to think up metaphors.
Baseball players are christened with new names. The Babe. Teddy Ballgame. The Kid. Joltin' Joe. Shoeless Joe. Big Papi. There are their given names--George Herman Ruth, Theodore Williams, Joseph Dimaggio, Joseph Jackson, David Ortiz--and these new monikers, adopted like the capes and aliases of superheroes.
After all, you can't be an epic hero with a name like George Herman. But a name like "Babe", and, even better, with the superlative "The" before it--well, now you're talking.
The game is full of paradoxes--though they are known as a team, the players might as well be strangers as they take the field and face the pitch alone.
Yet, even as there is an aloof relationship among those on the same team, there is a paradoxically cooperative relationship between those at the center of the action--the pitcher and the batter. Look at it this way: a quarterback throws passes to his own receivers. A basketball player or hockey player, similarly, passes the ball or puck to his teammates. A pitcher, meanwhile, is probably the only athlete in the world who throws a ball directly towards another man, and yet hopes he will not make contact with it.
At the same time, they talk constantly from their lonely outposts, "jawing" at each other, from infield chatter--"heybattabattabattabatta"--to arguments over calls, to conversations between runners and basemen as if they were meeting on a street corner.
Baseball fans, meanwhile are the only ones that feel the need to log and diagram the game while watching it. Little charts full of little squares can be found in every program, and the cigar-chewers mark them with little symbols, filling in corners with black marks and numbers and letters, documenting the series of complicated equations that formed the spectacle.
And baseball fans talk,too. They talk about "taters" and "tosses" and "arms like rockets" and "arms like cannons" and "horses" and "stiffs" and "ham-and-eggers" and "bums" and journeymen "having a cup of coffee". They tell each other the stories of this or that game, this or that World Series. They write books. They write the hieroglyphics of the scorecard. They explain to their children what a curveball is.
The talk surrounds us like a bedtime story, read by our fathers, like the Scriptures, read from a pulpit, the sacred litany. Steroid scandals or the collapse of a decades-long tradition of losing pale before this aspect of sacredness about the game itself, the true, fundamental game that is as eternal as language, and our need to communicate.
Baseball is forever. Baseball is eternity. Baseball has been played for more than a century in almost exactly the same way. And yet, as any baseball fan knows, the same patterns are rarely seen twice. It's like a perpetually turning kaleidoscope, and baseball fans can’t help themselves-- win or lose, they need to keep a record. They need to make linguistic the infinite and ever-fluctuating patterns before them.
They are, in short, poets.