Baseball really is a glorified game of throw and catch. And if you don’t have guys who throw it really well, you can’t compete for long.
~Tucker Elliot, Tampa Bay Rays IQ: The Ultimate Test of True Fandom
This poem is a bit of a deviation from what one usually finds in the world of baseball writing. It doesn’t revolve around baseball per se, but around an imaginary back story to some pieces of broken glass found around home plate of a baseball diamond. This piece was originally published in 1999 in Selfwolf.
The guys who drank quarts of Busch last night
here by the backstop of this baseball diamond
had names given them by their mothers and fathers—
“Jack” and “Kenny” let us say.
Jack might be
a skinny guy in a black fake-leather jacket,
he’s twenty-five, his gray pants are too loose on his hips,
his jaws always have these little black extra hairs,
his mother won’t talk to him on the phone,
she lives on french fries and ketchup,
he hasn’t been able to send her any cash
in the last two years, ever since he lost
his job unloading produce trucks at Pathmark;
Jack’s father disappeared when he was ten.
“No big deal,” Jack says, “he was a bastard anyway,
he used to flatten beer cans on the top of my head.”
Kenny offers a laugh-noise. He’s heard all that before.
Kenny is forty-eight, a flabby man with reddened skin,
he is employed at the Italian Market selling fish
just four hours a day but his shirts hold the smell;
his female companion Deena left him a note last month:
“You owe me $12 chocolate $31 wine $55 cable TV plus
donuts—I have had it—taking lamp and mirror
they are mine.” Kenny hasn’t seen her since.
He hangs with Jack because Jack talks loud
as if the world of cops and people with full-time jobs
could be kept at bay by talking, talking loud . . .
(I’m talking gently and imaginatively here
as if the world of bums and jerks could be kept far off—)
Jack and Kenny. (Or two other guys dark to me with wounds
oozing in Philadelphia ways less ready to narrate.)
Last night at midnight they got cheesesteaks at Casseloni’s
and bought four quarts at the Fireside Tavern
and wandered into this park. After one quart of Busch
Jack said he was Lenny Dykstra
and found a stick for his bat. “Pitch to me asshole” he said
so Kenny went to the mound and pitched his bottle
for want of anything better and Jack swung in the dark and missed;
Kenny’s bottle smashed on home plate and Jack heard in the sound
the absurdity of all his desiring since seventh grade,
absurdity of a skinny guy who blew everything since seventh
when he hit home runs and chased Joan Rundle around the gym
so Jack took his own empty bottle and smashed it down
amid the brown shards of Kenny’s bottle.
Then they leaned on the backstop to drink the other two quarts
and they both grew glum and silent
and when they smashed these bottles it was like
what else would they do? Next morning
Nick and I come to the park with a rubber ball
and a miniature bat. Nick is not quite three
but he knows the names of all the Phillies starters
and he knows the area around home plate is not supposed to be
covered with jagged pieces of brown glass. Like a good dad
I warn him not to touch it and we decide to establish
a new home plate closer to the mound (there’s no trash can
handy). “Who put that glass there?” Nick wants to know
and to make a long story short I say “Bad People.”
Nick says “Bad? How come?”
“Owen,” Henry said excitedly, “I think Coach wants you to hit for Meccini.”
Owen closed The Voyage of the Beagle, on which he had recently embarked. “Really?”
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said. “I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether–”
“Forget it,” Owen said. “I’ll just bunt.”
~Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
I think I was in high school the first time I read Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was fourteen — don’t judge). So this recent foray through the book was actually a re-read. I am always astonished at the details I had forgotten about whenever I read a book for the second (or third… or fourth…) time. In this case, I was pleased to discover that this book is even better than I remembered it.
The novel tells of the adventures of Trisha McFarland, who gets lost in the New England woods after leaving the path while hiking with her mother and brother. All she really wanted was a bit of respite from her family’s squabbling, but instead finds herself unable to find her way back to the path and travels deeper and deeper into the woods. With her, all she has are a bottle of water, two Twinkies, a hard-boiled egg, a tuna sandwich, a bottle of Surge (can we make Surge mainstream again?), a poncho, a Game Boy, and a Walkman.
Trisha is a huge Boston Red Sox fan, and she is especially a fan of pitcher Tom Gordon, who was the Sox’s closer at the time the novel was written. Each night, as she journeys through the woods, she places the ear buds of her Walkman in her ears and listens to Red Sox games. During the day, she attempts to ration her meager supplies, and once they run out, she survives on berries and creek water.
Eventually, however, the stress of her situation causes Trisha to start hallucinating. Among her hallucinations, she imagines Tom Gordon is traveling with her, and they have conversations along the way about the secrets of closing. Her baseball knowledge is quite impressive for a nine-year-old girl, and the advice that her hallucinatory Gordon gives her helps Trisha to survive her ordeal.
I won’t go into detail on how the book ends, though I will say that this novel serves as another depiction of how much of a baseball fan Stephen King really is. Oh yes, there is also a bear involved, but I won’t give away anything beyond that. You’ll just have to read the book yourself — I promise it’s worth it.
I had purchased a copy of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding a few years ago, but never actually got around to sitting down to read it. In spite of my intentions, I often find that my myriad interests and short attention span prevent me from ever proceeding through my reading list the way that I promise myself to do. And the sheer size of this novel — well over 500 pages — certainly didn’t help in convincing me to crack it open and focus on it.
A couple years ago I discovered, much to my own surprise, that audiobooks are a pretty wonderful thing. I can check out audiobook CDs from the public library and keep them in the car. That way, when I’m commuting to and from work or running whatever errands, I can still use that time productively and “read” while I drive. A couple weeks ago, I found a copy of The Art of Fielding on CD at the library and realized this might be my best option for getting through the massive tome.
Overall, my personal reaction to the book is pretty mixed. On one hand, there’s nothing groundbreakingly special about it. The skeleton of the story revolves around Henry Skrimshander, a highly-talented and much-sought-after shortstop at Westish College who one day makes an errant throw that completely rocks his confidence. His performance on the field struggles as he tries in vain to return to his former self, but it’s not until his whole world seemingly blows up in his face that he is finally able to recover. There are a couple love stories, a love triangle, substance abuse and mental health issues, and, of course, some good baseball moments.
On the other hand, in spite of the familiar plot structure, I found myself eager to keep diving back into the story. Harbach’s characters are delightfully vivid and believable, and he weaves backstories for them that makes me want to know more and more about them. If I had to choose, I would have to say that my favorite character is Mike Schwartz, the big, burly catcher who “discovers” Henry Skrimshander and takes him under his wing, all while battling his own injuries and burning the midnight oil to try to get into law school. I found myself rooting for Schwartz even more than I was rooting for Henry.
When I audited the Baseball in Literature course a couple years ago, the professor mentioned that some of the more, ah, intimate moments of the book could sometimes be a bit much, and I have to agree with this particular criticism. I have to also confess, however, that I am a sucker for characters in literature who, themselves, love books and literature, and there is plenty of that here. This is one of those books that makes me want to read all the books mentioned within the book, which only exacerbates my inability to get to the other books on my reading list in a timely manner. It sounds confusing (not to mention frustrating), but that’s a problem I actually enjoy having.
The Art of Fielding is far more than just a baseball book. Yes, there is definitely baseball, and the baseball scenes are well-written. The descriptions early on of Henry’s performance as a shortstop are particularly captivating, enough so to make me jealous of the fact that I could never perform that smoothly as a middle infielder. But the novel extends well beyond the diamond to explore the complications of being a human being having relationships with other human beings. While I do feel like it could have been about a hundred pages shorter, I still find myself thinking that this is one that I may have to read (or listen to) again some day.
Continuing my journey through The Simpsons episodes, I am a good chunk of the way into season three. Last night, I watched the episode “Homer At the Bat” and was thrilled to recognize a reference to The Natural. Early on in the episode, Homer tells Bart about the time he carved a bat from the wood of a tree that was struck by lightning.
Just like Roy Hobbs, Homer hits like a dream with his special bat. However, with the exception of Mr. Burns trying to cheat his way to winning a bet, the allusion to The Natural largely ends there.
The episode later ends with Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” parody, which he wrote just for this episode, “Talkin’ Softball.”
The Huffington Post published this interview with Tim Kurkjian a couple days ago, which I found an interesting read. The interview was initiated as a result of the publication of his latest book, I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies – Inside The Game We All Love. I’ve not read the book, nor do I have cable television to watch ESPN, so I’m afraid I can’t speak to Kurkjian himself nor my impressions of him. But I did enjoy reading this interview.
He discusses the skill level involved in baseball as compared to other sports and the declining popularity of Major League Baseball as compared to the NFL or NASCAR. I particularly love how he advocates against parents and coaches pushing their kids to specialize in a single sport, bemoaning the decline of three-sport letter winners in high schools. He points out that “when we have 14 year old kids having Tommy John surgery, then something is really wrong with this picture.” I often think the same kind of thing when the Little League World Series comes on, wondering about the futures these kids have given the stress they put themselves through so young.
Most of all, I just love the fact that Kurkjian’s love for baseball shows through so clearly in this interview. People who have a passion for this game — as many of you reading this have — absolutely fascinate me. And I enjoy reading and hearing about the reasons people love it so much.