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.

 

 

 

 

Two Poems, Big Wins

Now that the Mets are in the middle of a seventeen-game stretch with no days off, I better not get behind in my poem count.

I owe two today, so here are two bad poems about trying to play baseball as a kid when you’re not very good at it.

Also, the Mets keep killing it. Walker hit his ninth homer in April last night, which ties a Mets club record. And my dad and I are going to Citi Field for a game against the Braves next Monday. That’ll be my first poem and post from the stadium.


 

Weak Arm

 

I’m in left field, and the batter smacks

a fly ball that goes up above the brim

of my hat, which is the tell-tale sign

to run back, back toward the wall,

and the ball lands ten steps behind me

and I haven’t got an arm like Mike does

so I flip it to him and he hurls the ball in

to the cutoff. A run scores,

and in the dugout the kids jeer me

for not making the throw myself,

and I want to tell them that I just don’t

have the stuff that they do

but instead I sit alone on the bench

and wait until the game is done,

picking at the leather laces of my mitt.

And my brother picks me up

when the game ends, and the big lights

shut off, the scoreboard flickers

and dims, and while his engine idles

and he waits, I count some stars

while I shuffle across the lot

to the sound of little kids biking home.

 

 

Wild Pitch

 

I’m standing in the batter’s box

with wobbly knees, helmet clamped on

which makes my heartbeat pound in my ears

and the pitch comes in at my head and I duck

but clank! the ball hits off my bat anyway

and rolls fair and the catcher throws to first

and I’m out. The ump won’t toss the pitcher

for headhunting and I’m sitting in the dirt,

tears in my eyes, wondering why

I’m out for ducking, for saving my own head,

but them’s the rules of the game,

and as the other team runs off the field

in victory, I sit in the damp clay.

Five Baseball Haiku

Alright, so, it happened. I got distracted with my life and I got behind by five poems. So, today, here are five baseball haiku. They’re not very good. But I can say that I did them, they work together as a poetic narrative sequence, and now I’m caught up.

Oh, and the Mets are killing it! Home runs for everyone, and they’ve won nine of their past eleven games. Lets Go Mets!

Also, my father challenged me to come up with a new Mets rally cry, since he’s tired of “Lets Go Mets!” Any suggestions?


 

Five Baseball Haiku

 

Scrape of mud on cleats

as Batter waits. Ump says, play!

Ball zips by, called strike.

 

Manager kicks dirt

on Ump’s shoes while Batter

stomps into dugout.

 

But Ump laughs. Knows this

is a game, a child’s act

to fire up crowd.

 

Ump says you are out!

And manager says thank you!

while fans hiss and boo.

 

Batter slams bat, spits

in Ump’s direction, but he

smiles, did his job.

Grandy Man

Mets 6, Braves 3. Curtis Granderson smacked a solo homer and a grand slam to put us far over the top. Even the Braves’ late game rally couldn’t surmount the Grandy Man’s RBIs.


 

The Ballglove

 

Cut from steerhide and stitched together

with catgut laces and horse-hoof glue,

oiled and tied shut and baked in an oven

to shape the pocket, then beaten with a mallet,

a stick, a bat, fastball after fastball,

and the pocket stretches and deepens

where the ball snaps the mitt shut,

caught in the webbing between fingers and thumb,

the crosshatch of fine tanned leather

that learns your muscle memory, the way

your hand reaches mid-dive for a line drive

and how the leather, now a part of you,

snatches the ball out of the air, robs the hitter.

The Agony of Fandom

Mets 4, Phillies 5. A walk-off single in extra innings ended a four-game winning streak.

This one is for friend and fellow poet Erin Mullikin, who once challenged me to write a poem about being a Mets fan. Three years later, here it is.


 

The Agony of Fandom

 

I was born in 1986, and my father was torn

between feeding his infant son

and praying in front of the TV for the Mets

to beat the Sox in the World Series,

one rare win that shouldn’t have even happened

if it weren’t for the ball that slipped

out of Bill Buckner’s grasp. Those Mets

are like your three-legged mutt that outwits

the Rottweiler next door to steal his bone,

yet gets trounced the next day for it.

But that’s the strange agony inflicted

by the Mets on their fans. Yet, we learn

patience and forgiveness. We wait for the wins

to come. In 1962, the Loveable Losers played

for my eight-year-old father,

a little redheaded Irish kid from Queens,

when he went with his mother to a Mets game

at the Polo Grounds, their first season. They lost.

So began a lifelong love affair that drove me,

a diehard fan who is one generation removed

from the source, to drink late into the night

after a World Series thumping. But, the next day,

I’m wearing my blue and orange hat anyway

because I’m one stubborn goddamn Mets fan

who will never give up on his team.

Big Win, Big Momentum

Mets 11, Phillies 1. We destroyed the Phillies. That is all.


 

One Hundred and Sixty-Two Games

 

The Captain tiptoes away from third base,

getting a lead. The pitcher looks once, twice.

Then the curveball, but a quick squeeze bunt!

The batter takes off down the first base line

while the Captain sprints from third,

straight at the catcher’s chest, who fumbles

the ball as the Captain slides around the tag

to score and he stands up, uniform caked with clay

and mirrors the umpire’s call of safe!

with arms outstretched, a smile on his face.

The season is a war, and every game is a battle,

and with that squeeze bunt they win the day,

they take first place in the pennant race,

and the Captain punches the air in victory

because it all came down to that moment—

every game in April fought to draw even with a rival

sometime in late September,

and then a quick small-ball play

to take the lead, like a jab to the nose

in the final round, and in the dugout

the men hug and slap asses and cheer.

Bats Boom

Mets 5, Phillies 2. Quadruple homers! We got a #DudaSmash from Luke (his first of the season), one from Neil Walker, and two from The Captain. Cespedes also pulled off a stand-up triple and scored a run, and Thor was as dominant as ever. The bats are waking up for spring!


 

The Quitter

 

I was eight or nine, taking ground balls

outside my school in the hot sun,

and a bad hop smacked me in the jaw

and knocked me down, so I took a seat

 

on the bench. As soon as my father pulled up

in his truck, I ran and climbed in and he asked

what I was doing, and I said I wanted to quit,

showing him the red splotch that would grow

 

into a bruise, and he shook his head

and said nothing as we drove home.

Three years later, after my big league hero

broke records and my favorite team

 

was in the playoffs, I sat in as catcher

for the junior high team and tried,

for three innings, to snap up fastballs

from a kid who could hurl like a pro,

 

but each hit to the chest or mask,

each dropped ball, each failed throw

to second to get the runner out made me sweat

and shake. Soon, the coach benched me,

 

and after the game I asked how I was doing

and he asked if I wanted him to be nice

or to be honest, and he was honest,

and the other kids ignored me,

 

and I quit again. My father always said

not to be afraid of the ball, but the dull hot pain

of each thump was like a deadening punch

a bully would deliver. And next season,

 

about to go into high school,

I went to tell him that I’d never play again

but he gave me a mask, a chest pad,

and a pair of black, steel-toed cleats.

 

He taught me how to call balls and strikes,

how a curveball can paint the black edge

of the plate, how you listen for the click of the bat

to call a foul-tip, how to use all of your senses.

 

All that summer, we worked

as a two-man team for the little leagues,

and he’d watch from second base

with his chin raised and his hands on his knees

 

when he knew I was calling a fair game.