Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Old Men and the Sea; baseball and the body

Let's push this focus of Matt's a bit farther by raising a couple of questions. We invite any passers-by to offer insight because, for me, these are still open questions.

First, why do American novelists write about baseball?

The list of America's best novelists who have chosen baseball at one time or another in distinguished careers is impressive. Hemingway, of course. Malamud. Coover. Roth. Pulitzer Prize winner (The Killer Angels), Michael Shaara. Jerome Charyn. Heywood Broun. I'm sure I've left someone out.

These were not baseball writers, or, particularly, sports writers. And the decision to build an entire novel around a single vehicle is no small decision. So, why?

Which brings us to the second question. Many, if not all, of these novels turn on the deterioration of a man's body. Why? Why do these great novelists see baseball as the perfect way to focus on either the natural deterioration of the human body or the tragic destruction of the human body?

You may have to be at my end of the curve to see this. I play ball once a week with sixty year olds and once a week with fifty year olds. One of our fellows was complaining recently as we changed shoes on the tailgate at midnight after a double-header that he lost a bunch of players from his 65-and-over tournament team; they had decided to move up to 70-plus.

You read that right. That's an age bracket in tournament ball for players seventy years old and older.

I can tell you that playing ball at sixty-one does two things for you. It gives you an occasional glimpse of what it was like to be fourteen. But it also provides long slo-mo moments when you realize what sixty-one is, lest you forget. The point is this: Playing baseball is like watching the sun set when it is close to the horizon. When the sun is high in the sky, you have no marker and you rarely notice the sun move. But when it sits just above the horizon, it is as if you can watch it fall to earth.

I've puzzled why writers so often use baseball to tell the story of the body. I'd love to hear what others see in this. Why is Bruce Pearson's story so moving to us?


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  2. For me, the answer is because baseball is fun to play. I played every sport from third grade on, but I never enjoyed playing any of them like I did baseball. I can still remember stepping up to the plate and listening to my parents and my friends’ parents shouting encouragement while the rival team’s managers were yelling words against me and the infield was chattering. Baseball is a team sport and yet, it’s individual, too. When you step in the batter’s box, the weight is on you. You can look ridiculous at bat or in the field. And the game moves slower, so you have to face whatever it is that doesn’t go your way. I could never be a pitcher. Other than a boxer knocked to the mat, I don’t have empathy for anyone more so than a pitcher who’s seen his best pitch branded by a bat label and walloped over the fence. He has to stand there and listen to the crowd and watch the batter round the bases, then pull himself together on the lonely mound and throw strikes again. Strikes, not balls. Right back to the quest for perfection. Baseball has everything boys want. You get to play in the dirt, foremost. You get to take big swings and hit things. You get to run. You get to spit. You get to slide. I suppose you could make an argument that you can do the same in football or another sport, but I suppose it’s hard to romanticize something so violent. Football comes around when everything about the world is dying or turning cold. Winter is coming on. Hope doesn’t have a position. There are so many individual wars on given play you can’t possibly take in the whole game. Basketball is played indoors and by that arrangement the possibilities of it being something larger are impossible, also given the fact that it was invented to give football players something to do in the off season. I used to love baseball. I used to love the uniforms. The stirrups, the batter’s helmets, the batter’s glove. It was sort of a costume that you put on and you went out and played games for the optimist club, a gas station or an auto repair shop. People who paid real money to sponsor your team and you really wanted to win for those people. Baseball is a spectacle. When you hit a long shot, people stop and watch the ball fly. I’m not sure people look at the sky any more – not to see what’s in it, other than the weather. No one studies it, except kids and adults who look through it, trying to make predictions. My favorite part of baseball was the conversations that went on with the base coaches. That was your reward for a decent hit. There was a face waiting for you. How different does it feel to stand on second? You feel naked out there, far from the dug out, stranded, waiting. I don’t know. I think it’s fun. Fun is the answer. And it’s fun to write about. Look all the words it prompted from me.