Saturday, September 05, 2009

And once again, your host goes all gooey on you.

One of my baseball seasons ended last night. I say "one of" because I rostered this past summer with three different teams, two of which serve the needs of ballplayers over age 45 (I qualify with 14 years to spare), and one of which is a 35-and-over league. The team whose season just ended posted a so-so record, and I finished my personal seasonnon-fans, feel free to stop reading at any time, or maybe skip ahead a few graphsat 10-for-31. That's a batting average of .323, which is respectable. But like so many of the guys I play with, I'm sure I'll spend my off-season shaking my head over The Hits That Might Have Been. Last night, for example, in my second at-bat, I knew the pitcher was going to throw me a 3-1 fastball, and I sat on that fastball, and he threw that fastball right there...and I fouled it back. Should've crushed the damn thing! Next time up I got another pitch I could handle and tapped one to the second baseman that almost got turned into a double-play.

You would be shocked at how often I will think about those two specific pitches alone over the next six months, till it all begins anew, and I walk onto the wet grass in the chill air with my dreams of batting 1.000 not yet shattered.

The 35+ league ended last weekend
I don't get to play much there anymore, because most of those guys still have functioning legsand my other 45 league, which is brand-new and where I coach my own team, is finishing up a very nice inaugural season. We're currently in first place and will duke it out with the second-place team next Thursday in a game that decides the league championship.

These are always bittersweet days for me, days where I feel the full weight of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti's* achingly poignant tribute to baseball, "The Green Fields of the Mind." I quote from its famous opening:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops...
I must've read that passage at least a hundred times by nowand it gets me every time.

Notwithstanding the fairly universal desire to WIN, there is a tacit underlying softness to baseball that makes it the one game (and place) where it's permissible to reflect wistfully and unabashedly on your Dad, growing up, and that whole wonderful father-son experience...if you were lucky enough to have that experience, which, I grant you, too many men of my generation did not. Sure, you can have nice memories if you grew up in a football family; they're just different kinds of memories.
It's rare that you see fathers and sons bonding in a tender, loving way over football. You do not generally see fathers walking to the gridiron with their arms draped over their son's shoulder pads; even in Pop Warner, where you're dealing with kids as young as 7 or 8, you don't generally see that, whereas in Little League it's the rule. Football is just a different ethos. (Can you even imagine anyone writing the above-quoted lines about the NFL?) It's about backslapping, cursing, grunting, growling, giving free rein to testosterone in an unambiguously male way. That's how kids are introduced to football by their dads: "Now go out there and put somebody on his ass!" Basketball, meanwhile, is the sport of Fatherless America. It sprang to its present national eminence from inner cities where there was no room for ball diamonds and there were too few Dads around to serve as refs or role models. Much like football, and perhaps to an even greater degree, hoops is an in-your-face game of jeering and trash-talk.

But baseball, even in its most intense moments, never loses that lyricism; despite all the talk of overpaid prima donnas and overpriced stadiums and underhanded performance enhancement, for many of us it just never loses that lyricism. And you know how you can really tell? Listen to the musical themes
played before and (especially) after the World Series. They're soft anthems built over the sorts of haunting harmonies that evoke dewy mornings spent out on the field with smiling fathers who have since gone on to that big ballpark in the sky. Football? It's raucous heavy metal and rollicking C&W all the way.

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL? Not this guy. Not just yet. I'll get there, in time, but you have to give me a bit...

* late father of brilliant actor Paul.


Anonymous said...

Two thoughts on baseball:
- Teaching my two boys the proper way to score a baseball game before they finished 1st grade has more meaning to me than you will ever know and
- Replacing Bart Giamatti with Fay Vincent and Bud Selig were the worst replacements since Shemp and curly Joe tried to replace Curly in the Three Stooges lineup.

Oddly enough, Paul Giamatti will be in the upcoming Three Stooges movie.

Anonymous said...

That is really beautiful. Not at all too gooey, at least for me. Honest sentiment is seldom gooey. Frankly I didn't know you had it in you.

Anonymous said...

Football has its beauty as well. My mother, an elegant and highly educated woman, adored football and described it as "living chess," with each quarterback moving his pieces over the board. Football created an enduring bond between my mother and her father, who also adored football and won a football scholarship to the University of Kentucky back in the day. (His father refused to allow him to go.) I carry the indelible picture in my mind of my delicate, feminine little mother, wearing an embroidered satin bedjacket and pearls, watching every football game each season and informing the coaches and players in no uncertain terms about what they should be doing! We all knew better than to interrupt my mother when she was watching a game. I myself always loved basketball, which I felt was balletic and beautiful, but perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that I could sink the ball from anywhere on court (as long as I was alone!)...

LizaJane said...

A lovely post. Not gooey. Made me smile. And Anonymous' mom in bedjacket, pearls, and football did the same. But even as someone who couldn't care less about sports in general, I have to agree that baseball does have a charm and a certain family-friendly way about it that football does not.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon et al, oh, football definitely has its beauty. But then, I've heard people say that warfare has its beauty as well. ("I love the smell of napalm...") And football, also like war, is best viewed from a distance. If you're down on the gridiron--as I was during three years of varsity football--the balletic beauty and physical poetry tend to fade away, replaced by a level of brutality that is condoned nowhere else in civilized life except perhaps the boxing ring. And even boxers don't hurl themselves into their opponents at (sometimes literally) break-neck speeds.

Understand, I am not attacking football. I loved my years on the gridiron. It's just that I often question why I loved those years, and the answers that most readily suggest themselves have nothing to do with family or human connection (or even ballet); indeed, those answers can be chilling.