Thursday, March 29, 2007


I have an axiom that I should live life with as few regrets as possible, which I've managed to do for the most part. That doesn't mean I've lived a sin-free life, but that I've lived a life that I could defend in any court of law, and maybe I'd be convicted in certain red states, but fuck 'em.

There is one regret I have, and one longing that I will never be able to fulfill.

The longing? To turn the clock back thirty years and get my ass to Florida and play major league baseball. As a kid, I was approached by more than one scout and even in my thirties, played well enough that I made a few scouting reports.

The regret? That thirty five years ago, I didn't tell my parents to shove it when they said I couldn't play sports. See, back then, sports were games. No one made a million bucks a year, nevermind a million bucks a game. Guys who played ball worked in the off-season, digging graves or took spots in the Army reserves to get college tuition.

My parents figured I'd make a better living using my massive manly brain. How little we knew. And even if they were right, did I lose a better life for the better living?

I say all this because in a few days, the 2007 baseball season will begin, with my Mets taking on the St. Louis Cardinals in a rematch of the 2006 League Championship series.

Baseball's an odd sport, to be sure. It doesn't have a clock. It doesn't have an offensive squad and a defensive squad. It's cerebral where most sports are physical. A fat guy can play baseball and be as successful as the most buff, steriod-using android in the world. It's a hard game to play, because it requires pinpoint skill to be really good at it: a centimeter can make the difference between a double and a long fly ball out. Tennis players hit balls at about the same speed as pitchers pitch them, but tennis players have quiet in the stands, not 40,000 screaming heads. Golfers have absolute quiet to sink a four foot putt. Hitters have to smack a ball around with people screaming for their heads.

And it's slow. To the point of being painful. I love playing the game. I like watching the game. But sometimes, even playing it, in a four hour marathon of bad fielding and worse pitching, it can be borrrrrrrrrrrrring.

Why do I love the game, then? I guess because in some very literal ways, it's pastoral. It's played in a pasture, not on a grid. Fields can last into infinity in a Sunday softball game in the park.

George Carlin really got the spirit of baseball in his famous routine:
Baseball is different from any other sport, very different. For instance, in most sports you score points or goals; in baseball you score runs. In most sports the ball, or object, is put in play by the offensive team; in baseball the defensive team puts the ball in play, and only the defense is allowed to touch the ball. In fact, in baseball if an offensive player touches the ball intentionally, he's out; sometimes unintentionally, he's out.

Also: in football,basketball, soccer, volleyball, and all sports played with a ball, you score with the ball and in baseball the ball prevents you from scoring.

In most sports the team is run by a coach; in baseball the team is run by a manager. And only in baseball does the manager or coach wear the same clothing the players do. If you'd ever seen John Madden in his Oakland Raiders uniform,you'd know the reason for this custom.

Now, I've mentioned football. Baseball & football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country. And as such, it seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values.

I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs - what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog...
In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!
He could have pointed out that in football, you brutally drive your opponent in the ground to stop his progress, but in baseball, you touch your opponent, "Tag! You're out!"

And moreover, baseball is poetic.

Casey At The Bat
by Ernest L. Thayer
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair.
The rest clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast.
They thought, "if only Casey could but get a whack at that.
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat."

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake;
and the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake.

So upon that stricken multitude, grim melancholy sat;
for there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all.
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball.

And when the dust had lifted,
and men saw what had occurred,
there was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;

it pounded through on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat;
for Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place,
there was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.

And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
no stranger in the crowd could doubt t'was Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt.
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.

Then, while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
and Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped --
"That ain't my style," said Casey.

"Strike one!" the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and distant shore.

"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand,
and it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity, great Casey's visage shone,
he stilled the rising tumult, he bade the game go on.

He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew,
but Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two!"

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.

They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
and they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer has fled from Casey's lip, the teeth are clenched in hate.
He pounds, with cruel violence, his bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And, somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout,

but there is no joy in Mudville --
mighty Casey has struck out.

What other sport has inspired the legions of artistry that baseball has?

Or, for that matter, perhaps the greatest monologue since Shakespeare?
Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
I don't know a guy who hasn't cried when Ray finally gets to play catch with his father after their lifelong falling out, reaffirming the tradition of American backyards for 150 years and the bond between father and son.

I remember taking my dad to his last ballgame at Shea. It must have been twenty years ago, and I remember how proud I was that *I* could buy the beer, and finally prove I was an adult. How proud I was to introduce him to some of the players I knew, and a couple of scouts. The look on his face to this ultimate "fuck you, this could have been my life" said all I needed to know about our relationship.

We couldn't say jack to each other, except baseball could say it for us.

And now a new season starts and a new life begins for seven months. The garden springs up and blossoms, the aroma of leather gloves and new baseballs permeates like the thick smoke of a poker room.

Life is good.