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--- W I L L I A M V A N W E R T
BASEBALL IS about fathers. Not the day-to-day machinations of baseball as a business, trade rumors and free agents, the scandals and increasing high-tech ugliness of the sport, but mythical baseball, the baseball that addresses childhood and lodges itself in memory, this baseball is always about fathers. In a patriarchal and capitalist society in which the father-construct is deferred, intimacy and bonding with the father are made problematic, and representations of the father have to do with absence and authority both, baseball is the father exposed, made vulnerable and lovable, the little boy in the father fleshed out, made palpable. The plot of Malamud's The Natural has to do with the alternating black magic and white magic of women in the life of Roy Hobbes, but the prologue and coda are both about fathers and sons. The book begins with Roy playing baseball with his father, who dies too soon, and the book ends with the retired Roy finally assuming the fathering of his son and playing catch with him on the farm. The most touching scene in Field of Dreams, that scene which justifies the elaborate fantasy of building a baseball park for the immortals in the Iowa cornfields, is when father and son finally get to play catch together. Bull Durham is about an aging catcher mentoring and "fathering" a young, wild-oats superstar pitcher. Bang the Drum Slowly is about a quick-witted and talented pitcher mentoring and "fathering" a slow, mediocre catcher who dies of cancer. In all of these novels and films, baseball is the playing filed and metaphor, while fathering is the deep text.
There is a myth to explain the cycle of the seasons. The daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, was stolen by Pluto and taken down to Hades to become Pluto's wife, renamed Persephone, the Queen of hades. Gradually, Pluto softened and allowed his wife to return to her mother for six months of the year. During the six months that she returns to Demeter, we have spring and summer. During the six months that she goes back to Pluto and Demeter grieves, we have fall and winter.
The modern version of that myth must be baseball, the explanation for spring and summer, the sport most associated with hope and renewal. Football and basketball, overlapping as they do, are the outdoor and indoor compensations for fall and winter, the time of no baseball. Neither has a pre-season rivaling the spring training season of baseball. Neither has a post-season championship to rival that of the World series. Both football and basketball are regulated by the clock. Baseball has no such time limit.
Hope and renewal spring forth from baseball's pleasures of repetition and timelessness. The pitcher throws to first to keep a runner close as often as he wants. The batter steps in and out of the batter's box as often as he wants. These repetitions are tolerated, even pleasurable as part of the overall strategy of the game, because of the timelessness of the sport. Such timelessness accounts for the success of radio baseball vis-à-vis the radio renditions of other sports. I would even relate the timelessness of baseball to the ultimate goal of modernism. It stretches back to childhood and forward beyond our deaths in a way that Disney World can only aspire to. Its Hall of Fame means something. Ther are no raging debates in other sports about who gets in and who does not. Baseball's Hall of Fame is filled with the timeless ones, the Hall of Father Figures.
Each game of baseball unfolds not unlike Greek tragedy. There is rising action, appropriate masks and costumes, a chorus section, an exposition of hamartia or tragic flaws, and peripateia, the reversal of fortunes. Football may hide its intricate zone defenses and fly patterns, and what we see is the result of the play, the focus on the three or four "skill" positions for each play, not the process of the play, the line traps and so forth. In basketball we see the result as well, a basket scored, and we're not aware of the give-and-go, pick-and-roll and various screens to set up shots. In baseball everything is exposed, from the ultimate individuality of the at-bat offense to the ultimate teamwork of the defense in the field. Every pitch is magnified, every play is scrutinized.
People speak of the "purity" of the game, this game, more than that of any other game, where the rules are constantly changing to speed things up, increase the offense, inflate the scores and keep audience and television interested. Actually, baseball thrives on impurity: the scandals of Chicago Black Sox and Pete Rose, the spitballs and corked bats, the multiracial pot of the game. Bakhtin would have a filed day describing the intertextuality and polyglossia of baseball. My own best memories of baseball as a boy growing up in Michigan have to do with such impurities: Harvey Keunn signing autographs and spitting tobacco, one such wad of spit landing on my shoe; Billy Hoeft throwing a dead bird instead of a baseball and throwing it for a strike. Funky country humor and cerebral strategy conspire to make the game appeal equally to the Georgia peanut farmer and the fiction editor at the New Yorker, the kid collecting baseball cards and Robert Coover, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, the midget who batted once and Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, who still seems to bat in our memory, whether they played before our time or not.
I have an image of every member of my family that relates to baseball. My mother in the days before permanent press would iron shirts every night in the summer. She hated baseball, but she had the games on the radio for background noise, because it soothed her. I have an image of my father in his undershirt, paying bills at the kitchen table and listening to Detroit Tigers games. I still remember the names of the players of that era: Paul Foytack, Steve Gromek, Ned Garver, Ferris Fain, Harry Malmberg, not one of them in the Hall of Fame. I remember the dying light of summer nights when my father hit fly balls to me and my brothers. I know the smell of his seat because of baseball. And in every caught pause in conversation, then and now, I cold always talk baseball with my father.
Coded conversation. Women, strangers to each other, can make talk of relationships. Men, strangers to each other, can always talk sports. They talk sports as trivia, as weather, as quick reviews of movies: fast and on the surface. There is no need of depth or cleverness. I remember going to see my father the first time after my mother's death. My mother was always the great mediator , the buffer between father and children, the conversationalist. I was going to see my father alone, my father the silent Dutch farmer-turned-businessman. I was aware that each of us would remind the other of her, her death and absence, and that the always awkward silences between us might be especially awkward this time. He was still in grief, I was still in grief, and it seemed like a mistake to have come, but because it was summer, we talked baseball and finally gingerly and on tiptoes, we talked about her death. It was nine-tenths baseball, one-tenth her, and it all began to coalesce, because talking baseball was finally a way of talking death: her death, of course, but our deaths as well. We were still talking baseball when he broke into tears and he permitted me to come over and hug him. The little fearful boy in him cam out, even if just for a glimpse, I smelled his sweat and knew him to be my father. When he broke away from my hug, he made us drinks and we watched the Tigers play on television. The announcer said that splitting a doubleheader was like kissing your sister, and I thought the family reference as not only hilarious but appropriate too. The silence we settled into was now a shared silence: home-spun, familiar. And I caught myself thinking that I could stomach his death now, when in truth his death was a way of speaking of my own.
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