"I see great things in baseball. It's our game -- the American game. It will take people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us." -- Walt Whitman.
"I'm tired of it. I don't want to hear about it anymore." -- Bill Buckner, the Red Sox first baseman who, in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, let a ground ball through his legs that allowed the Mets to go on and win the championship.
I'm not watching the World Series this year, not a minute of it. As a son of America, I know this to be widely perceived as sacrilege in this time of national trauma, as if I were shrugging off the wounded tribe's great, timeless ritual of bonding and healing.
I know that the highest claims have been made for the game by sages through the ages. That baseball is pure. That baseball is innocent. That baseball is the embodiment of democratic equal opportunity. That baseball, as political commentator George Will has written, is a great science: "The best baseball people are Cartesian. That is, they apply Descartes' methods to their craft, breaking it down into bite-sized components, mastering them and then building the craft up bit by bit."
That baseball, as poet Robert Frost has implied, is the highest expression of human artistry: "Nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write prose -- unless it be to have it assumed that I once pitched a baseball with distinction."
Yep. When pontificators give metaphoric import to baseball, they tend to load it up with gobs of meaning the way Gaylord Perry used to dress up a spitball.
But here's what I see watching baseball during this autumn season when each game, and therefore potentially any one moment within it, really does matter. I see a system diabolically constructed to select, illuminate and capriciously enshrine for all time the Goat Who Blew It.
Talk to Bill Buckner about this, although you probably won't get much of an answer from him.
I vividly remember that ground ball going through Buckner's legs. I was sitting on the couch with my soul mate, tears streaming down our faces. We'd arrived at this point the usual way, personally invested in neither the Red Sox nor the Mets at the start of the Series, but wanting the "fun" of rooting for one team or the other. We'd decided on the Sox because Deirdre's father loves the team, and so to see the Red Sox win would be to know that bliss had been visited upon a loved one. Hot dogs and chips perched on our knees game after game, we'd agonized our way to that sure, sweet triumph, only to see it skitter into the outfield, only to know, instinctively, that the gods would punish Buckner mercilessly with a Mets victory in Game 7.
I vividly remember, too, the turning point of the 1988 World Series, the pinch-hit, game-winning home run hit by the Dodgers' injured warrior Kirk Gibson, his gimp-kneed tour of the bases now the stuff of highlight reels. Whenever the moment is replayed, and it is often, the pitcher isn't shown but I see who is standing there, head down. It is Dennis Eckersley, his stellar career as a relief pitcher for the Oakland A's forever marred by playing patsy to Gibson's hero.
Just before, and after, Gibson hit that home run it was Eckersley I was identifying with -- his improbably skinny body and unorthodox sidearm delivery, just an average guy fooling everybody with the same little trick every time. And then it all caught up to him at the worst possible moment, under a glare of attention that means he will never live it down. I know what it means to let your feelings lean recklessly over the plate. I know the beanball of heartbreak, and I'm bailing out.
"I think a baseball field must be the most beautiful thing in the world. It's so honest and precise. And we play on it. Every star gets humbled. Every mediocre player has a great moment." -- Sportswriter Lowell Cohn in "The Temple of Baseball."
You may wonder why I persist in investing my emotions in the underdog who never gets over, the guy who is shown, through the rigors and accidents of baseball, to not have what it takes exactly when it most matters. The answer lies somewhere in the smudged scorekeeping books of the fast-pitch softball team I played on until recently.
I use the term "fast-pitch" advisedly. The pitching in my league, the aptly named Twilight League, is not so much fast as it is flat and fairly hitable. The fielding is sporadic. The players tend to shun practice and commit many errors, but on every team there are a few who pretty much know what they are doing. I wasn't one of those. I was one of those mediocre players satisfied to wait for the occasional "great moment" -- a snagged line drive, a timely double -- that erased all the mistakes, mental and physical, lying in between.
The good ones on our team included several strapping home run hitters who'd show up for games hung-over and needing cigarettes. I liked that self-destructive side to our team, the fact that many of my teammates considered themselves radical artists, and so carried within them a cynical disregard for caring too much about who starred, who screwed up, who won. Into this off-kilter sporting culture I could burrow and hide my baseball mediocrity very comfortably, thank you. We called ourselves the Friendly Club.
A couple of years ago, to our surprise, the Friendly Club found itself in the league playoffs mowing down the opposition, and even I was having some great moments along the way. So it was that I came to be standing in right field in the championship game, my team down a bunch of runs in the last inning, the sky blue and serene. I stood there full of satisfaction at the knowledge that I was well back in the batting order and so would not have an opportunity to be the Goat Who Blew It when we had our last at-bat. This, even though we clearly were going to lose, meant a great personal victory for me. All I could think was, "I'm not gonna be Bill Buckner!"
Of course you know the rest. The stirring rally by my teammates that filled the bases, sending me to the plate with our team down by a single run with two outs. The strikes and foul balls piling up on me until I finally did wallop the ball, the resulting soft fly to left field proving so catchable that the fielder hardly had to move, the sort of soft fly that my dad would have termed a "can 'o corn," the out made by me that ended the game, the season, the dream for my teammates. The way those teammates stood away from me when the game was over, their radical artists' detachment knocked down, for the moment, by the beanball of heartbreak.
What happened next is that I went to gather up my street shoes and the wallet and keys and watch tucked in them, only to find they were missing. A player on the other team mentioned, between swigs of celebratory beer, that he might have seen a scavenger with a shopping cart inspecting my shoes.
And so I was off, running barefoot through the prostitution district of Vancouver, one eye out for a homeless man, one eye out for used syringes ready to pierce my soles. After a frantic scouring of the neighborhood, I came upon the disheveled kleptomaniac, who eventually pulled from his cart my shoes, from his coat pocket my credit cards, from his wrist my watch. Trudging back to the diamond, I marveled at how quickly the game had betrayed me, 15 minutes separating that feeling of secure bliss in right field and the sickening sensation that now filled the pit of my stomach. But wait. This is just a game, right? Looking back, doesn't it all seem absurdly funny? Well, yes. Sort of. I guess.
"Any time you think you have the game conquered the game will turn around and punch you right in the nose." -- Former Philadelphia Phillies great Mike Schmidt.
Truth be told, I'm just no good at insulating myself from the emotions that can be attached, if one lets them, to the theater of baseball. Every World Series I insist on caring because not to care is to drain the games' each little calculation, each little crisis, of drama.
Oh yes, I remember the one World Series where I considered myself immune from emotional torment going in. Living in San Francisco, I figured I couldn't lose in 1989 when the San Francisco Giants played the Oakland A's, the two teams I most intimately followed. Had not events conspired to outwit the gods? Well, no. That was the year an earthquake ripped the Bay Area, and as I fled the crumbling old building where I worked and drove home to see if my house still clung to the hillside, if my wife had survived, it was the stricken voices of baseball commentators who told me over the radio what devastation had been visited on a cracked Candlestick Park, a shattered Bay Bridge, a pancaked freeway, a burning Marina District. They were working off pictures beamed from the Goodyear blimp, whose mission up to that point had been nothing more than to stare down on the beautiful, honest, precise diagram of the baseball field.
Now I listen to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani say that the only thing that allows him to take his mind off the terrible tragedy visited upon his city is baseball, and then he laughs: "I don't know, maybe something's wrong with me." And I want, against all my previous instincts, the Yankees to therefore win. But if they do, it will be because someone on the Arizona Diamondbacks has become the Goat Who Blew It -- very likely someone undeserving, like Randy Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers to ever have so poor a record in the postseason, one of those players, with his homely face and Ichabod Crane frame, I can't help but identify with.
No I won't be tuning into the World Series this year, despite the claims made for the spectacle as emotional refuge, as return to childhood's lack of care and woe. Baseball is just a game, yes, but one that does turn on an exacting, ruthless equation -- for every triumph an equal measure of loss. And so, in this season of excruciating loss, I just can't bear to watch.