"I truly, truly love baseball."
Land of the free
God bless America, my home sweet home.
Ernie Banks citation courtesy of Seth Swirsky, Something to Write Home About: Great Baseball Memories (Crown Publishers, 2003)
"I truly, truly love baseball."
Land of the free
God bless America, my home sweet home.
Ernie Banks citation courtesy of Seth Swirsky, Something to Write Home About: Great Baseball Memories (Crown Publishers, 2003)
It matters how you get there - how you approach the ballpark and when you arrive.
Like the route you take to the beach house every time, choosing the scenic road that winds along water instead of cutting a more direct angle inland past a strip mall, drawing near the cottage in a way that feels and smells familiar, all the hills and curves and placid coves greeting the senses once again, now that July has finally come. It matters how you approach and how you begin, like being in the theatre when a movie starts, because if you don’t view the opening credits, that first image, the title frame, or hear the first sounds that break silence and darkness, you won’t have an accurate sense of the whole.
No matter what the ballpark and whatever the field, baseball is a singular journey to a significant place, a work of art with a distinctive beginning, its light and action emerging from nothingness. Like the anticipation of all pleasures and events in life that matter - birth, dinner, love - drawing near the experience is the beginning and part of the joy. And so it matters how you get there.
I know a grown man who refuses to enter Fenway Park without a bag of roasted peanuts. He’s a formidable man, an impossibly tall, intimidating Marine. He buys his peanuts from the vendor on Yawkey Way outside Gate A. He has to buy his peanuts on Yawkey Way. He has to buy them before the game. He won’t walk through the turnstiles without a small brown bag in hand.
The beginning matters. I can see this in his eyes, and it needs no explanation.
We like to arrive at Fenway Park several hours before game time, my daughter and I. Unhurriedly our vehicle winds along the familiar curves of Storrow Drive, and we turn our faces toward bright sails running with the wind and reflecting the hot mid-afternoon light that ripples on the Charles. Suddenly we behold the gigantic Citgo sign, a vivid triangle that is much more than an ad for gasoline, and Caitlin shouts, "There it is!"
I know what she's talking about; her joy requires no explanation.
At the beginning of Bull Durham, Annie Savoy walks seductively through town to a ball game, single and free. She saunters along a Carolina street at dusk, poodle skirt swaying purposefully beneath a full bosom.
At the height of summer I once walked to a game by myself, alone and seemingly free like Annie (minus the poodle skirt, etc). No rush hour and hardly a car in our seaside town. The better part of the day had ended for most summer people - boats moored, sails rinsed, rubbed fish ready to grill. Up the lane I went, turned left onto the harbor road past houses with weathered shingles and salty life vests drying on clotheslines and generous glimpses of the bay, its water still a soft shade of blue in the late afternoon light, blue as a ballplayer’s eyes. Children’s voices echoed in the hawthorn trees, beams of watery light glinted off beetle cats and dories, and a translucent coastal light progressed ever so gradually from late afternoon toward dusk as the sky turned billowy pink and the hulls of boats turned bright white just before the sun fell below the trees and distant hills.
It matters how you get there. The Cape Cod air was sweet, and everything I saw and heard that evening was endowed with a special richness, "bathed in joy" (as Woolf might say), because I was walking to the game.
I like a game that is bookended by walks to and from the field.
On Sunday mornings in midsummer (several hours before the first pitch), the neighborhoods surrounding Fenway Park are quieter than most churches. Very few sounds flow from outdoor cafes along the leafy avenues; red geraniums and ivy spill out of window boxes; elegant boxwood topiaries grace the entrances to silent brownstones.
Who will win? What will I see? How long will it last? Where are the seats and what will be our angle on the field?
82 degrees, sunny.
Wind: 7 mph, in from RF.
These are the simple ingredients. These fundamentals, plus the happy company of a baseball friend who woke up on Monday morning and wrote: "I came to the conclusion yesterday, on a perfect day at Fenway, that the universe was created so that we would have a place to put baseball parks."
I was the lucky recipient of a little piece of cardboard that took me to Section 24, Row 06, Seat 7 at "America's Most Beloved Ballpark." GRANDSTAND-THIRD BASE. Game #47. 1:35 PM. Enter GATE A. Yawkey/Brookline. I was the lucky one who walked to and from this beloved space in the universe, treasuring the gift of a ticket, then savoring an important win and an ice cream cone (8-6 just before the All Star break, Emack & Bolio’s "Serious Chocolate Addiction," kiddie size), an unhurried walk along the leafy avenue as evening came, and back to the Clarendon Street garage where a validated ticket got me a parking spot for just nine dollars.
It was the kind of day that makes life truly worth living. Eighty-one more games to go, I thought, looking back one last time at the big red sign that is much more than an ad for gasoline.
"Jefferson is the only president of the United States who was also a great artist. Other presidents have noodled at the keyboard or daubed at easels. But Jefferson was a building architect of large ambition and achievement, as well as a landscape architect and an interior designer. There are no exact parallels, at least in Western culture, for this combination of political and aesthetic prominence. To combine the prose of power and the poetry of art, at a high and continuing level, is something no one else did.
His greatest artwork was the cluster of buildings in Charlottesville that he called his 'academical village.'
As his own body's fabric was disintegrating, he poured his spirit into a physical expression of intellectual activity."
- Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson's University
When it comes to watching the College World Series on television in our house every June, we're always amused to hear the distinctive voice of Robin Ventura. From year to year we remember him fondly, my son and daughter and I, not so much for his big-league career with the White Sox, Mets, and Yankees, nor for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award he won in 1988, his Dick Howser trophy, and the impressive stats he recorded as a student-athlete at Oklahoma State. Every June we remember him affectionately and with laughter, thanks to a certain conversation that took place between Ventura and his colleague in the broadcast booth at Rosenblatt Stadium during the summer of 2009.
Providing the color commentary during the second round of CWS play, losers bracket, Mike Patrick commended one of Virginia's players for his high GPA, meaningful acts of community service, leadership experience, keen intellect, and strong character. The dialogue went something like this:
". . . and he lives on the Lawn."
"Uh-huh." Ventura responded opaquely and seemingly in agreement, though it was obvious that the full import of his co-anchor's comment had eluded him. A few moments of confused silence ensued.
And then: "He lives on the lawn?"
The Oklahoma State legend paused to imagine a scene: the kid was living for free in somebody's front yard; or maybe he liked the game of baseball so much and spent so many of his waking hours at the field, he figured he might as well sleep there too, heck just camped out in shallow center field every single night in spring; or perhaps he had opted out of dorm living and erected a tent somewhere on campus, Greenpeace-style and short on cash; maybe he'd had no luck finding space in an apartment on Wertland or 14th, where so many other third- and fourth-year students chose to live.
As the 'Hoos pitcher threw over to first, Mike Patrick briefly described UVA's historic Lawn and its venerable significance, whereupon Ventura realized that the sorry habitats he'd conjured for this ballplayer were off the mark. "Oh, I thought you meant he pitched a tent somewhere on campus and lived in it."
Broad rectangles of terraced Virginia land flow outward, generously and invitingly, from the grand steps of Jefferson's Rotunda. The public lawn is bordered by ten masterfully designed, imperfectly symmetrical pavilions graced with colonnades, an elegantly curving serpentine wall of antique brick (the laws of physics dictate that it must curve since it is only one brick thick), and a delightful variety of shade trees and enclosed gardens. Numerous honors students and outstanding young individuals compete for the coveted rooms that open onto the university's magnificent expanse of grass.
"Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia's first buildings to mirror his vision of higher education. As he conceived it, the college experience should take place within an 'academical village' where shared learning infused daily life. He developed plans for ten pavilions—stately faculty homes with living quarters upstairs and classrooms downstairs—attached to two rows of student rooms and connected by an inward-facing colonnade. Each pavilion was identified with a subject to be studied and inhabited by the professor who taught that subject" (virginia.edu).
Students and faculty at The University of Virginia do not refer to their surroundings as a "campus." The academic buildings, together with the surrounding Lawn, pavilions, gardens, and open spaces are known reverentially and almost mystically as "grounds." Although the mention of Thomas Jefferson's name may not instantly elicit an attitude of unqualified awe as it once did, the artistic and intellectual vision of America's third president is palpable when one walks the grounds and contemplates the deeply satisfying realization of one man's ideal. To stand on this Lawn is to inhabit a venue in which philosophical and aesthetic promise have been passionately executed and fully realized, its maker's spirit enduring and ever present.
In lieu of a school chapel, Jefferson wanted the grand Rotunda - and the library housed within it - to be his university's center. To this day, students symbolically face the domed building during Convocation exercises that mark the beginnings of their university education. In fitting contrast, the full academic procession of Commencement moves in the opposite direction: students descend the Rotunda steps and walk the entire length of the Lawn, heading south toward Old Cabell Hall, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the world beyond, leaving their undergraduate years symbolically behind them.
In a popular list of "100 things to do before you graduate," students are unofficially encouraged to streak the entire length of Mr. Jefferson's lawn. Three o'clock in the morning during the month of December is probably a good time to attempt this activity.
Undergraduates and professors who live on the Lawn are among the university's most distinguished leaders and scholars, the community's elite. "I could not find anyone, male or female, who regretted having bid for the honor of living where they do for one (their senior) year. To win a place, they must submit applications to a screening board, presenting their academic qualifications and their record of service to the university. There is an extraordinary camaraderie among those who take the lodgings 'Mr. Jefferson' designed for them. This is felt not only by those living on the Lawn at any one time. It is a social tie felt across generations," writes Garry Wills, who came to regard the magnificent design as a true reflection of Jefferson's "entire personality, its naive flaws as well as its towering strengths."
UVA students consider the Lawn to be "the soul of the place." Indeed, just as we are moved when experiencing our nation's most important monuments, hallowed shrines, and even its loveliest ballparks, visitors may feel in the Lawn and its environs something mysterious yet palpable that can only be called "a soul."
Students' quarters are at once elegant and rustic, each offering a charming brick entryway, weathered rocking chairs, tidy piles of wood, working fireplaces, high ceilings and elegant moldings, inspiring views of the Lawn, but no plumbing and limited privacy, since all rooms open directly onto the common ground which continues to be the scene of spontaneous play, outdoor classes, admissions tours, anti-war protests, concerts, and many public gatherings both formal and informal.
Ballplayers, a capella singers, student government leaders, legacies, poets, all ethnicities (black students were admitted to these rooms before women were invited to apply, the latter delayed thanks to inadequacies of plumbing). Students must travel outdoors and in public when accessing shared bathroom facilities. In one sense, a Lawn room is just one step up from living in a tent or cabin; on another level, however, it affords students a quality of life redolent with elegance, charm, architectural greatness, and living history.
While pulling for the Cavaliers (a.k.a. 'Hoos) in this year's College World Series, we've enjoyed laughing about Robin Ventura's misconception of the Lawn, but it's all in good fun. I imagine him today, sitting in the broadcast booth with a perfect view of the field. He surveys a meticulously groomed lawn, a brand new state-of-the-art facility with its underground cooling system, gleaming stainless steel, and immense standards of lights that eclipse constellations. From his seat high above, he looks down upon the coach named O'Connor who has turned a struggling college program around, nurturing talented young players like Ryan Zimmerman, who himself then turned around and gave a quarter of a million dollars back. Ventura looks out toward left field and notices a few young men clowning around. He sees the number 2 pick and seven others recently selected in the 2011 first-year player draft. The kids are stretching and sprinting on the lawn.
A college player once told me that the whole concept of student-athletes is a joke. Admittedly, these individuals are expected to maintain a ridiculous schedule, an unrealistic balance of work and play. But I like to think that on some level he was wrong about the entire thing being a joke, NCAA violations notwithstanding, and that something of an ideal remains. Otherwise, why college ball? Why college? Why Omaha?
TD Ameritrade Ballpark in downtown Omaha, Nebraska is located a considerable distance from Jefferson's Rotunda and the blue hills of Virginia. 1157 miles to be exact. The stadium does not yet qualify as an historic landmark or national shrine, just as Charlottesville's Davenport Field cannot claim to be a component of Thomas Jefferson's original academical vision, though both facilities speak to who we are as a culture and a nation of educated people. Nor, I daresay, did Jefferson ever contemplate the possibility of a few young scholars standing on a small diamond of grass, shouldering a rubber hose and preparing their lawn for a really big game of catch.
Those who play in the so-called losers bracket of the double-elimination NCAA Division I Baseball Championship are hardly losers. Sure, baseball is ultimately about winning and losing, but the special beauty of Omaha is that it represents the culmination of a long journey that blends academics with athletics, however imperfectly. The joy comes in lessons learned both on and off the field, in friendships forged through victory and loss, and in the privilege of representing a beloved school in a city far from home.
Once upon a time there was a ballplayer who lived on the Lawn, just as he played to his heart and mind's delight on another stunning expanse of grass a mile from where Thomas Jefferson once marked fertile ground for a new university. In the grand scheme of things, it strikes me that these two very different expanses of grass are part and parcel of the same Edenic dream or longing that is at the heart of our restless souls, at the core of what we sometimes call the human condition.
I can write only what I seem to know in my own soul. From whatever direction I approach it, walking the Lawn at the University of Virginia is an experience that takes my breath away in the very same way that a ballpark transports me to a higher plane of being.
This post is dedicated to the 2011 University of Virginia baseball team, now 2-1 in the losers bracket at Omaha, and to my daughter, who graduated from Virginia this past May.
Please enjoy this post from my 2010 archives while I man the grill.
Happy Father's Day!
It's not even a complete sentence. No command or question, no declarative statement, no imperative verb, no main verb at all. Just a phrase with an -ing participle (maybe a gerund) which indicates some type of action ongoing between two select people.
Fathers playing catch with sons: the lovely, familiar phrase may not be a complete sentence, but perhaps that's one reason why the words resonate poignantly for so many.
"Everybody that plays major league baseball, I promise you, had a dad that played catch with him." That's what Don Nava had to say last Saturday at Fenway Park after watching his son's first major-league at bat: a grand slam delivered by 27-year-old rookie Daniel Nava on an 0-0 count. What an amazing way to break into the big leagues after an unpromising eight-year journey; what an important moment for father and son.
My dad played catch with my brother almost every single day at lunchtime in a bygone era when kids walked home from school for their midday meal, then returned to their classrooms an hour later. Kind of like Jem and Scout and Atticus Finch. Like Atticus with his children, my dad made it his business to join my brother for a sit-down lunch in our small kitchen, and that quick lunch was usually followed by an unhurried game of catch in the front yard.
The only boy in our family following three sisters, my brother went on to become an outstanding player in our town's youth league. One spring weekend I rode a Greyhound bus home from college just to see him pitch. Working efficiently and striking out almost every batter in the lineup, my kid brother threw a complete game that Saturday afternoon. Mowed them all down with blazing fastballs and pinpoint control. He was just nine or ten years old at the time, but something about his consistency and confidence on a hill of dirt made him seem much older. I had left home, and my youngest sibling had grown up overnight.
My dad didn't play catch with me very often.
I never really coveted or envied the baseball times that my brother enjoyed with our dad, however. Truth be told, I didn't particularly want to play catch with my father. There was something else I wanted even more.
I just wanted to watch the game with him - wanted to watch baseball every single night.
There we sat, just my dad and I out on the screened porch, gliding side by side in the soft breeze of a sultry July evening, listening to Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson, and Bob Murphy, and watching the New York Mets. Together we enjoyed the primitive, grainy images that brought baseball to life on a small black-and-white RCA television topped with skinny rabbit ears.
It's a miracle that we chose the Mets in 1963, but that's what we did. A team of losers (51-111) felt like a win to me, because I had just fallen in love with baseball, and I loved every single part of it.
When my father came home from work, the game began to assert itself as language, and that is how baseball felt most real to me. Its magical sounds, metaphors and idioms, syntax and rhythm, its diction both poetical and crude became integral pieces of our evening conversation, a comfortable mode of speech and thought, a language that I loved. While learning to speak English in increasingly complex ways in grades three and four, I simultaneously acquired the splendid vocabulary of baseball, as if it were an important part of the curriculum. The game felt like something basic and essential - as normal, natural, and necessary as speech itself.
Baseball took shape for me as language not as sport, partly because the man who nurtured my early love of the game was a Protestant minister. Using few words and allowing for long periods of silence, he taught me baseball, both its fundamentals and its poetry. In my mind's ear, an amazing vocabulary became inseparably entwined with familiar Biblical passages, both deeply embedded in my young psyche, and both becoming an essential part of who I am: "3-2 count," Love is patient and kind, "in the cellar," my rock and my Redeemer, "6-4-3 double play." And the Word was made flesh ... and dwelt among us, full of love and peace.
Many years have passed since those summer days and nights, but I can still hear the ever-modulating commentary, the sweet sounds of a televised broadcast, a soft breeze and buzzing in the trees, the gentle words of my father out on the screened porch once upon a quiet New Jersey evening. I was a lucky girl, because when hearing my dad's voice and while listening to the comforting music of a play-by-play, I knew for certain that I was safe and deeply loved.
I have always associated baseball with happiness and love. Thank you, Dad. I love you.
"There is only one man in this town."
- Albert Pujols (a.k.a. El Hombre)
canvas by John Falter, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
No act of biology automatically turns a boy into a man. There’s no set chronological age – say, 18 or 21 – at which a male launches with certainty into maturity; no cultural rite, be it wedding, bar mitzvah, boot camp or high school graduation, that turns a kid into a mature person. Is there?
The counterparts hold true for girls and women. I once taught an English seminar, “Heroines in Literature” (Twelfth Night, Emma, Washington Square, To the Lighthouse, Their Eyes Were Watching God), and in my classroom full of girls I loved asking an introductory question: When does a girl become a woman? After voicing that question, I’d pause for a long time.
We then spoke quite personally about various conditions and human situations that might turn a girl into a woman: physiology and hormones, loss of virginity, wedding day, birth of a child, an academic or professional title, a corner office. My students laughed at some of this, and I did too; the word woman felt so big, so serious.
We all knew that it was politically and biologically correct to address girls of a certain age as women or young women (sometimes annoyingly as “ladies”), less and less as “girls.”
At what point in your life did you feel that the term woman or man actually fit you?
“You make a good cup of coffee, woman.” I took those words as a compliment, because they were voiced with satisfaction, vigor, and no trace of condescension. If spoken admiringly or suggestively, woman has a certain fullness that connotes desirability. Voiced in a duller tone, however, the term sounds matronly, boring, middle-aged, and ill-fitting to those of us who sometimes feel a lively girl within.
“Don’t you love being with a real man?” My friend voiced her happy question in a dimly-lit café while nibbling on sweet potato fries. “You know, the kind who says aw, stay and have a beer, pops the cap off a cold one, offers you the same, puts his legs up on the kitchen counter, and is happy to have you stay and watch the game with him?”
A “real” man: the definition is more a matter of taste, jest, opinion, and circumstance than absolute truth. I picture a Harley, leather, and tattoos - is that what a man is? Then other images start colliding until I am confused: intelligent conversation, shelves and shelves of great books, an advanced degree, a bottle of fine wine; muscles; a Marlboro man; baseball on television or radio and a frosty summer ale; a good father who is respected by his children; a man in uniform, baseball or military; a kind person.
Just watch any Little Leaguer or young adolescent. Kids swagger and spit just as grown men do, adeptly imitating every idiosyncratic move. You see miniature Jeters at the plate, Becketts and Halladays on the mound. The reverse is also true: watch any so-called grownup on the bench or in the pen and he’s blowing bubbles, cracking seeds, laughing til his sides hurt at something that’s just been said about a girl. Or woman.
What is it to be a man, anyway?
Is Stan “The Man” Musial more a man than that other ballplayer nicknamed “The Kid?” And if so, why?
In that realm of imagination where you are allowed to choose, would you prefer to spend time with a nice fella sporting a red blazer or a complicated s.o.b. who lectures you colorfully on the science of hitting while gracefully casting a fly rod?
The Man. Though secularly christened with an honorable nickname by adversaries who admired his talent and power even as they competed hard against him at Ebbets Field, what I’ve been hearing lately is that Stanley Musial’s “boring” life off the field doesn’t make for a very compelling biography. The concept of goodness isn’t sexy. It’s better for an athlete to be hot than good. Such is the general consensus among reviewers who have taken an appreciative look at Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey.
“Compelling” and “sexy” are qualities our current age has come to demand of stories; the terms are now almost synonymous. Compelling means “you have to buy this book.” “Sexy” indicates “you have to read this story (because it will make up for some of the excitement your own life is lacking).” Audiences want fireworks; they really like fireworks. Many show up at the ballpark because of the post-game fireworks, suggesting that the quiet action of baseball isn’t quite enough.
Stan Musial is like a ballgame without the fireworks. “He makes a better statue,” Bill James asserted in a 1986 abstract. I find those words to be untrue and incredibly sad.
“Even in matrimony, Musial was the boring one,” writes Vecsey. With all due respect to a longtime sportswriter, I wonder how any outsider can possibly render a judgment on another man’s personal life, especially one so private? Who knows what goes on behind the closed doors of a good man, especially if the door doesn’t open readily to fans who feel entitled to an intimate account or compelling psychological drama.
Nice, gracious, opaque, boring: these adjectives present to the biographer an artistic and intellectual challenge. There’s the added philosophical predicament that many individuals - athletes, celebrities, ordinary people just like us - are fundamentally unknowable, except perhaps to closest family and friends.
Among the most important truths of Stan Musial’s life are his baseball stats. Height: 6’0.” Weight: 175 lbs. One hundred seventy-five? A 24-time All Star (tied with Willie Mays); 3,630 hits; winner of 3 MVP awards; first major leaguer ever to record 5 home runs in one day; 3 World Series rings; Hall of Fame 1969, first ballot inductee. Speed. Versatility. Quick reflexes. That coiled stance. Explosive energy. Small hands for a .331 hitter. A wiggle. The ripple of muscles on his back that helped generate power. Never thrown out of a game.
What more do we need know? Why read any book?
Stats and traits make us yearn for more. We need numbers entwined with words, disparate facts shaped neatly into narrative. We want to understand what's beyond that curious stance and cheerful red blazer, some clues to thought and feeling. What were you thinking? Can you tell us what it means? How did you feel? Such questions are now routinely asked of ballplayers as if to ensure that when the time comes for biography or enshrinement, plenty of psychological and emotional content will be there for the taking. What was in your head? What was in your heart?
Stan Musial played the harmonica. He married Lil. He enjoyed a few drinks now and then. Faithfully attended Catholic mass. Co-owned a steakhouse in St. Louis. Carried baseball cards with pre-signed autographs. Missed one season of professional baseball while serving in the Navy during World War II. Showed up at Mickey Mantle’s funeral and sat alone, off to the side in a ray of sunlight. Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are among the truths of one man’s existence.
As he crafts Stan Musial’s achievements into a richer human story, Vecsey’s methodology initially seems disjointed and almost haphazard, as if a straightforward, linear chronology would only make an already prosaic story even duller. The author rearranges time and juxtaposes geographic locations, bringing narrative complexity to a life that wasn’t on the surface very complicated. For some reason we want things to be complicated.
Readers expect continuity and momentum in biography, not unlike what a ballgame provides, but this is not what you will find in The Man. At various points along the way, Vecsey interrupts the direction of his tale, circles back to past events, jumps ahead, moves around in time and place, punctuating denser chapters of sustained narrative with quicker anecdotal sections that are nonetheless worthy in their brevity.
Occasionally there’s a jolt. “Skip ahead nearly two decades to 1958,” he commands his narrative to jump forward in a disorientating change of gears. There’s a method in the telling, however. What might strike the reader as a flaw in design ultimately makes sense. Stan Musial was, after all, “a man of action rather than reflection, a man of anecdote rather than narrative.”
The gentleman in the red blazer might chat with you for a moment or two, and then he’s gone. He’s accommodating and kind, yet private and “opaque,” guarding what few flaws he may have; welcoming, yet protective of his private life. Similarly, his biographer offers quick glimpses of the man’s world and his cheerful persona. Wunnerful, wunnerful and hey-hey, whaddayasay, whaddayasay capture Musial’s upbeat essence, but they are also a cloak, leaving the deeper psychological stuff untapped. The Man has not provided his biographers or critics with an abundance of quotable lines.
The words of others bring him to life, including those of Ted Williams reflecting on the question “Was Musial really as good as you?” The Kid offered a remarkable answer: “Yes, I really think he was.” Williams went on to say, “He was a better all-around hitter than Hank Aaron. He was a quiet leader on the field and in the clubhouse and was one of the most universally respected ballplayers of our generation. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world but he was a lithe six-one and 175 pounds, and he was whippy.”
“Lithe” and “kind” are words that appear frequently in Vecsey’s biography of Musial. “Whippy,” as I recall, is uttered only once.
“All he ever wants to do is talk about hitting,” are the words Musial offered when speaking of Ted Williams in return. “I don’t say he doesn’t know about anything else, but that is always the first thing he wants to talk about.” There’s a critical and competitive edge to these words, a tone not entirely “gracious.” It strikes me as one of the most curious sentences in the book.
After considering the relative greatness of two hitters, Vecsey jumps abruptly back in time to 1948 and Musial’s hometown of Donora, Pennsylvania, the same working-class community that produced high school football hero Buddy Griffey, father of Ken Sr. “Donora was known for its fogs, thick and brown and vile-smelling, but this was like nothing they had ever seen or inhaled. The air kept getting worse.” The reason for this disruptive flashback gradually becomes clear: “Zinc is one of those elements that the body needs in very small doses in certain forms, but zinc can be poisonous in larger amounts.” Stan Musial’s father died in December of 1948, a sad event that temporarily summoned the athlete back to a former existence well after he had been catapulted into fame.
Mickey Mantle had Oklahoma’s bleak chat piles to call home, while Musial could claim fluorospor and zinc as his native territory. Both young men would welcome the opportunity to gravitate elsewhere, leaving behind misfortune and entering the world of Toots Shor, Coupes de Ville, and steaks on the grill outside Al Lang Field, as baseball set them free.
Unlike the palpable raw material of Mickey Mantle’s life, the stuff of Musial’s background seems more resistant to close analysis. While the imagery of Donora becomes vivid, the character of Stan Musial’s father is less so. “Lukasz never took his son to a game at Forbes Field,” Vecsey writes, “and Musial often said it was his mother who had played catch with him.”
The relationship of father to son does not yield much in the way of specifics that tell a psychologically riveting story, and one can only speculate about the degree to which the elder Musial’s form of employment, probable alcoholism, emotional distance, and reluctant attitude toward the business of baseball affected the trajectory of his son’s career and the content of his character. Musial’s mother emerges as the stronger presence in the narrative, though she appears more as mythical figure than fully developed personality: “he would always tell how his mother had stitched rags into a makeshift baseball and played catch with him between chores. When he told that story, he would weep, and so would she.” Clearly it was Stanley’s mother who understood the legitimacy of a baseball vocation more vividly than Lukacz Musial.
When envisioning a future for himself, young Stan gravitated to his first and only sweetheart partly because her family enjoyed a life of relative security and stability: “The girl I was going to marry, Lillian, her father owned a grocery store. No matter what happened in baseball, I knew I could always get a job in the store.” One pauses to wonder about the serendipity of relationships and our reasons for choosing as we do, leaving much to loyalty and good luck.
George Vecsey's story of a ballplayer's life offers some delightful phrases that you can "lift your hat to," as Emily Dickinson might say (though probably not about baseball). Good writing doesn’t simply arise out of strong content; it isn’t a matter of vocabulary alone. There's the cadence at a chapter’s end: “Stanley the homebody sent everybody home.” Or the elegant and emphatic balance in an opening that urges one forward: “He had always been a hitter. In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”
Rhythm is just as important: “St. Louis was loyal and highly undemanding psychologically. He did not have to fulfill everybody’s psychic needs. All he had to do was just hit the ball. Run out of the batter’s box. Smile when he slid into second. Sign autographs. Just say whaddayasay-whaddayasay and the people were charmed.”
Vecsey checks these sentimental visions of ballpark life, however, when faulting the Cardinals organization for its “paralysis toward black players” in an era when other teams took steps to diversify their rosters. Bitter comments voiced by Lou Brock and Bob Gibson (who described 1961 as “the year I got out of prison”) challenge Musial’s outlook on America’s game and its “wunnerful” opportunities.
Spring training for the integrated Cardinals initially brought white players to the Vinoy Hotel by the glittering bay, while athletes of color were housed in black neighborhoods further inland. Management finally broke with this short-lived tradition in 1962 when it filled two hotels with a newly integrated team and brought all players together, including wives and children. Lil and Stan moved from their waterfront bungalow on Tampa Bay to the team motel where the family shared a single room. Bob Gibson's cheerful description of the outdoor scene captures a free and easy, oasis-like atmosphere that many still associate with spring training, his words suggesting a spirit of victory over cruelty and injustice: “People would drive by just to see all these black and white guys swimming and grilling steaks together.”
What may strike the reader as peculiar is Musial’s reserve in the midst of profound change, his remoteness at critical times when he might have been more outspoken on behalf of teammates. “Nice guy, I guess,” Bill White would recall in 2009. “He was a good player, but I don’t know him. I don’t think any white guys knew him either.”
Many biographers rely heavily on the testimonials of others. In writing about Mickey Mantle, for example, Jane Leavy consulted over 500 individuals in seeking to understand the complexity of her boyish hero. Similarly, Vecsey counts on hundreds of others to provide insight into Stan Musial’s life on and off the field, but one seldom hears the voice of the man himself.
It takes a fine reporter to elicit poignant tributes such as that voiced by Jim Frey: “There are a few people in the world who love being themselves. And I think Stan Musial is one of them.” A lengthy chapter is devoted to Musial's “very private family life” and the degree to which Stan and Lil adapted to relative affluence, while maintaining a relatively normal existence. “You go to his home and you step on kids everywhere," observed Ben Vanek, son of former player-manager Ollie Vanek. “That’s what my home is for,” Stan is reported to have said. “It’s for kids, yours and mine.”
Vanek laments the fact that “we have elevated professional athletes much higher than they used to be. I mean, if you saw Musial’s house, it was not a mansion. It was a house among other houses. Neighbors right next to him. No security fence out front. You probably could walk up, paperboy or something, walk right up to the door, get paid, give him change, stuff like that.”
A tenuous line separates the man who knows greatness and fame from those who resume a so-called ordinary existence. Stan himself once faced considerable odds: a father who didn’t particularly want him to sign; an unimpressive beginning as a pitcher; a few seasons of bouncing around in the minor leagues. He may very well have become that “player to be named later.” But somehow talent reveals and asserts itself. Boys turn into men as they make their choices for better or worse, take their licks, and enjoy their good luck and the blessings of good health together with a few magic ingredients and intangibles whereby an ordinary existence becomes extraordinary, and all the fans show up in red.
In his epilogue George Vecsey explains that he never formally interviewed Musial during the writing of his biography. This revelation doesn’t undercut the credibility of his narrative, because the author has already achieved a satisfying fullness in the telling.
It’s an odd feeling to hold a book in your hands and feel as if you know a man, to the extent that anyone can be known through words. You come to understand some particulars of his personal life, however tame those facts may be. You sense his few imperfections and simplicity of character against the backdrop of which athletic feats gleam brightly. You spend time in his company; share a steak medium rare; travel with James Michener and Angie Dickinson; meet Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy and Lech Walesa; enjoy a slice of life off the field in a Florida motel where black and white families vacation together in a scene that the man named King has not yet prophesied.
In the end you may not know much more about the mind of Stan Musial, if that’s what you look for in biography or baseball writing; but you may come to appreciate something of the world that shaped him. His stats are there for the taking; the matters of his personal life remain largely private.
Stan Musial: An American Life offers its readers the opportunity to spend time with a baseball man. This is, after all, what we want, isn’t it? It’s not unlike what we hope for during those few seconds it takes a ballplayer to sign his name. We enjoy a brief conversation and the impression that the man is our friend.
Perhaps there is an untold and more complicated story beyond the coiled stance, distinguished Hall of Fame numbers, and the smooth curve of an athlete's signature. But in the end the reader may be content, as was his biographer, to be in a gentleman’s presence and feel the warmth of his hand.
To watch Stan Musial on and off the field, please click here.
June 4, 2011
Red Sox 9 - Athletics 8
W: Aceves (3-1) L: Moscoso (2-1)
Baseball is the ultimate story. One inexorable and seemingly timeless plot - full of many subplots over which we have no control - drives to an uncertain but ultimately sure conclusion. We don't know in advance who the main characters will be, and every cameo appearance holds a promising significance. Apparent losers suddenly become heroes and vice-versa. For all our knowledge of stats and scouting reports and pre-game hype, we have no way of predicting when the dramatic climax or game-winning moment will come, or what form it will take. This is a truth we know only in retrospect.
Unlike stories told in books, we cannot turn to a final page, read its closing paragraph, and understand on some level how the narrative will end.
Yet when all is said and done, once we know the outcome of a baseball story, the box score is there for the taking as a work of art (just as images linger in our memories), serving as an outline after the fact, retelling the drama that some of us may have witnessed live in all its curious and tantalizing ups and downs. The box score and play-by-play read to me like a poem, time once unhurried and unmeasured but now compressed; a sensation entirely different from the action itself; a satisfying pattern of words and numbers, bringing the game back to us for good.
June 4, 2011. Fenway Park. Boston vs. Oakland
Weather: 60 degrees, sunny.
Wind: 15 mph, In from RF.
Ted showed Josh pictures of his Marine exploits, and told him about being shot down in Korea. He gave him the full load: the mission, the attack, the ordnance involved, his eventual crash landing. He said his favorite song, right behind "God Bless America," was "The Marine Hymn." He said when people asked to know "a little bit about me," in the way of summarizing, "I say, 'I was a Marine . . . It was the best team I ever played for."
- John Underwood on Ted Williams
Sacrifice. 1. Primarily, the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity.
2. That which is offered in sacrifice; a victim immolated on the altar; anything (material or immaterial) offered to God or a deity as an act of propitiation or homage.
3. The offering by Christ of Himself to the Father as a propitiatory victim in his voluntary immolation upon the cross; the Crucifixion in its sacrificial character.
4. The destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of something having, or regarded as having, a higher or a more pressing claim.
b. A victim; one sacrificed to the will of another; also, a person or thing that falls into the power of an enemy or a destructive agency.
- The Oxford English Dictionary
sacrifice 1. n. A sacrifice hit. Abbrev. S, 1; sac. 1st Use. 1880 (Chicago Inter-Ocean, June 29; Edward J. Nichols). 2. v. To make a sacrifice hit. 3. v. To advance a baserunner by means of a sacrifice hit. Etymology. From the concept of a batter giving himself up for the good of the team by advancing or scoring a teammate.
sacrifice bunt A sacrifice hit in which a bunted ball with less than two outs advances one or more baserunners and the batter is put out at first base, or would have been put out except for a fielder's error. The batter is not credited with an official at-bat and may be credited with a run batted in if a baserunner scores. A sacrifice bunt is not credited to the batter if any runner is put out attempting to advance one base or when, in the judgment of the official scorer, the batter is bunting primarily for a base hit. Compare drag bunt. 1st Use. 1935. "A sacrifice bunt is a bunted ball laid down for a like purpose."
sacrifice fly A sacrifice hit in which a fly ball or line drive, either fair or foul, with less than two outs, is caught but hit deep enough for an outfielder (or an infielder running in the outfield) to handle and to allow one or more baserunners to tag up and score. It has been typified as a "bunt with muscles." The batter is not credited with an official at-bat, but is credited with a run batted in ...."
- Paul Dickson, The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary
Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Hank Aaron, Frank Thomas, George Brett, Rusty Staub, Don Baylor, Gary Sheffield. What do these ballplayers have in common? They are career leaders when it comes to hitting sacrifice flies in the realm of major league baseball. Dan Haren, Wade Davis, Jeff Francis, and CC Sabathia currently rank among AL leaders in "sacrifice bunts off," a curious distinction.
Sac fly, sac bunt, sac hit, sacrifice hitter. I like a game in which there aren't just late-inning heroics, but quieter acts that often go unnoticed. I admire the athlete who adopts the concept of sacrifice in a strategic approach to winning.
Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Larry Doby, Duke Snider, Ralph Kiner and many more Hall of Famers once welcomed risks of a different order altogether. Their names quietly grace a special plaque that stands at the entrance to baseball's hallowed chamber. Lat. Sacrificium. Sacred. Sacrosanct. Sacrament. Consecrate. Sacrifice.
The number of major league players who served in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Merchant Marines, and Navy during World War II is truly staggering. U.K. citizen and self-described "amateur baseball historian" Gary Bedingfield has gone the distance in honoring the ultimate sacrifices of numerous athletes in his masterful tribute, Baseball's Dead of World War II as well as in a blog, Baseball in Wartime, which memorializes many hitherto unsung heroes. There is nothing whatsoever amateurish about Bedingfield's profound contributions to the game and to our nation's history.
Killed in action. Died from wounds. Died in hospital. Auto Accident. Killed in Action. Killed in Action. Plane Crash. Plane Crash. Plane Crash. Military Accident. Died from Illness. Lost at Sea. The list goes on and on and on and on. Visit the Baseball in Wartime site and read vertically the various causes of death; the mere act of considering that long, long list of fatalities while contemplating the nature of loss and sacrifice is a sobering way in which we fortunate ones, the beneficiaries of freedom, might begin to honor our dead.
In baseball and in war, there are both heroes and nameless ones. Heroic acts are performed on the playing field and on the battlefield, together with countless acts of sacrifice that will never show up in any box score.
Today I honor the noble memory of American heroes and mourn the names upon names upon names of the dead, including those who left the game they loved and traveled to distant shores and skies, never to return to life from fields of war; the named and unnamed individuals whose formidable acts of sacrifice enter a realm that is beyond words.
To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord.
No more bleeding, no more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just divine embrace, eternal light
In the Mansions of the Lord.
Where no mothers cry and no children weep,
We will stand and guard though the angels sleep,
All through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord.
- Randall Wallace
please click here to listen and remember
In Memory of Dana Brand
"All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated . . . . No Man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde."
John Donne, Meditation No. 17, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
I befriended Professor Brand in the very same way in which I learned of his untimely death a few days ago - on facebook. "I'm Sheila, Dana's wife," she wrote so thoughtfully on her husband's wall. "I'm writing with the sad news that Dana passed away suddenly yesterday afternoon. He was a wonderful man, and since many of you folks, his friends, are Mets fans, you know he was a Mets fan extraordinaire."
Although I never met Dana Brand face to face and will sadly never enjoy the privilege of watching a game with him, I feel greatly honored to have been his friend. Ours was a friendship rooted in the sincerity of good baseball conversation and in the common ground of literary studies. Our lives paralleled each other curiously on several counts. The earliest New York Mets teams were, for better or worse, the essence and true joy of our respective childhoods. We would both go on to earn PhD degrees in literature in atmospheres that might be considered more rarefied than Shea Stadium, he at Yale University under the tutelage of Bart Giamatti and I at Brown. Yet for all the erudite works we studied so intensively during college and graduate school, baseball was the subject that often engaged our hearts and ultimately filled a remaining void.
"Look at how it takes up all this space in my soul that in other times would have been taken up by magnificent things," Dana writes as he nears the conclusion of his poignant tribute to a beloved Stadium, The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan.
Several months ago I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with Dana; it took place, surprisingly to me, in the form of facebook messages. On the sorrowful occasion of his passing, I feel compelled to make our conversation public, because Professor Brand's elegantly crafted and deeply felt reflections on baseball deserve a readership beyond the confines of my own private world. Our substantive and heartfelt exchange may give you a sense of the rich content that is often explored by baseball writers and bloggers behind the scenes; more importantly, what follows is a fine example of the basic kindness that often abides among friends and fans of America's beloved game.
It was my great privilege to be the recipient of Dana Brand's intelligent reply. In his words you will come to know the vitality of one man's intellect; his generosity of spirit; the depth and authenticity of his affection for the New York Mets and the game itself. He lifted the informal and mundane activity of writing a facebook message to a higher plane of discourse, meaning, and being. I am enriched and blessed to have known Dana Brand through a brief period of correspondence. Let's Go Mets.
hi Dana -
Thank you again for accepting my friend request. I finished reading The Last Days of Shea about an hour ago. Started it yesterday afternoon. I love this book. There's no way I can convey to you in a facebook space how much it means to me.
My journey with the Mets parallels yours in some respects, and it's fascinating to experience those decades from another individual's perspective. Unfortunately, many circumstances throughout the years conspired to pull me away from the New York area and hence from the Mets, but that is a long story for another time.
When I discovered at about age 10 that Ed Kranepool and I shared the same birthday, just ten years apart, well, let's just say I behaved like a nutcase - the day remains one of the happiest of my childhood. I will never forget that moment. It's an important scene in the memoir I hope to have published someday.
I can hardly look at the cover of your book. A huge wave of emotion surges inside me. I could hardly read the final chapters in which you describe so beautifully and painfully your last three visits to the Stadium. The imagery of Shea coming down deeply affected me.
I love how you dedicated the book to your daughter. (I like how you never pushed her to appreciate the game on the same levels and with the same vigor as you do.) I love how your mother is such an important presence in the book - she truly comes to life, especially when saying in the end, "Thank you so much for taking me" (precisely the same words my young son once spoke to me) - and I like how you articulate your father's quieter connection to the game. It isn't always fathers playing catch with sons.
I love the chapter on Ralph Kiner. If his show were still on television, I'd be watching it every night.
Yours is a great story - an important story, and I'm so glad I discovered it, thanks to facebook, where I'm a relative newcomer.
I'm marking the April conference on my calendar - I would love to attend, because Shea remains very dear to my heart.
How impressive that you studied with Giamatti at Yale. While working on my degree at Brown, the game sadly dropped out of my life; something huge was missing, and I didn't even realize it.
Many thanks again for this beautiful book. I cannot stop looking at the cover.
Dana Brand, 1954-2011.
Ph.D., Yale University. Professor of English and American Literature.
Lifelong Mets fan. R.I.P.
"My mind still comes up with new things and I feel as much vigor in my body as I ever have. The new stadium is here. I am tired of resenting it . . . . What I feel about what is gone is too deep to be cleared out by any easy gesture of reconciliation. Still, I don't want to spend what I have left on something that is gone."
Dana Brand, The Last Days of Shea
Professional ballplayers suffer from a variety of aches and pains, vague ailments, legitimate worries, and career-ending injuries. A few days ago, I sat down to read Major League Baseball’s official Disabled List. Impressed with its length and fascinated by the ways in which some injuries were presented (vocabulary, diagnoses, euphemisms and so on), I immediately tried to make sense of the subject by organizing my own list, which rapidly materialized into a medical catalogue of epic proportions.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that the elbow and shoulder are among the most vulnerable components of a ballplayer’s anatomy. Knee troubles aren't as common as I’d anticipated (we’re not talking about football here), while groin issues are surprisingly rare. That shows you how much I know.
Moving from head to toe, here is a glossary of injuries in the game of baseball during the month of May 2011.
Head. Concussion (two cases).
Neck. Neck tightness.
Shoulder. Mild shoulder tendinitis, right shoulder tendinitis (two cases), right shoulder inflammation (three cases), mild inflammation in right shoulder, right shoulder strain, right shoulder posterior strain, right shoulder surgery (four procedures), tear in shoulder, dislocated right shoulder, strained left shoulder, partial dislocation of left shoulder, left shoulder inflammation, left shoulder surgery, torn capsule in left shoulder, sore right shoulder.
Torn rotator cuff, torn left rotator cuff (two cases), partially torn rotator cuff, rotator cuff surgery, right posterior rotator cuff strain.
Back. Lower back stiffness, back tightness, lower back discomfort, strained lower back, sore lower back, strained back muscle on right side, back surgery.
Abdomen. Left oblique strain (three cases), right oblique strain, sore left oblique, intercostal strain, lateral muscle soreness, left rib contusion, injury to left side, abdominal strain, abdominal tear.
Arm. Strained right forearm (two cases), strained right triceps, right biceps strain, sore left biceps. Apparently a “sore left biceps” can get you 60 days on the DL.
As I make my way through this list, I hear echoes of my father’s voice. He’s speaking the same words he voiced whenever we kids got hurt, which was pretty often. “You’re okay. Rub it!” I hear my own voice speaking to small children a generation later: “You’re okay. Do you want me to kiss it and make it feel better?”
Elbow. Sprained ligament in left elbow, sore left elbow (two cases), infected bursar sac in left elbow, left elbow surgery, ligament damage to right elbow, strained right elbow, bone spur in right elbow, inflamed right elbow, inflammation in right elbow, right elbow tightness, right elbow inflammation, right elbow strain (two cases), right elbow surgery, muscle strain near right elbow, medial impingement on right elbow, fractured right elbow.
Clearly there is a fundamental weakness in the design and mechanism of the human elbow when it comes to throwing baseballs. Orthopedists and physicists can explain this situation far better than I.
Hand. Broken left hand (two cases), broken right hand, right wrist inflammation, left wrist inflammation, sprained right wrist, left hand contusion, broken hamate bone in right hand.
Finger. Fractured left middle finger, broken ring finger, broken left thumb, torn ligament in left thumb, blister on right index finger, blood clot in right middle finger.
Groin. Strained right groin, strained right groin muscle.
Quad. Tightness in right quad, strained right quad (two cases), quad strain, sore right quad.
Nearing the conclusion of this list, I can’t help but think about Hoss Radbourne (1854-1897), who often played through pain, seldom allowing any form of disability to keep him from the mound.
Leg. Left calf soreness, left calf injury, left shin contusion, tight right hamstring, strained right hamstring, strained Achilles tendon, fractured left leg.
Tiger Woods suddenly comes to mind, with his knee issue that led to the Achilles issue which in turn caused the calf to cramp up. “It is what it is.”
Knee. Left knee contusion, left knee soreness, right knee swelling, torn ligaments in right knee, torn meniscus in right knee, patellar tendinitis in right knee, right knee surgery, sore right knee.
Foot and Ankle. Sprained right ankle, right foot surgery, left foot surgery, strained arch in left foot, fractured toe in left foot.
Procedures. Orthopedic surgeons sometimes use fancy Latin names to describe what’s going on: torn labrum in left hip (two cases), torn ulnar collateral ligament, fractured left fibula. Let’s face it: “strained right flexor pronator tendon” sounds considerably more serious and dignified than “sore arm.”
Miscellaneous conditions. Stinger. Irritable bowel syndrome. Point tenderness on right side. Bilateral leg weakness. Dead arm. Sleep disorder.
What exactly is “point tenderness on right side,” anyway? I think I may have had that once.
The game of baseball involves risks, setbacks, injuries, and dangers. However, unlike what goes on in the real world, most adversities in baseball don’t happen because individuals deliberately harm one another.
Collateral damage occasionally happens. Last week one of my baseball friends narrowly escaped serious injury at Toronto's Rogers Centre. Fortunately for his sake the 100 mph line drive met up with his hand and not his face, and his bones survived unbroken.
So many of us turn to baseball for a good time, friendship, camaraderie, and basic forms of human kindness. The game has ways of hurting its followers, however - mostly in the form of hard-hit balls and flying bats ... but also in subtler and unspoken ways.
I’ve never sustained an injury while playing baseball, though I know what it is to endure an oblique strain and a bruised rib, a finger blister, and a few cancer scares. I know how a sore quad feels, especially a day or so after working out at BodyStrong. I’ve experienced chronic pain in my left shoulder after many years of holding and carrying young children.
I know all about contusions, concussions, and discomfort. Tenderness too.
Thankfully I’ve experienced very few accidents and ailments, never a broken bone or a dead arm, and not much physical or mental anguish. I've met death face to face in a car wreck and once had to breathe with the aid of a respirator in the ICU following natural childbirth, but apart from those two incidents I have been incredibly lucky all my life. I’m pretty good at withstanding pain and setbacks.
In short, I’ve never really known what it is to be on the DL.
Until now. Some aspects of the game have sobered me in recent weeks, even as I’ve tried my best to honor it. No matter how much I romanticize and idealize the nation’s pastime, baseball frequently offers its reality checks. The game and its people sometimes leave me demoralized and shaken. But then I remember that faith in baseball, after all, isn’t really the right kind of faith.
I’ve always been attracted to the game because of the unusual forms of excitement, kindness, and joy it offers fans and friends. I like the way it affords opportunities to associate with good people. Yet within this very appealing world there will be moments that leave a person quietly dispirited. "All fans assume all risks and dangers incidental to the game." Words posted on a section of chain link fence just a mile from my back door state a fundamental truth. "The participating teams, organizations, and players are not liable for injuries resulting from such cases."
It's time for me to step away from the ballpark for a while. I'm headed to the DL, curious to know how it feels. Attribute this move to my new day job, insufficient time for writing, family matters, and point tenderness on left side. All of the above are true.
I’m leaving New England and Red Sox nation for a few days, bound for a picturesque landscape that is home to the No. 1 college team in the country. The program has sent quite a few talented players into professional baseball in recent years (Ryan Zimmerman for one, who underwent surgery on May 3 for an abdominal tear), and I wish them well as another winning NCAA season moves to an exciting climax. It is thanks to my beloved daughter, soon to graduate from college, that I lay claim to this team in a small way. Virginia is really her team. (If you care to know more, I wrote about the Hoos, a.k.a. Cavaliers, just one year ago in "Baseball and Bach.")
I won’t stop following the game while I'm on the DL. There’s a reason I gave this site the name I did, because Watching the Game best captures how I spend most of my free time, and locates that activity quite deliberately in the present tense. I hope never to stop being a conscientious and passionate student of baseball.
Whether I’m out for a week or the entire season, I do not know. It could be fifteen days or sixty. More likely day-to-day. Due back: TBD.
Let's hope the Red Sox are showing a record well above .500 when I return to the field.
"There she is; beautiful, emphatic, with her familiar phrase and her laugh ... lighting our random lives as with a burning torch, infinitely noble and delightful to her children."
Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being
Row 4. Veterans Field. June, 2010.
When it comes to baseball, my mom has never been a season ticket holder, nor has she ever set her heart on one single team, as I recall. Maybe it’s because she gravitated toward football early on, during that magical time of life when games begin to take hold of a person. As the very pretty drum majorette at her small town high school, she was the one who got to lead the marching band and football teams on Saturday mornings in autumn, pumping that baton and smiling her way up Arnold Avenue before every varsity home game.
My mom can probably count on one hand the total number of major-league baseball games she has attended in her lifetime. And yet, she’ll gladly keep us company whenever we’re watching baseball, whether on television or at any random field. She showed up at her twin grandsons’ Little League practice just last Friday. She shows up. She happily sits on the uncomfortable aluminum bleachers at Veterans Field for nine straight innings, because that’s where her kids and grandkids gather almost every night in summer. She shows up, happy just to be with us wherever we are. She simply wants to be with us.
Baseball may not be her favorite thing in life, but for many years she has smiled upon my deep and abiding love of the game, wise in understanding the joys and disappointments it has thrown my way, both in childhood and in recent years.
My mother is a loyal reader of this blog. She looks forward to every new post; she praises the specifics of many pieces; she urges me to keep going at times when I’m inclined to give up. My mom is always in the stands. Mom, thank you very much for being such a supportive fan. I’m so glad you understand why baseball is important to me, and I love you.
I’ve been a mom for almost twenty-five years, and I learned from the best. Today, thankfully, my heart is full of Mother’s Day memories. For me, it’s not about the greeting card, the present, a bouquet of flowers, breakfast in bed, or the fancy cologne I mentioned in my previous post – and I don’t think it ever was for my mom either. It’s never been about presents or what others ought to be doing for me.
I never viewed the holiday as an opportunity to take a break from my three kids or as a reason to enjoy a day “off,” simply because I had supposedly worked so hard and it was high time for me to receive a little recognition. That’s just not me.
Mother’s Day is when I celebrate the fact that I have children in my life. I feel so blessed and privileged to be a mom. For all these years, I’ve enjoyed one of the most important forms of work that any human being can ever do. On Mother’s Day I don’t want presents. I just want to celebrate my children, dwell in the idea of them whether they are home or far away, because they are the gift. I simply want to be with them.
About ten years ago my youngest child brought home from kindergarten his very special Mother’s Day surprise. He was so proud of the tiny 2" hand-painted terra cotta pot that contained one small marigold plant, and especially pleased with the personal message he had penned in a circle of primary colors around the flowerpot: “I love baseball and I love you!” In permanent ink.
He was devastated, however, because the lone flower had begun to die, and to tell you the truth, it was a puny and sorry sight. The bright yellow blossom had turned a dull brown; it was all shriveled up and only getting worse. My son was sad and embarrassed upon realizing that he had given me a dead thing for Mother’s Day – that is, until I showed him how we could just pinch away that dead blossom, lightly water the plant, and wait patiently for new growth to emerge from tiny buds he hadn’t even noticed. See, there they are – look at them! Those buds would soon open so beautifully, and our flower would stay healthy and alive if we continued to pinch the dead stuff away and nurture the rest.
I love baseball and I love you! I was so happy and so pleased that my boy thought to mention me in the same sentence as the game of baseball.
More and more I hear evidence to support my longtime belief that baseball isn’t just fathers playing catch with sons. Moms matter too, more importantly than most baseball writers have ever sought to put into words. I’m struck by the fact that many baseball fans have memories of a mother who was once present in deeply significant ways - and not just in the laundry room or in a folding chair - when they first felt a love of baseball. A mother's presence (or absence) makes a difference in ways that are worth pondering. For whatever reasons, maybe because of this holiday, lots of people have been talking about their moms and baseball. Grandmothers too. Those poignant memories are amusing, sad, endearing, and very important.
I feel so fortunate that I can share baseball with my mom and with my three children. The game has often bound us together even as other things split apart. Many of our best moments have happened because of baseball. But we are not the only ones.
Tell me about your mom. Tell me the story of your mom and baseball and your love of the game. Please tell me your stories. I’ve told you quite a few of mine. I would love to hear your stories.