A Vast Open Field

Most sports are variations on the same basic premise: there’s your territory and the other guy’s territory. The field, court, rink, is split in half. Your job is to get the ball or puck past the other guy—into his territory—and score. Your job is also to defend your own turf and make sure he doesn’t score on you. That’s football, soccer, rugby, basketball, tennis, volleyball, hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, and most other team sports. And while these each have their merits and can be electrifying to watch at their peak performance, they tend to bore—me, at least—because you know the team’s objective is. You know their chances, and you know what might or might not happen. Statistically, these sports are easier to predict than my favorite sport, baseball.

In a recent documentary entitled Fastball, the sport’s premise is described as there being really only two players on the field that matter, and that it comes down to a primal battle between “a man with a rock, and a man with a stick.” Pitcher and batter. Ball and bat. Though the field ballet of the game plays out in defensive grace, even miracles, the real electricity, the juice of the game, is in the battle between pitcher and batter.

There’s no other sport where two people are, literally speaking, doing things that are not only physically improbable and painfully difficult to execute—throwing a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball and trying to hit it—but are damn near impossible. Every moment between pitcher and batter is peak performance. The eye can only track that bullet fastball up to a certain speed, and that eye has to be trained, let alone transfer information into the grace and power that comes from a proper swing. And the arm can whip from the body, starting from the foot on the pitcher’s rubber, transferring through legs and core and back and shoulder into the arm and through the lashes of wrist and hand and fingers to throw at a speed so blinding fast that a batter can’t even see it until thwack!  into the dusty catcher’s mitt.

Along with the science and physics and sheer bodily power of the sport, there are books, poems, essays, and news articles about baseball being a religion, a path to God, because of its improbability and its mythical legend, its tendency to inspire intense faith in its fans. The sport has been played for nearly 200 years. It was first played, in an organized fashion, on the Elysian Fields in New Jersey. There are museums and research institutions dedicated to studying the history and evolution of the game and its players. There are statisticians combing through arcane data about individual players that most everyday baseball fans don’t understand. It is considered the American pastime, a patriotic sport, where the anthem becomes more than nationalistic pride, but a celebration of song—as does the seventh inning stretch. I once saw a professional choir sing the anthem and heard a famous violinist play it. There is joy and love of music in that moment of pause before the shout of “Play ball!”

And there are those fans, those believers, who gather in the stadiums and ballparks that peak like cathedrals across the country to cheer on their favorite team because they were born there, or moved there, or became a fan through a friend, or grew up playing the game. Or, like me, had a father so devoted to his Mets fandom that I couldn’t help but absorb it even more than the Catholicism that I learned and ultimately decided wasn’t for me.

I’ve cried and laughed and jumped for joy at Mets games. I’ve stood somber and cold in the stands during a loss, and chanted with fellow fans under bright lights when our team needed the support, the inspiration and belief of the masses, to push forth and win. I’ve booed and cheered and bought a jersey with my name on the back of it as if I could jump into the game myself if they needed a 33rd inning pinch hitter. I’ve taken score, noting each pitch, each play, to the point of precision where, during a playoff game, the stadium’s scoreboard was wrong and I was right. Fans around me asked, knowing I was scorekeeping, “Are there really two outs?” I said, “Nope, I’ve only got one.” Thirty seconds later, the scoreboard changed accordingly.

I never did any of that in a church. It just wasn’t as fun, and as I grew older, I realized that it simply didn’t mean as much to me. It didn’t carry as much wonder or awe or belief in the human spirit, in overcoming odds and adversity to win, and to gracefully accept loss and renew one’s spirit in time for the next season—much as we do as humans who live year by year, season by season, going through the slow marathon of everyday life–much as a baseball season with 162 or more games spanning 7 months is a slow marathon built on momentum and the courage and energy to break into the final hard sprint to win it all.

But baseball did carry that wonder and awe, and it still does for me. Unlike the other sports that follow that standard format of back-and-forth play to score a goal, baseball has a form unlike any other game. The field is vast and open, spreading out with no clear-cut boundaries other than foul line and fence—and you can even make a legal play out-of-bounds, over the foul line, leaping into the stands where fans will catch you. The diamond is set just so that the pitcher can throw at maximum velocity and power and control, and the base runners have 90 foot intervals—a perfect interval considering the speed at which most players throw and run and the time and distance they have to make a play—to advance and score a run across home plate. The ultimate score is a home run, a ball is hit so far that no player can catch it—and a fan can take it home, maybe even get it signed, and keep it as a souvenir to pass on to a son or daughter. And determining the potential and fate of a home run hit is the baseball park itself—how the stadium is built, the varying dimensions of the outfield, the change and speed of the wind and the height of the outfield fence.

Despite the math, the perilous odds, baseball offers moments for reflection on those perils, both for fans and players. There’s a rhythm to each pitch, and there’s often a hush that overcomes the crowd as the pitcher winds up, unless the fans are chanting and whistling for a strikeout. And there’s a reaction to each pitch, whether it be relief, celebration, joy, indifference, disappointment, anger, frustration, worry, denial (if the crowd disagrees with the umpire’s call), or even empathy (if a player gets hit), and all of those emotions are audible in the crowd’s tone, rhythm, voice. It’s not unlike a church, where parishioners and priests align in belief and speech and song. The Wave exists for a reason, as an undulating yet unified motion, a comical yet endless physical devotion.

And the players, like the fans, will jabber on to each other during those moments of respite in between plays. They’ll crack jokes, ask how the family is doing, share their agreement on a bad call, or even taunt and intimidate and pressure. Just watch a runner standing at first base with a former teammate. They’ll be talking plenty. And the players will convene on the pitcher’s mound to talk strategy, speaking with their mitts over their mouths to keep secret what they say. They even serve as their own cheerleaders, just like the fans, shouting from each dugout and rooting for their teammates in the same exciting belief that they can rally, they can win—the same thing the fans believe, despite their team’s odds and the grim statistics that prove that being a “great” hitter means getting a hit every three in ten at-bats, and being a “great” pitcher means barely escaping the danger of a power bat or the sly speed of a gritty base running strategy to allow the least runs possible.

Win or lose, it is about belief—a shared belief—in defiance of the odds, in awe of the performance, in celebration of the shared faith not that we will win, but that we can win despite intense, insurmountable challenges.

This past week, I watched a truly great baseball legend, David Ortiz, retire as a thirteen-year Red Sox veteran. The Sox lost, swept in the playoffs by the Indians, but they did so at home. Maybe they didn’t win, and maybe the season ended with the disappointment at abrupt loss, but David Ortiz, who spent thirteen years as a great Red Sox hitter and admirable philanthropist and charismatic leader for not just the team, but the city, was home for his farewell game. After the Indians celebrated on the field and went to their clubhouse for a champagne shower, Ortiz heeded the deafening call of 37,000 fans in Fenway Park to come out for one last goodbye.

He made his way to the pitcher’s mound while Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man played on the ballpark speakers, all brass and gongs and drum, the song of American triumph. He took off his cap, tears pooling in his eyes, and raised it to the crowd with his hand over his heart as he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He patted his chest and turned to take in the entire stadium, the tens of thousands there present, and the millions watching, and kissed them goodbye before disappearing back into the clubhouse and taking off his uniform to transform back into a common man, his legendary days gone, but forever inscribed into the memories of millions of baseball fans.

But in that moment, standing on the mound, saluting the crowd with his hat and his hand on his heart, he stood as a future bronze sculpture for legendary and mythic baseball. That moment culminated in his final point to the sky before donning his cap again. He walked slowly back to the dugout, wiping tears from his eyes because of the deep love his fans have for him.

This past year, ever since the Mets made an improbable run in the 2015 World Series and an even more improbable run with an injury-battered team of rookies for the 2016 Wild Card Game, I started being a fan of not just my team, but the game. I got to see the Mets beat the Dodgers in a decisive Game 3 victory in the divisional playoffs—with my dad, of course, both of us screaming and cheering like loons, filled with joy, along with 45,000 other fans. I got to watch my childhood favorite ballplayer get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I got the autographs of Mets World Champions from 1986, the year I was born. And I got to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park on the last day of September when David Ortiz hit his final career home run in the first of three farewell games.

When he smacked that homer past the right field fence, I’d never seen a crowd of people so happy, so inspired, delusional with joy, and yet so connected to those around them with whom they shared the experience—including Ortiz himself. They hugged, arm in arm, cheering, high fives, whistles and claps and the final cry of happiness when Ortiz cross the plate and pointed to the misty sky.

I wouldn’t call baseball an interest of mine. I’d call this a belief, a reawakening to a centuries-old sport that transcends human adversity against perilous odds, a sport that is fueled by faith in the impossible, and a sport that offers admiration in tough loss and glorification, even beatification in impossible, miraculous victory. Baseball has a sense of miracle when a low slider is pounded over the fence, or when a shortstop makes a diving catch-and-throw to first base, or when a centerfielder hurls a strike from the warning track to nail the runner out at home, or when a runner steals home and scores, sliding down into the dusty clay and brushing the plate with a bare hand to win a game.

It’s all bang-bang fast, and you have to pay attention closely to see the nuance, the dance. But in between those breathless plays, those precise pitches and cracking bats, you can lean back, breathe the warm summer air, sip a beer, put your arm around your son or daughter, and relish in a satisfying and emotional experience that no other sport gives those who love it.

 

 

 

 

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