Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. – Vince Lombardi
April 2020, sheltering in place. Two dozen residents of a nursing home not five miles from here have been infected by the virus. I have a mask to wear outside – in New Orleans I’d say, “I’m masking” – but it’s raining, I’m stuck inside, can’t go for a walk, even with the mask. No ball games today in this weather. Yes, I’m warm, have food and family, have internet, have privilege. I have the privilege to comfortably whine about all the things that are wrong in the world today.
One of the things that is wrong, one of the important things that have been taken away is our seasonal ceremony of transition, Baseball’s Opening Day.
When I first posted this essay a few years ago it began like this:
The baseball season has begun, signaling to all Americans not born in Florida, California or the Southwest that the Divine Child of Spring has once again defeated Old Man Winter. The world (along with the home team’s pennant hopes, even if we know better) has been reborn once again. It’s no accident that Easter occurs at this time of year. Rebirth and redemption. New possibilities. It’s not over till it’s over, said Yogi Berra. Anything can actually happen, no matter what the score is. After all, baseball is the only major team sport that is not ruled by the clock. Let’s play two, said Ernie Banks.
Baseball, like all mythological narratives, lends itself to hyperbole and wild speculation. As Michael Meade has said, anything worth saying is worth exaggerating. And there is the mystery of baseball, to which we can consider three aspects. Hey, you’re stuck at home, too. Leave me in to pitch for a while. First, writes Randy Dankievitch,
Metaphorically speaking, the baseball is our soul, something we try to find…as we run away from home base (literally, home) and towards first, embarking on the adventure to find ourselves – with the ultimate goal of returning to the place it all began, to begin the journey anew the next time around the order.
Indeed, the only way to break out of the circle, any circle, is to return home – to successfully pass, as Robert Kelly writes, “the arcane and terrible passageway between Third and Home… past the Guardian of the Threshold”, the “birth canal”, and then, having scored, to enter it again, so to speak, next at bat, but at a higher level of being.
Second, uniquely among all team sports, we have that absence of any clock. Father Time – Chronos, the god who eats his children – has no power within the baselines. If the team at bat keeps hitting, the dream will not end, no matter the score, and its cyclical adventures continue, like myth, indefinitely.
Third, baseball is the only non-phallic sport. Bear with me here; I’m well aware of the shape of a bat. Think about it: all the other team sports – football, soccer, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and all of the sports with nets – all of them, even golf, involve my team pushing, throwing, kicking, batting (consider the military metaphor of shooting) or otherwise directing a ball, of no value in itself, into the sacred, protected territory of your team.
In scoring, we replicate the basic desire and intention of all our ancestors going back to micro-organisms, “a simple enactment on an easy symbolic plane,” writes Kelley, “of the biological commonplace, the old putting-it-in-the-hole…with their insertion of ball in slot they always celebrate, alas, enslavement of spirit to matter.”
Here is the intersection of sports, sex and warfare, as I write in The Singing Policeman:
On July 1st, 1916, as the British army rose from its trenches on the Somme River, some of their officers kicked soccer balls in front of the advance. It was one way to motivate those young men, 60,000 of whom would be mowed down before evening. Everyone on both sides of that ceremony of child sacrifice understood the metaphor; the British were attempting to penetrate (from a Latin root related to “innermost part of a temple”) the German lines. Perhaps the Yiddish verb shtup (“to overfeed, annoy, or to fuck”) is more appropriate. Everyone understood the patriarchal connection between sports, war – and sex.
So, since it clearly avoids the urge to shtup, I would go so far as to say that baseball, with its infield diamond, its non-symmetrical field, its disdain for time’s authoritarian demand for tidy endings, its rounding of the bases and its longing for home (nostos in ancient Greek, root of the word nostalgia, a longing for a place, not a time), has far more of the feminine in it than any sport.
I know, I know, in the grand scheme of things, count your blessings, yadda, yadda …but we have lost so many things that we innocently used to count on. So perhaps it’s even more appropriate to repost this now.
We have much to talk about. But first, return with me to those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the narrator to The Lone Ranger used to say, to a time when the oral tradition was still alive. Read the original version of Casey At the Bat, the full title of which is A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in the Year 1888, by Ernest Lawrence Thayer:
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon of the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast.
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that –
We’d put even money now with Casey at the bat.
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second, and Flynn a-hugging third.
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.
There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped –
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on the stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult, he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike Two.”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered “fraud”;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed;
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
Forget Uncle Walt, forget Emily, forget Frost and Eliot. This may not be great poetry, but for generations of Americans it has been a great poem. Casey, wrote the poet Donald Hall in his remarkable essay in the centennial edition of the poem, is the most popular poem in our country’s history, if not exactly in its literature. It has spawned dozens of other poems over these 132 years, ranging from versions where Casey strikes out again to ones in which he redeems himself with a home run. See Casey’s Revenge (1907) or The Volunteer (1908), in which an aging Casey returns decades later to step out of the stands and save the day.