20 February 2008

the great and glorious game

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."
-- from "The Green Fields of the Mind", by A. Bartlett Giammati

So begins one of my all-time favorite bits of writing, Giamatti's brilliant "The Green Fields of the Mind", a bizarrely affecting little essay which grows in impact and relevance for me with each passing year, and which has now become a sort of mantra or ritual to mark both the opening and closing of baseball season each year.

I love sports—most all sports, with the notable and seething exceptions of golf and soccer, facilities for which I find contemptible wastes of real estate which might be better used as landfills—but there is something about baseball which goes beyond mere love and approaches a sort of religious fervor. And I do not mean that I fixate upon ERAs and batting averages of major leaguers, for those overpriced over-privileged and over-skilled primadonnas are but one bit of baseball. What I love about baseball—what speaks to me in reverent whispers—are the strange clues and revelations of capital-T Truth which it provides us. I'm one of those who believes that Life is a good analogy for Baseball rather than vice versa, as there is basically nothing in life which does not mimic some aspect of the great and glorious game.

Success? Victory? Glory? Sure, they're there, but always in equal or lesser amounts than are failure, defeat, ignominy. It's that rarest of sports where it's as much about individual confrontation—pitcher vs batter, catcher vs runner, outfield vs time and space itself—as it is about team play. It's the one game where the offense is always—always—at a designed numerical disadvantage, and where you score without the ball. Where you can fail as a player yet see that failure contribute to the team's success, and vice versa. Where no game is ever over until both sides have had fair and equal opportunity to wrest victory from the jaws of galactic indifference. Where luck and blind chance play such a monumental part of the game that few even notice its presence, as when a ground ball somehow barely trickles through for a critical hit when one batter later a laser-straight cannon-shot might magically find an undeserving glove to be reduced to merely "out number 2" in the scoring.

Last night was the first night of Little League baseball for this year, and as I walked onto the first field for practice—my 5-year old daughter's first workout—I looked at the sky, at the grass, as the balls and bats and gloves and bases scattered on the ground, and was immediately swallowed up by that odd deja vu sort of feeling—haven't I been here a thousand times before?. A half hour later I drove around the corner to a neighborhood pocket park to meet my 10-year old team for the first time as part of a quick meet-n-greet.

As I stood there and talked to the boys and explained what I hope to teach them this spring, I started to feel like a priest delivering the Easter sermon for the thirty-fourth consecutive year to his local parish. The message remains largely the same, and there are some new faces and some familiar faces looking at me when I speak, but still there is that rush in the chest, that ball of heat that tries to claw its way out: I know this stuff sounds silly in our modern world, but dammit you have to hear me! You have to believe me when I tell you that THIS IS THE STUFF THAT MATTERS!

All the mundane bullshit of "normal" life is stuff we can hide from, stuff we can delegate, we can postpone, we can ignore.

But in baseball... there is only the moment. When the pitch is on the way... when the ball is coming toward our position... when you see the runner shouting to you with his charging feet "I don't think you've got the arm to make this play, bud...".. When the game is on the line and victory or defeat will be decided in the next third of a second by What You Do Next.

Later in the evening I led my 7-year old team through its first full workout of the year. The pitching machine was set up, we hit a lot of batting practice, we worked on some very basic defensive concepts, we ran the bases a lot. Practice ended and I was breaking down the pitching machine to store in the storage shed at the park, picking up the bases and collecting my gear. Most families had already left, but one dad was lingering back to help me straighten up. He laughed that I seemed so involved with baseball, and wondered how in the world I found the time to be so involved.

"You make time for the things that matter."

He at first thought I was talking just about my kids—that they are what matters and for which I make time. I explained that surely that was a big part of it, but that I also mean that baseball itself is important, as much for what the game teaches us about frustration and heartache and disappointment as for what it reinforces about pride and joy and contentment. Because at the end of the day, what matters most is what you do when things don't magically fall your way, when the gods themselves seem to conspire to throw obstacles in your path, when you can't buy a strike and every ball you hit seems pre-ordained to find a glove.

Anyone can seem heroic when the going is good. It's in those cold lonely moments when nothing seems easy or good that character and worth are truly revealed, and baseball provides us with such chill moments by the bushel barrel.

I want my kids—and when I say "my kids" in the context of baseball I refer not to just my own biological progeny, but to that extended circle of kids whom I love for having been their coach at some point—to learn to not shy away from those moments. To not fear those moments, but to relish them, to enjoy them, to desire and cherish them as divine gifts. For it is at those moments that we cease to be merely bystanders in the story of our own lives, and instead become the central player, the locus of all potential outcomes in a given situation— "all possible realities spring from this singular unique moment."

One of the great tragedies of modern life seems the way that so many men now stand paralyzed and impotent in the face of any challenge or difficulty. I see heartbreaking numbers of men genetically incapable of standing their ground and fighting for what they believe and claim to value.

Surely some folks will roll their eyes and think this is a rather large leap to make, but I contend that more often than not you will find such men are the ones who did not play baseball as youths, or who, if they did play, played but briefly and without any passion at all—who never learned how to muster the courage to put on a helmet, grab a bat, and then dig in in the batter's box to face nine opponents defiantly convinced that you pose no threat, that nothing you might do could change their combined trajectory.

To stand there, alone, ready and willing to put yourself at risk of public failure yet remain absolutely convinced that today you shall succeed... that seems a feeling worth having, worth seeking, worth nurturing and fostering and promoting.

And that's why I love baseball. Not for the easy glamour of winning, but for the moments when you are forced to cling tenacious to only the faintest glimmer of hope when everyone around you has long since given up the fight.

Not because in those moments you have any great likelihood of succeeding, but because in those moments you have the opportunity afforded by hope... if you have the guts and courage to claim it.

Yes, "it breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart." But for a heart to break, it first must care. And that for me remains the crowning glory of Baseball—the notion that one man with a tiny bit of hope and grit and bloody raw determination might yet turn this story down a totally different path.

Come on, meat—bring me the heat. Bring it...

God I do love this game.

1 comment:

MaryAn Batchellor said...

My good friend just retired from 20 plus years as executive assistant to Tom Hicks, owner of the Stars and the Texas Rangers. I will miss those tickets they would give me now and then for the owner's seats behind the warm-up circle. We had access to his suite by the locker room, all the snacks and goodies my kids could eat and talk about the royal treatment! Everyone knew those were the owner's seats so my kids always got a ball from a player and well, you can't beat the view of the game (or the players stretching!)