Of catching lightning and smoke: A baseball roundtable

Every March, I read a baseball book that’s new to me, and/or reread Jerome Charyn’s The Seventh Babe, my favorite baseball novel. [Full disclosure: My employer reprinted the book in 1997.] As I was gearing up this February, perusing the sports section in a local bookstore, I noted the obvious: In any bookstore, the sports shelves will be 35% baseball, 30% football, 25% basketball, and 10% everything else.

Now, I’m in Jackson, Mississippi, a city, and a state, that lacks a professional ball club. The closest we come is the double-A Mississippi Braves, a minor-league farm team for the Atlanta Braves. College football reigns supreme here. And yet, here I was, looking at a sports section overstuffed with books on baseball, of all sorts—biographies and autobiographies, encyclopedias and reference works, stats analyses, team histories, general histories, oral histories, journalistic accounts and exposés, fan memoirs, a-year-in-the-life tomes, business treatises, photographic accounts, memorabilia collecting guides.

Other sports have a similar range of works about it, but not nearly as many books. Moreover, baseball has a genuinely artsy/cultural heritage that other sports—boxing may be an exception but only, really, during the 1930s and 1940s—seem to lack. Sure, basketball has its poet laureate in John Edgar Wideman. Hell, every sport may have one. But there are, for instance, relatively few novels about hockey, while a great number of significant literary writers—Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Marianne Moore, Philip Roth, W.P. Kinsella, Robert Coover, John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Karen Joy Fowler—have tackled baseball in fiction. (Quick thinking: How many other sports have a poem—a poem!—dedicated to them that’s as popular and long-lived as “Casey at the Bat”?) Even in nonfiction, the game seems to be used as an elaborate metaphor for American life.

In cinema, The Natural and Field of Dreams have become resonant parts of Americana; Ken Burns devoted a 14-hour documentary to the sport. Even splashes of cold water such as John Sayles’ Eight Men Out invest heavily in the game’s iconography. Damn Yankees—drawing on both baseball and Faust—remains an enduring force on Broadway.

But I found myself looking at the baseball stacks because of a music critic’s essay. Robert Christgau reviewed the Baseball Project’s new album Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails—yes, baseball has invaded indie rock, too; there’s even a zine (Chin Music) devoted to equal parts baseball and punk—and, in the process, brought up a baseball novel that I’d never heard of. So there I was, searching for Donald Hays’ The Dixie Association

…And wondering, “Why the hell has this happened?” What draws American writers from all genres and modes to this game in particular?  And, in the face of the steroids era, rising ticket prices, and declining popularity, is this slowly changing?

I didn’t know the answer, so I decided to ask my friends and fellow baseball nuts Daniel Couch, Brian Winter, and Wally Holland. Dan Couch is a graduate student at Portland State University, and the proprietor of the Thomas Pynchon Fake Book. Brian Winter is the author of Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in ArgentinaWally Holland is proprietor of Wax Banks.

We’re all connected by a love of literature and baseball, though we’ve all had our hearts broken by the game in adulthood. I asked the group the same basic questions: What do you like about baseball books and baseball writing?  What does baseball say about America and the world to you?  What are your favorites, and why?  (Alternately, what books and writers do you think are overrated?)  Why do you think baseball as a subject lends itself so well to literature, as opposed to football or soccer or other popular sports?

As with baseball books, we branched far a-field pretty quickly, into love, disillusionment, childhood, adulthood, and moving on. What follows—after the jump—is an edited roundtable of our conversation. Enjoy.

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Walter Biggins (QB): Alright, gang. My initial response is more-or-less a book review but I think it touches on most of the questions I want to raise. Here we go.

In 1923, there were a lot of Babes running around America, especially in Boston.  There, George Herman Ruth established himself quickly as the best player in Major League Baseball, and then the goddamn New York Yankees snapped him up when the Red Sox wouldn’t agree to his demands.  Boston’s been reeling ever since, but not for lack of rookies and would-be’s proclaiming themselves as the new Grand Puba of baseball.

So, when a gangly orphan with an old flannel shirt and a sob story walks into the Red Sox training camp, the managers are not amused.  But Babe Ragland’s got an arm, a sweet swing, and legs.  He gobbles up line drives.  From his position at third base, he throws across the infield to first with a ferocity that singes the grass.  He claims he’s legal age.  The Red Sox sign him up.

That’s how Jerome Charyn’s The Seventh Babe, my favorite baseball book, starts.  If that’s where it ended up, it would be one of a million rags-to-riches stories.  But weirdness pops in quickly.  The seventh Babe becomes an overnight sensation, yes, though he wants none of the fame, and isn’t interested in making friends.  In fact, unlike most fictional baseball heroes, Babe Ragland’s a jackass and a racist on top of being hardheaded.  His only friend on the team is the hunchbacked batboy/mascot Scarborough, and Babe manages to alienate even him for long stretches of the novel.  He gets into fights with his manager, with the Harvard boys who are the team’s stars and who make clear social lines between the rich kids and the hoi polloi on the Red Sox, with the owner (whose teenager daughter Babe “seduces,” marries, and then rejects), and finally with MLB’s administration.  Halfway through the 350-page novel, Babe Ragland has been thrown out of Major League Baseball for good, just like the Chicago Black Sox of 1919, and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it.

Even weirder, this doesn’t become a working-class story, exactly.  100 pages in, it’s revealed that Babe Ragland is really Cedric Tanehill, heir to a copper baron.  He’s not an orphan, he’s not the poor kid he claimed himself to be, and he doesn’t have the right to align himself with—as he’s done (reluctantly) up to now—the working-class half of the team… or with the working-class mythology that baseball has touted for itself from the beginning.

Now, Tanehill’s become acquainted with the Negro Leagues early on in the novel, barnstorming across the country in the winter and fall, picking up extra money in the off-season.  At first, this loose confederation of team—they build their own baseball fields before games; the teams act as carpenters and groundskeepers as well as sterling players—is nothing but a bunch of niggers to the Babe.  “Nigger” is prominent in the novel’s voice, as are so many other racial epithets.  The voice is contemporary so that, as the novel starts in 1923, it’s comfortable with now-offensive terms.  It’s funny, though.  As The Seventh Babe progresses through the decades (the novel was published in 1978), so too does the narrator’s voice.  It never loses its terseness or its rough edges but, just as the Babe gradually discovers the humanity of the African American characters, the word “nigger”—so prominent in the first part of the novel—slowly fades away from the prose.

What seeps in, of course, is a respectful and even reverent representation of the black and nonwhite American experience.  Babe Ragland/Cedric Tanehill might be the best player in MLB, but he quickly learns that he’s not even the fifth-best player in actual baseball.  The #1 spot belongs to Pharaoh Yarbull, Charyn’s fictional combination of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell.  He’s a legend.  Indeed, once the Babe leaves MLB, he becomes a legend, too, known more through word-of-mouth and folktales than through radio broadcasts and the official record.

Through one hero (who starts off as a jerk and then slowly becomes something better), The Seventh Babe glides through the game’s roots and, because Babe and Pharaoh and all the rest age more slowly than the rest of America (it’s the magic of baseball), through 50 years of the American century.  The game starts as pure play, then becomes a wild network of barnstorming and one-night stands, then becomes locally owned, then becomes a self-sustained corporation.  As baseball becomes more corporatized and “fact-based,” The Seventh Babe becomes more and more infused with the legendary and mythological—Voodoo conjurers and magicians and gangsters all enter the picture at some point.  The novel, which began as gritty realism, becomes a glorious flight of fancy.

Okay, I’ve said my piece.  What about you guys?

Brian Winter: Man, it’s hard to be a baseball fan right now. And, pardon the narcissism, it’s particularly hard for me. The team of my childhood, the Texas Rangers, is not only the worst franchise in professional sports (even the Tampa Bay Somethings have been to a Series now), but we have recently discovered that the players during the Rangers’ only era of semi-competence—the AL West champions of 1996, ‘98 and ‘99—were the preeminent juicers of their time. I picture Juan Gonzalez, the (strangely moody!) two-time MVP who symbolized those years, sitting in a darkened room right now, rocking back and forth, clutching his shriveled, aching testicles and neighing softly to himself. The Rangers are otherwise famous for Eddie Stanky, the manager who quit in disgust after just one day on the job, and… nope, that's about it, I guess. Meanwhile, the Curse of Me has been seamlessly transmitted to my current local team, the Washington Nationals, who in addition to having a name as gray and uninspired as the federal bureaucrats who wear trenchcoats to Tuesday night games in July, built on last season’s worst-in-the-majors performance by firing their general manager for skimming bonuses from foreign prospects. And, believe me, if you can’t cheat in Latin America without getting caught by Major League Baseball, then you are truly incompetent. This team is screwed.

It will come as no surprise, then, that my relationship with the literature of baseball is similarly estranged. Sure, there are still some books that still manage to evoke in me the sepia-tinted nostalgia that is the sport’s main currency—W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe comes to mind. To this day, my favorite baseball book is actually one whose title I can't recall: a 300-page paperback field guide, possibly produced by Sports Illustrated, that used text and detailed diagrams to explain how to turn a 5-4-3 double play, for example, or how to grip a slider. For those of us who lacked natural athletic talent and didn’t always have an Earl Woods around to teach us these finer points, such information was a rare, if sometimes impractical, leg up. I still blush with pride, actually, at the memory of a Little League game in maybe the 5th grade, when I came off the mound and my manager asked, laughing with disbelief: “Was there movement on that ball, son? Where did you learn that?” “From a book,” I replied tartly—and, just like that, my sporting career peaked forever. Separately, I have an even more distant memory connected to another now-nameless book: lying down on a bunk in the sleeper car of an Amtrak train, which my family used for regular trips from Dallas to Chicago and back for a brief time (a high-minded experiment that ended when we got stuck in Little Rock for 20 hours with no working toilet). The book contained riveting accounts of the 10 greatest games of all time, or something to that effect, and I can still visualize the box scores in the dim glow of the cabin’s reading light, gently rocking from side to side as the train click-clacked its way south. How impossibly romantic, right? I must call my agent.

But that kind of imagery illustrates what, in my mind, has become the sport’s biggest crutch. Strip away the grand, oft-repeated notion that Baseball is America and America is Baseball, and you are left with a plodding, corrupted sport whose most iconic star (A-Rod) is the second-most universally loathed player of his day, behind only the sport’s all-time home run leader (Bonds). Who are the loveable characters of the modern game? Who is our era’s Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, or Pete Rose? (Shit, never mind.) Why do even the nicknames of today’s players suck so much—I mean, couldn’t we do any better than “A-Rod,” for Christ’s sake? Maybe it’s the steroids, maybe it’s the current state of America, but I just don’t see any reason to be nostalgic about today’s baseball—and without that romance, what’s left, really? In fact, historians may very well look back on the 1990s and 2000s and use baseball’s steroids “bubble” as a metaphor to describe a whole era of excess, greed and cheating that came crashing down. Even the modern-day baseball literature—from Michael Lewis’s Moneyball all the way back to George Will’s Men at Work—now seems built on the same precarious math-is-God philosophy that brought us mortgage derivatives and AIG.

Call me a hypocrite, or maybe just a sucker, but I’m not going cold turkey quite yet—in April, my dad and I will make our annual pilgrimage to see the Rangers play (this year, in Baltimore, where we can at least leaven the misery with some cheap crab cakes and heroin). But it’s worth noting that this is also the first spring for my infant son, and while he’s too young to take anywhere for this go-around, I think that once he’s of sufficient age, I may save him the heartbreak and instead steer him toward a more mature, professionally run franchise, free of drama, bad management or faux celebrities—like, say, the Dallas Cowboys.

Wally Holland: Why baseball?

Baseball was my favorite sport when I was young, but I always thought of it as an old man’s game. I'll tell you why but, if you don’t mind, first I'll tell you about me and Phil. Young men.

My dad used to pitch to my brother and me in our backyard in Texas, but it was always a little screwy because he’s English and can’t actually throw baseball-style. He’d run up and pitch the tennis ball like a cricket bowler, all from the shoulder, it’d sail over the batter’s head or plonk into the ground ten feet in front of the plate, and Dad would laugh it off with “Try to hit that! That’s my googly.” He’d say “me” instead of “my” and I thought I’d learned a secret language, one specific to England and cricket and men over the age of 50. I never did figure out what the hell a “googly” was, but I know I can’t hit it for the life of me.

I’ve never been fast but I’ve got a decent arm and a clean swing, so I was well-suited to baseball vs. Dad’s true love, soccer. Pardon me: football. My brother Phillippe and I would head into the backyard and act out games between the Houston Astros (my team—we lived near Houston) and his rat bastard New York Mets. I say “act out” because more than competition, the games were a kind of improvisatory theatre: we’d duplicate the tics and postures and behavioral oddities of our beloved players, down to pitching handedness, so if Bob Knepper or Sid Fernandez came up in the rotation we’d be throwing off-handed until the reliever came on in the 7th. Phil was hilariously adept at aping Lenny Dykstra’s troglodytic crouch and Tim Teufel’s ass-waggling “Tuefel Shuffle,” while I reveled in cleanup guy Glenn Davis’s louche posture and Ken Caminiti’s semicircular spinal curvature. (Never could grow Davis’s pornstar moustache though.)

Of course we'd take turns doing play-by-play narration in the voices of our local announcers; and of course there was a Doberman pinscher next door to eat our home run balls; and of course a grounder to the wooden gate in our back fence was an automatic out, G-3, though a sufficiently hard-hit ball might induce a dreaded E-3 instead. Two-man baseball isn't easy but we made do, even walking to the backstop every pitch to get the ball for lack of a catcher. (Dad called them 'wicket-keepers' and we thought him a crazy person.) The 'game' wasn't to outplay the other guy but to collaborate on what John Gardner called the 'vivid continuous dream,' the fictional escape. Another world—better one, if you can manage it.

Easy experiment: Imagine a theatrical recreation of the great moments in NBA or NFL history—coordinating that many precise physical performances, even fitting that many guys onstage or onscreen. Or how about a recreation of the Immaculate Reception would be…the Immaculate Reception. The Catch, Montana to the back of the end zone: we're talking 22 actors moving simultaneously. Your memory of The Catch is always in motion. It's this thing that happened, and it lasted only an instant.

OK, now imagine a theatrical recreation of the great moments in baseball history: Hammerin' Hank sends #715 off to God, Maris taters #61, Larsen puts down 27 in a row, Ripken comes out for game 2,131 running. Each moment has in common its dramatic staging: stillness, then action—release—then bliss, and grown men crying and the crowd's voice uplifted. The thing isn't just the pitch or dive or swing or cheer but the insufferable fifteen or thirty or sixty seconds leading up to it. These are dramatic beats: no clock, no running around, no keeping track of 22 guys moving all at once. You put your attention on one spot, no more than a couple of players in direct competition, and everything stops

…for a moment…

…and deliberately, clearly, quietly, we move. One pitch at a time. One swing. Movement not through time but by stages, as if strobe-lit. 99% of baseball is pregnant pauses. The climactic drive of an (American) football game might see the offensive side working without a huddle, the QB heaving up bombs or lasering short passes to receivers at the sidelines, trying to stop the clock, two minutes on the field the same as two minutes for the viewer; in (proper) football the clock doesn't even stop for forty-five minutes, and additional time at the end of each half is added and counted off by the ref —the whistle comes when it comes. (Europeans are strange folks.)

But baseball time is something else. Not the clock's tick but a series of tableaux. You don't just watch it, you study it. What else is there to do?! Baseball fandom is stats-obsessed partly because the discreteness of baseball play makes for easier counting, but partly (mostly) because the game's visceral thrill is the waiting, savoring, dwelling, ruminating. Marinating. Only in baseball does the radio guy go, 'Here comes the windup…'

Bart Giamatti, former MLB commissioner and by the way a Yale lit prof, said the appeal of baseball was this: a guy with a rock against a guy with a stick, and all anyone wants to do is get home.

Baseball hasn't changed much over the last century or so. Football went from a working stiff's game to the exclusive domain of drugged-up genetic freaks; the TV-ready showboating of today's NBA superstars would be unrecognizable to players of a half-century ago; apparently there's a sport called 'hockey,' etc. But baseball for the most part is what it's always been (c'mon, you remember James Earl Jones's Field of Dreams speech)—guys like Babe Ruth, Nolan Ryan, Ricky Henderson, Ozzie Smith, Yogi Berra. Maybe hefty, clumsy, shrimpy, or little squat fellas who can catch, but all of them fanatically devoted to perfecting skills only incidentally 'athletic' in nature. Baseball is our most proletarian sport, because you can be good at it without being an Adonis or a Mercury or a Hercules.

Which brings me back to my dad, and why to me baseball is an old man's game. And my favorite baseball story, which is: Damn Yankees.

The best representation of baseball in print, in my comparatively limited reading experience, is the prologue of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Pafko at the Wall. Easy pick, fine, but it's just as good as everyone says, and luckily for its famously heady author it doesn't require DeLillo to sustain empathy with actual human beings for more than a few dozen pages. Onscreen, maybe you go for The Natural—lightning strikes, lightbulbs shattering in the bleachers, Redford bleeding from his midsection as he rounds the bases! Or Field of Dreams, or Bad News Bears. They'll all do.

But for me it's Damn Yankees, and not just because when I was a kid, Ray Walston doing 'Those Were the Good Old Days' was one of my favourite singalongs. It's Joe's final at-bat. Old fella's sold his soul to become the young slugger the Senators need against the titular Bronx bums, he misses his wife, can't get out of the deal, he knows he's out of time: he's gotta return home as an old man by 9pm, or suffer eternal damnation as a young one. OK then: two down, ninth inning, this one's for the pennant. He's up at the plate for the Senators, the Devil gives him two strikes, the clock strikes nine—and at the last second he cries 'Let me go!' He'd rather be dumpy Joe Boyd than young Joe Hardy. And so Joe's turned back into an old man. The Devil's taken his legs and back and strong arm away, as per their contract. It's the end. Devil took his dream away too.

Well, but you know how it ends. What magic dwells in this place.

The old guy knocks the ball out of the goddamn park.

That's the meaning of baseball, right there. Formal features, temporal oddities, simple logistics, long cultural history, seasons of 162(!!) games, perfect autumn weather, 'seasons' that are actually seasons…leave 'em aside. 'Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO' strides up to the plate, mighty Joe Hardy carries the hopes of the team, but it's the old schlub who tees up and taters that thing to win it all. Some light in his stolen soul burns undiminished after all these years, some knowledge, the sacred memory of standing just there at the plate, bat in hand, just so, knowing that this moment comes down not to whether he can run or jump or tackle or kick or skate like a young man but hey batter put some lumber on it! Hey now!

My varsity baseball coach in high school gave me two extraordinary pieces of advice. First, “Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” And then, whenever we'd get up to the plate dreaming of home runs and glory and the love of a beautiful girl who happened to be a baseball fan, the coach would say in his usual calm voice: “Don't try to cream the ball. Just make contact.”

Which maybe you've heard elsewhere in slightly altered form, as 'Only connect,' and if I never did figure out how to hit Dad's googly and Phil's in law school and (here in Boston) of all things we root for a goddamn American League team when we root for anyone—but I don't anymore, forgive me, I can't—though the house and the Doberman are gone and we're gone, well, it might sound dopey but I smell fresh-cut stadium grass or watch a well-turned 6-4-3 double play (did you see that sonofabitch come into second with his spikes up? Did you see that?) and if only for a moment I can make contact, just that. With maybe my family, or a country and culture I've only dreamed of; or maybe with me as I dreamed myself, once. Down two strikes, sure, but down isn't out, baby. Even two strikes down isn't out.

Daniel Couch: I want to respond in part to all of the posts but let’s open with some food for thought (or not) from George Carlin:

Alright, here goes.

Oh wow, Brian….this is some weird Möbius strip you're on, moving from the Rangers to the third iteration of the Nationals.  Is there some part of you deep down that makes you want to pull for the Minnesota Twins too?  I know I feel it; although the new Nationals do nothing for me except save me the embarrassment of cheering for the most hopeless team in baseball.

I find it interesting that you chose to talk about Shoeless Joe and a how-to baseball book here.  I went to Powell’s this weekend and stood before the baseball section and there was SJ.  But it was almost hard to find amongst the glossy how-to books and puff pastry biographies and team chronicles.  Walter was right- baseball stands out in the Sports section, but the literature is buried amongst so much detritus.

OK, seriously…. enough throat clearing.  I'm afraid I don't have a whole lot to add here.  I really like Wally H.’s vision of baseball as a series of tableaux. Time is a definite part of that.  We can freeze those images because they last for a moment or so rather than a part of the continuous action.  Basketball has its version—the tension of the game on the line at the free throw. Maybe football's similar moment is the last-second field goal. And while all these moments have the suspension of time in common, they also the commonality of individuality.  These are moments of one (wo)man's actions deciding the fate of the team, and that's why we inhabit them when we fantasize about being a pro player as kids.  And here's the thing that makes baseball a little different—it's full of these moments.  At baseball camp, a coach told us that baseball, unlike any other sport, is made up of a collection of individuals.  He was justifying why the baseball All-Star Game was so much better than, say, the Pro Bowl (as if he needed to convince a bunch of kids on a two-week baseball camp).  He's wrong in some ways sure—team chemistry is important, for example—but baseball definitely contains the most moments of individual against individual of any of the major team sports. I'm stressing the team here.  Golf or tennis or boxing or whatever don't have that responsibility to the team.

I think that's important and hopefully I can tie that back in here in a minute but before I risk sliding past the bag, I'll get to my point: baseball is an American mythology. I think that's the short answer for why baseball works in literature.  I'm pretty sure Michael Chabon realized that before he wrote Summerland—hell, he even weaves in Native American mythology, finally uniting the two. Anyway… How long did we believe that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in NY?  We wanted it to be an American sport even though it isn't. I think because we wanted to, and did, appropriate it as part of our own cultural fabric, our own mythology. Apocryphal stories aside, what we think we know about baseball's origins doesn't put it too far ahead of the official birth of this country.

I'm thinking right now about Modernity's obsession with the Cartesian notion of the individual and the trope of the rugged individual settling the American frontier. I think that's part of what's going on in an at-bat or a sharp grounder in the hole.  We've got solitary heroes couched in social interdependence.  With one less fielder it's almost impossible to cover the entire diamond, but making the play often comes down to one person.  Even with double plays you could argue that each moment is just a series of individual moments strung together in glove-popping succession. I think these little individual dramas that baseball lends itself to so well is part of what makes it the extension of ourselves that it seems to be.  It's got its ups (Jackie Robinson) and downs (the Steroid era) like all of us.  Hell, failure is pretty common in baseball.  We've all heard the hoary old cliché about success in baseball is failing seven times out of ten…. Yeah, tell that to your shortstop. Anyway, I imagine we could overlay just about any American mythology with baseball and find concordances.

I'm thinking back to that Carlin sketch describing baseball as a pastoral game with a picnic feel to it. It really is about being outside a lot of the time, about being outside and chatting with friends or not, following the game closely or not.  I wonder if part of this mythology business is tied into its setting.  In the absence of a long history it wanted to acknowledge, America emphasized the natural wonder of the countryside to aggrandize herself.  Think “America the Beautiful.”  Fruited plains—that's what makes us great? Perhaps baseball is another celebration of the natural beauty of the country.  Does anyone else feel gross watching baseball inside a dome or resent the hell out of astroturf? What's that about?

Quick notes: 1) What's with all the magic/mystical action in baseball literature? Field of Dreams and its angels in the outfield (ha!); the Devil in Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (which is, incidentally, the basis for Damn Yankees in its various forms). 2) Do you think the nickname "A-Rod" is a way to mask his ethinicity, if only on a subconscious level?  I think I prefer "A-Roid" these days. 3) Wally H. and other Texas Rangers fans, you might dig this:

I can't believe he misses Pudge crossing himself before each at bat and Ruben Sierra's leg kick. And you can't tell me you didn't imitate the Julio Franco stance.  Still, obsession is at work here.

Walter Biggins: Holy shit, everyone—way to plunge into the deep end!  That was some deep-dish memoir, summertime love, fervent and reverent detail, and mental food to relish and savor.  Have y’all been saving that up for a while, or was that written in one crazy, whiskey-and-grass-fumes rush? I’ve overwhelmed by the amount of juicy stuff to respond to, but here we go.

Wally/Wax: I think you've got something regarding baseball as a working-class sport but not from the direction you think it's coming from.  If it's true that "baseball is our most proletarian sport, because you can be good at it without being an Adonis or a Mercury or a Hercules," then why isn't golf a sport for the masses?  (I can't think of a sport that requires less physical exertion. Does bowling count?)  For that matter, I can only think of one other sport that's been mythologized as much in American literature as baseball: boxing.  The physical training for that sport is far more extreme—and the consequences of not training are far more punishing—than baseball, but it's always had the aura of the working-class around it.  We can see this even now, in seasons 4 and 5 of The Wire, in which boxing is seen as a way to give poor kids (mostly men, but occasionally women, too) hope that they can pull themselves up out of poverty.  Practically every boxing narrative (Mike Tyson, Rocky Balboa) starts with kids lifting themselves up from the mean streets.  Hell, even in the video game Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, you play the Great White Hope that's a shrimp from the Bronx.

Baseball's a little different.  It encourages hardscrabble kids to try their hands at it but slumming rich kids have always been drawn to it, too.  And, because it's a team sport, it forces people from different class and ethnic backgrounds to get along and coalesce into a working unit.  Different teams fight against each other but baseball also forced—earlier than most American sports—people within a team to make conflict and resolve tension, too.  There's at least two sorts of conflict happening in baseball.  When you add managers and owners to the mix, there's even more class conflict and tensions between workers (players) and corporations (owners).

As I sorta mentioned above, for writers looking for an easy metaphor for America's inner turmoil, baseball's a dream come true.  The changes within that complicated system of classes and ethnic tensions—and, perhaps unlike Wax, I think there's been a lot more change in baseball than anything else; Ken Burns’s Baseball does a great job of documenting baseball in flux—creates a social map of America that must make writers giddy.  Baseball shows the classes in contact with each other in a way that doesn't happen as clearly in other parts of life.

Side note: So, does baseball solidify the notion that America is ultimately a classless nation?  Or does it highlight the notion that a "classless society" is a lie we tell ourselves to sleep better at night?  My vote's on the latter, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Wally Holland: Basketball is an urban sport; it takes a hard flat surface and two elevated baskets to play properly. (Its demographics are mainly the boring result of that fact.) When I lived in Texas as a kid we had a proper paved driveway, but when my family moved to rural New York it was all dirt and loose stones, and put away my roundball and hoop to chuck tennis balls against the roof. Baseball's made for a rural environment—you need a big open field but it's supposed to be irregularly sized and shaped. That's part of its charm. Fenway's not a great ballpark but it's got eccentricity and character to spare, like Candlestick, Wrigley, Comiskey, Yankee Stadium… (largely) urban settings that recreate specific rural environments. The ballfield is all about cut grass and human sounds and smells, and bleacher seats—shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor and not minding it because you have a common purpose. All that small-town overdetermination plays into the baseball fascination—and anyhow half the mythology of Smalltown USA is about a simpleminded 'Golden Age' that never actually existed.

OK, but leave that aside for just a second. In game studies—'ludology' or the critical study of the form and content of games and play, as opposed to 'game theory'—you get the concept of the 'magic circle,' the operating fiction of the gameworld. It's the contract that binds gameplayers into the crazy belief that this leather thing belongs in something called an 'end zone,' or that there's a substantive difference between one side of the 'foul line' and the other (talk about a Manichean goddamn universe—in baseball, 'in' and 'out' are called fair and foul!). Within the 'magic circle,' our morals are reset: coworkers become enemies, the fifty-yard line marks the border of the homeland, and 'traveling' gets you yelled at. The ballfield is a site for fiction-making, a sacred space. The purity of gameplay is half the appeal: the total state of the (fictional/narrative/ludic) universe can be known and expressed in numbers. “Hernandez is down two strikes against Ryan, bases loaded here in the bottom of the seventh tied at one, and it's a lovely day at the ballpark folks.” That's the sum of the history of the world, right there. Every day at one (seven for a night game) it all resets, the counters go to zero: the myth of rebirth.

Shoulder to shoulder on the bleachers, the magic circle, sacred spaces, purely black-and-white morality, the call and response of the crowd, even a pipe organ playing in the background: of course there are angels in the outfield. The stadium is a church! Same hero/villain narratives, same fabricated belief in common (mytho-historical) purpose, same uncomfortable wooden seats. Plus, go back to Jesus and Satan in the desert—one guy slinging his best stuff at the other, sliders and curveballs and the occasional heater, and the recipient of this abuse does nothing to retaliate… until he wins the argument not by or hitting something back at the first guy but by sending his thoughts and his message out, out. Needless to say they go right over the pitcher's head.

The outfielders are alone out there, a mile from the action, so small we can barely make 'em out. Anything could be going on in center field. Somebody must be keeping 'em company.

Well, we're suckers for any supernatural story and it's not like the other team sports are without them—the 'Immaculate Reception' is a joke, yeah, but also a hope. Baseball is suited to churchly language because it takes place in a cathedral and involves a lot of standing around praying.

Meanwhile, Brian: I'm with you on A-Rod's nickname, though Daniel might be right that it neutralizes his racial identity (and naturally wasn't always so: "Hammerin' Hank" has always reminded me of John Henry, a complex cultural/racial-mythology figure).

Susan Faludi's Stiffed is one of my favorite nonfiction books, and contains a chapter on the rise and fall of 'sports boosters' club and the evolution of Cleveland Browns fandom—just damn fine writing about the culture of sports, if a little overpowered at times by Faludi's pity and sentimentality and unfamiliarity with the feelings of sports fan. (Aah well.) Her book's argument, in part, is that American masculinity has been perverted and stripped of its productive meaning by increased cultural emphasis on ornamental manliness. (Yeah, Fight Club covers similar ground.) The link between men's pride in themselves and their pride in their communities has been severed and betrayed, Faludi claims, by things like sports clubs moving from city to city for purely financial reasons, the end of the U.S.'s primarily industrial economy, and—a seemingly small thing—by things like NASA's work to make celebrities of its astronauts rather than its engineers, when the astronauts themselves did almost nothing on the early manned space flights, just sat there buckled in and unable to survive without their space outfits.

The point being, nicknames like 'Pudge' and 'Babe' and 'Yogi' and 'Georgia Peach' and 'Hit 'em Where They Ain't' and 'Charlie Hustle' and 'Shoeless Joe' could as easily fit WWII GI's as baseball players, and the general schlubbiness of them is half their appeal, their purpose. Great nicknames aren't about aggrandizement but instead simple things: hustle, suavity, adversity overcome, tactical smarts, or just celebrating where in this ridiculous nation a fella (even a vile bastard like Ty Cobb) was born. 'A-Rod' is a screen name.

The best sports movie title I know of is When We Were Kings (and the movie is every bit as good as its title). There's your Golden Age again – and your narrative of social uplift and weathering adversity together. You can train for a boxing match pretty much anywhere; only the rich can afford golf courses. Hell, I think golf is a sin—unnatural use of natural resources to set aside gigantic tracts of suburban land so rich assholes can not even attempt to retrieve their balls from water traps? Naaaah: golf is by far the most exclusive popular game this side of hockey, which really only excludes by geographical accident. I don't even wanna count golf as a sport. Whereas as Mr Balboa shows us, you can train for a boxing match with nothing more than a big set of stairs, a slab of meat, a jumprope, and a brass section. And tellingly, boxers don't need to look pretty or be well-dressed (like golfers and tennis players) to win success: Mike Tyson is a maniacal gap-toothed dwarf but he was a demon god in his chosen profession.

It's irresponsible of even an adoptive Bostonian to step around the issue of racial acceptance and sports – this grossly segregated city's marquee team, those Sox fellas, have a nasty history with regard to nonwhite players, their current roster notwithstanding—but I think some of the odd class-mobility feeling of baseball has to do with the 'every man kinda for himself' feel that Daniel pointed out ('solitary heroes couched in social interdependence'—well put). When the logic of association and tribalism creeps into the game – golf/yacht clubs, big team sports, etc.—preexisting social conventions and exclusions are recapitulated. But baseball is a hell of a lot easier to pick up than basketball or football (you don't need to practice formations and setpieces as such), space requirements aside, and so one guy or girl can drift onto the field and into the game without disrupting the order of things. Might be a rich kid playing at being poor, or a miner's daughter with a mean arm, or a sweet-swinging lefty whose skin is the wrong colour for school but just the right shade for the ballfield. The purpose of the magic circle is to dissolve other boundaries—a purpose it shares with the churchyard.

Daniel Couch: I’ll carry on in my customary fragmentary manner.

In this postmodern time where the existence of a stable, coherent self (and therefore Reason, Truth and Knowledge) is made problematic and the individual subject position is decentered for a more social conception that is almost Sophist, how surprising is it that baseball is waning in the popular imagination? Another reason to hate postmodernity.

Moving on… I’ve been recently entranced with baseball blogs.  I follow the Texas Rangers, (I know, I know) and the quality of their blog beat is as good as the big league club’s pitching is bad. I’m not sure what it is about the blog.  It’s almost like a little serial that I am following. Baseball Time in Arlington is great. (I just discovered that one.)  Lone Star Ball is my daily check; it functions somewhat as an aggregator but the community is so strong there that I’ll sometimes spend ten minutes just trolling the comments.  The Newberg Report is also quite good.  I joined the email subscription list and he sends pretty frequent updates. I enjoy hearing from people like us who still follow the team but no longer live in Texas.

As much as I love baseball, I’ve not sought out many baseball books. Before I discovered my own love of literature, I read a few: Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.  It’s odd, now that I think about it, that I abandoned baseball books as I got “serious” about literature.  It’s as if I ghettoized baseball lit in my mind. I wonder why that is.

That said, the novella that begins Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Pafko at the Wall, is my favorite part of that novel and some of the best baseball writing I’ve had the luck to come across. I think it is fair to consider it a stand alone piece considering it was originally published five years before Underworld in Harper's. More on this later.

In the meantime, here’s a book: José Canseco’s Juiced, What do you think? I mean, sure, I think he's a slimy, opportunistic excuse for a human being who makes me cringe whenever I think of him and that baseball going off the top of his head.  But not the contempt for authoring (I doubt he wrote it) the book.  I'm glad it came out and I suspect there's more truth to it than Bud Selig and others would admit.  Canseco's a whistle-blower and I appreciate that. I doubt seriously he had to make up names to fill that book.  I assume some of the blanket claims are overblown since they are mediated by that addled mind of his but just because we hate the messenger and the message, it doesn't mean it's untrue.  I'd of rather it come from some hard-hitting journalist but we got what we got and though it's a shame that Canseco again managed to profit from steroids, it's probably one of the more important baseball books in a while.

Wally Holland: Daniel, funny that you and Walter both mention Pafko at the Wall. I went a little nuts re-reading it this weekend, and here you go. Goddamnit, DeLillo pisses me off; his limitations are as well-lit as his talent, and harder to put aside for the sake of mere pleasure.

I enjoyed it a hell of a lot less the second time than the first, but admired it more. Partly it's because I've read a little more DeLillo since then, so I'm not as easily impressed. His impressive erudition and insistent polyglot slanging read more as overbearing imposition and tweedy intellectualism than they did when I first found his stuff. And after reading my blog-idol Scott Kaufman's DeLillo takedowns I have a harder time taking him seriously—he's got his thing and however impressive it is it's just this one, y'know, thing. Plus I'm resentful because I'm trying to write novels and it turns out I'm not the first guy to try, nor probably the smartest, and that's depressing. Even if I'm close to being the smartest.

OK but abdominal discomfort aside Pafko is an amazing piece of writing. On first reading, I took its depiction of rapture and fellow-feeling unironically, thought of it as a condensed pageant-of-all-America(s) with J. Edgar Hoover there as anticomic relief, a spoilsport. And DeLillo does set it up that way, overflowing the page with overwrought overstuffed very American sentences. But there's this, Hoover's internal monologue (yes it's in DeLillo's single narrative voice, that's sort of the big problem with the piece innit)…

All these people formed by language and climate and popular songs and breakfast foods and the jokes they tell and the cars they drive have never had anything in common so much as this, that they are sitting in the furrow of destruction.

…which is a lovely little turnabout and reveals something about Hoover's character, his preoccupation with Soviet nuclear tests leading him to miss the ritual connection around him, such that the reader might initially expect that "…in common so much as this" refers to the ball game, the festival – but it's some private concern, function of Hoover's limitations. His incompleteness.

I wonder on rereading whether the whole “This is the thing that will bind future generations together” stuff threaded throughout (and hit hard in Pafko's last five or ten pages) isn't the first half of one of DeLillo's mannered ironies, and this really is another case of White Noise's deadly-boring death fixation intruding on what another author might see as actual human connection, however limited, orbiting around (after all) a shared fiction. Rich men pretending to be local boys. Does DeLillo actually like anything? The misanthropy and the academicism is offputting. “But it's a critique!”, you might say. Well, actually it's a novel, but…

And yet what an extraordinary evocation of a baseball game! The feeling for fan emotion is uncanny, and just when the whole thing gets a little heady, DeLillo's use of baseball jargon and simple game language cuts knifelike through his incessant theorizing and overdetermination, and beautifully emulates the stop-start waiting rhythm of a ballgame, its punctuated equilibrium:

You know that thing that happens when you give up before the end and then your team comes back to perform acts of valor and you feel a queasy shame stealing over you like pond slick.

[…]

Cotter feels a mood coming on, a complicated self-pity, the strength going out of his arms and a voice commencing in his head that reproaches him for caring. And the awful part is that he wallows in it. He knows how to find the twisty compensation in this business of losing, being a loser, drawing it out, expanding it, making it sickly sweet, being someone carefully chosen for the role.

The score is 4-1.

[…]

The hit obliterates the beat of the crowd's rhythmic clapping. They're coming into open roar, making a noise that keeps enlarging itself in breadth and range. This is the crowd made over, the crowd renewed.

Harry started shouting and then Pafko went into the corner and Russ started shouting and the paper began to fall.

[…]

Pafko at the wall. Then he's looking up. People thinking where's the ball. The scant delay, the stay in time that lasts a hairsbreadth. And Cotter standing in section 35 watching the ball come in his direction. He feels his body turn to smoke. He loses sight of the ball when it climbs above the overhand and he thinks it will land in the upper deck. But before he can smile or shout or bash his neighbor on the arm. Before the moment can overwhelm him, the ball appears again, stitches visibly spinning, that's how near it hits, banging at an angle off a pillar – hands flashing everywhere.

DeLillo's sentences—that affectless compressed style, terseness inevitably followed after a few lines by one of those rolling endless 20th-century male American litanies we're trained to call 'evocation' instead of 'lists'—suit the gathering/release rhythm of the game. The terseness captures the crack of the bat, the long shifting-perspective bleacher-view passages are like Gaddis's motion-blur impressionism gone to grad school and make three hours in sixty pages feel like three hours, and the fits and starts and longeurs of a ballgame are nicely mirrored within.

And what's the big moral dropkick to close? Affable white fella chases plucky black kid to Harlem to get the baseball. As if goddamn baseball needs additional schematicism and symbolic weight. But of course his point is in part that class and race lines blur more readily in the purely symbolic ballpark environment than in and between the boroughs of NYC—and that's half of any sport's purpose.

Art takes partial derivatives of culture: fixes some aspects, lets others wind forward and back, one or a couple at a time, to let us see things clearly though artificially. Well, sporting events are low art, and serve the same function.

DeLillo gets that—it's the sort of reductive characterization he was born for—and so his ballpark radio announcer Russ thinks about his old career making up game broadcasts based on old box scores:

Somebody hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it. You create the weather, flesh out the players, you make them sweat and grouse and hitch up their pants, and it is remarkable, thinks Russ, how much earthly disturbance, how much summer and dust the mind can manage to order up from a single Latin letter lying flat.

"That's not a bush curve Maglie's throwing," he says into the mike.

When he was doing ghost games he liked to take the action into the stands, inventing a kid chasing a foul ball, a carrot-topped boy with a cowlick (shameless, ain't I) who retrieves the ball and holds it aloft, this five-ounce sphere of cork, rubber, yarn, horsehide and spiral stitching, a souvenir baseball, a priceless thing somehow, a thing that seems to recapitulate the whole history of the game every time it is throw or hit or touched.

This is cheeky and too clever (poor black urchin/synecdoche Cotter will end up grabbing Bobby Thomson's ball after a red-headed college boy loses it), and feels a bit like DeLillo condescending to the game while talking up his own novelistic work. But it imparts in passing a sense of the game as a fantasy of projection, its atomic units knowable and replicable, its movements discrete and easily characterized, its psychology rational. And the peanuts have just the right amount of salt, the beer's cold and light, etc., etc., etc.

But look, the rendering of the event is perfect. Problem is, it feels like a series of still-lives, which baseball is but life definitely is not. See the word 'partial' in 'partial derivative' for instance. The most human character in the whole piece is J. Edgar Hoover, and he's practically a moustache-twirling Bad Guy on holiday; but DeLillo ably captures the excitement of the day, the ready devotion, the comfort and relaxation men can take in being tense and terrified with one another. Which are the moment's meaning, right? And yet. Though baseball is a stats game, our affection for it extends to a kind of pathetic hope that it turn out to be something else—witness the hand-wringing over Moneyball and the inevitable steroids non-scandal—because the game as a game is one thing and the game as cultural touchpoint is mainly a pretense. Most folks see the pretense and still give themselves to one another, which was always the point and more power to them. DeLillo sees the pretense and goes on about Bruegel's Triumph of Death (it's the title of the piece for god's sake), and the “irony” isn't that death loses (which would be a small, cheap irony indeed), it's that 30,000 in the stands are wrong, and the G-man's right: death wins, in such stories. You can't beat it. This ecstasy is a small thing, it vanishes fast, the curtain is coming.

The hell of it is, I think I agree with the man. Which is why I loved Pafko at the Wall, wept to read it the first time, and have never had any interest in reading the rest of Underworld—so that's seventeen bucks (paperback!) didn't change hands to keep the economy rolling. Which maybe means I'm to blame for the world's problems? Huh, and here I thought it was Canseco's fault.

Daniel Couch: I'm gonna go ahead and say I liked Pafko better the second time around although I'm not sure my reasons are as developed as Wally's.  One of the things that struck me as I reread this, independently of Walter, is that there is so much more than just a baseball story at work here.  I don't know about you gents, but my copy has a reproduction of the New York Times from the October 4, 1951, edition.

Notice the simple pairing of the game and the announcement of the Soviet test.  It got me thinking of the alternating titles, the Triumph of Death and Pafko at the Wall, but Wally nailed it—"the ironic juxtaposition of Hoover's death-curiosity and the life-affirming celebrations of the spectators who 'light the city.'" Might as well be Branca and Thompson that night. Between those two end points is a spectrum where the rest of the story rests.

I appreciate Wally's point here about “the big moral dropkick to close.” Because they don't completely upend the class and race lines once Cotter storms the gate (with other poor kids).  Waterson condescends to Cotter, offering to buy him food or drink while still letting him know that he recognizes him as a truant.  And Cotter is still pretty guarded, refusing the peanuts from Waterson.  But they do blur, and their quick friendship is enough to send a pang of guilt into Cotter when he sees the hand he burned the ball from is Waterson's.

You see this also with the presence of the celebrities (Sinatra et al) in the crowd.  To a certain extent they are on the outside looking in, something not many places outside of a ballpark could do.  Gleason still performs for the crowd but this is what is pissing off the others. They came to the ballpark with the expectation that they could enjoy the game without intrusion, more or less.  "Do I want to take the time to ask which part you missed so we can talk about it on the phone some day?" This day is about their own memories not as performers but as participants in the event.  That longing to belong to a moment is the reason why thousands more will place themselves at the ballpark in their stories than were in the only partially full stadium.  And this event, this one game that didn't even decide the World Series is big enough to be on equal footing with the scariest of scary news—the Soviet test.  I think that part of what I love about this story is that it points out that baseball is capable of conjuring such a moment, not just as a sporting event but because it can inhabit so much at once, holding it all in its lungs and letting it enter its own bloodstream through the smallest of capillaries.

Walter Biggins: Alright mob. I just reread "The Triumph of Death"/Pafko at the Wall and it remains as divine as I remember.  That first line—"He speaks in your voice, America, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful"—plunges us in, and it only gets better.  Jesus.

What's tremendous to me about DeLillo's novella is that everything—art, class war, race, sex, pastoral, urban, wild poetry (fuck, DeLillo's so good that he regularly makes up new words and we still understand exactly what he means from the context of his sentences), punchy slang, the individual vs. the community—is all there in those 50 pages, in his depiction of that one game.

Brian makes an implicit point that the status of baseball reflects the status of America as it is.  Baseball's a thermometer of American life so, if the country's sickly, then the illness will be reflected in the game.  I think that's true, as far as it goes—baseball as abstract reportage.  But also explicit in Brian's remarks, which he casts down with a justly jaundiced eye, is a sense that the notion of baseball as myth is a detrimental crutch.  "Strip away the grand, oft-repeated notion that Baseball is America and America is Baseball, and you are left with a plodding, corrupted sport whose most iconic star (A-Rod) is the second-most universally loathed player of his day, behind only the sport's all-time home run leader (Bonds)."

But I don't quite buy that.  Any careful reader of the game knows that its heroes were contentious figures in their own day—most players and a good deal of fans would have paid good money to see Ty Cobb hung, for instance; the Babe was as hated as he was loved, especially once you left the Eastern Seaboard.  If you think Bud Selig is corrupt, keep in mind that Kenesaw Mountain Landis (and here I spit on the ground) was worse, and was so because he presented as the most uncorrupted and upright man in baseball.  Despite repeated attempts by teams and players, Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers were only able to break the color barrier a year after Landis' death, which gives you a sense of the man's proclivities and suppression of baseball in the name of abstemiousness.  (He kept baseball pure, all right.)  Even in our nostalgic heyday, let's agree that Negro Leagues players had a, ahem, different sense of the classic bygone days.

So, nostalgia and baseball have always had a complicated relationship.  Some of its heroes have always turned out to be saps, wife-beaters, cheats, addicts, whoremongers, and worse.  From its earliest days, it's always been a corrupt business, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby (thanks, Paul Simon) run in cities–and yet eerily promoted as a small-town game.

But here's what's weird.  Everything that keeps baseball afloat is troubled, has always been troubled, has always been a hardnosed business that steamrolls over people.  But the game itself is beautifully poetic.  It's played outside of time–George Carlin gets at that in his routine (thanks, Dan!  I hadn't seen that before), and Michael Ventura nails it when he writes of what's important about baseball:

But in baseball … there's no clock, no one is allowed to measure time. Time, in baseball, is what it used to be: an element that varies with the activity, something not quite in anyone's control — as Tom Glavine has said, "Baseball does what it wants, when it wants; you never really know when a baseball game will end." All nine innings must be played; and more, if there's a tie; and an inning may take 10 minutes or an hour, no one knows. In fact, an inning of baseball is the only regularly scheduled television event that no one can measure or control — it can take 10 minutes, it can take an hour, and during that time no one cuts in for a commercial except when a new pitcher takes the ball.

Because the game is played outside of time, because its play can't be corporately controlled even though everything else around it is a thoroughly corporatized entity, baseball itself can become epic and mythic in its dimensions.  The apparatus around baseball (leagues, free agency, salary caps, Steinbrenner, Sports Illustrated, congressional hearings, etc.), I think, represents America as it is, economically and socially.  The game itself represents America as it aspires to be.  We aspire to be mythic and mystical, hence the prevalence of magic in baseball writing.  What interests me is not so much that baseball's best current players are more-or-less assholes but that, despite the obvious assholery and despite that that assholery is not hidden from public view, it still inspires awe.  I'm taking La Bella to her first baseball game in a few weeks, because the pull is so great. (Here in Jackson, I have to settle for the double-A Mississippi Braves, an adjunct of a–here I spit again–fucking National League team.  Sorry, Wally.)   Hell, even Brian said he'll be eventually taking his son—and I hope his daughter, too—to a game.  What is it that compels us so?

I've wandered afield considerably.  Back to books: Canseco is a fuck b/c, once again, he's profited from his corruption—if he was as pure as some think the game should be, all his royalties would go a charity or to a foundation for drug awareness.  But the book's almost as important as Moneyball as defining the modern era.  Steroids and sabermetrics are the baseball issues of our young 21st century.  But should they be?

Brian Winter: If it's not too late, here are a few thoughts, within which, after reading your comments, I back off ever so slightly from my screed from last week. Wally defends baseball by saying that, more so than other sports, "intensity is emotional rather than physical"—to which I say: yes, yes, yes. Here's where I admit that my favorite sporting event from this decade was the 2004 American League Championship Series—when, of course, the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit for first time in history to win. I watched every single second of that series from the Dave Roberts steal onward: the Papi Ortiz heroics, Curt Schilling and the bloody sock, and the somehow-not-as-well-remembered a) riot police defending the Yankee Stadium turf late in Game 6 and b) A-Rod trying to slap the ball out of somebody's glove so he could be safe at first. (Now there's a catchy new nickname for him: Slappy! Were it in 1946, it would have stuck) Anyway, I was riveted, and recalling this brings me (surprise) mixed feelings. On the one hand, we now know for certain that several of the protagonists in that series were chemically enhanced. The tensions that made those games so memorable also highlight just… how… utterly… meaningless… and… plodding… the 162-game regular season is. On the other hand, whatever you think about steroids, or the fact that most of these guys play mainly for money (I never got over Johnny Damon turning right around and signing with the Yankees), I guarantee you that any of those guys would have loved to work up a number six* on the other team at any point in that series. And that's redeeming, even for a crotchety shit like me.

Walter B. said "nostalgia and baseball have always had a complicated relationship," pointing out what an asshole Ty Cobb was. To which I say: indeed. I guess the difference is that, during that era, we didn't have to watch loops of him over and over on ESPN. Also, I find it much easier to tolerate jerks who play football (ex: Terrell Owens) than jerks who play baseball. I can't quite explain why.

Daniel said he has no problem with Canseco writing the book. Neither do I. Actually I find Canseco kind of endearing. Have you guys seen the reality series he did like a year ago where he gets locked out of his foreclosed house and he tries to go cold turkey on steroids and ends up with no appetite for sex because his body doesn't make real testosterone anymore? You'll think I'm making this up. I'm not.

I have not read Pafko.

Thanks to all of you, this was fun.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to Of catching lightning and smoke: A baseball roundtable

  1. I’ve been reading how print media is a dying breed. While I always can find great stuff online, like your website, it still is sad to see print media dying a slow death.

  2. When you walk into the sports aisle in a bookstore remember what Updike said: the smaller the ball the more there is written about it.
    Slappy… I like it!

  3. erik says:

    Phenomenal post, I can’t believe there haven’t been more comments. I’ll be digging through your archives to find more stuff like this — thanks very much.

  4. Everyone, thanks very much for your kind words. Despite the lack of comments, this roundtable has legs, with mentions at The House Next Door and the Baseball Chronicle. As must be obvious from the above, I encourage any and all correspondence.

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