Today Poetic/Olympic Coverage continues at The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Best American Poetry. We're starting a series within the series in which we consider sports that have been and no longer are a part of the Games. We're calling them Ghost Sports and today it's baseball. Here's a moving meditation by Nick Ripatrazone and some brilliant hilarity by Peter Campion.
Foul Ball: On Baseball and Poetry
By Nick Ripatrazone
The dugouts are empty and the bats are silent: there is no baseball in the London Olympics. There will be no baseball in the 2016 Berlin games. Baseball has merged its international governing body with another spurned sport, softball, for their 2020 bid. It pains me to hear Softball Federation President Don Porter’s admission that they will try to find ways to make both sports “more attractive and interesting.”
Some major reasons for exclusion include the sport’s popularity in the Americas and Asia but more provincial following in Europe, concerns about drug testing, and the absence of Major League Baseball players. Yet a more implicit trait that appears to have doomed baseball’s chances as an Olympic sport--relatively slow, long games with moments of muted drama--is the same element that makes baseball so beautifully poetic.
Baseball, even when played in the most urban of locations, is a reminder of the pastoral. The field is geometrically pleasing: batter and catcher boxes, on-deck circles, the manicured diamond centered with the pitcher’s mound, the dirt infield and the grassed outfield, stretching to the fences. That back border is hard, but other borders, like foul lines, can be straddled and crossed. Soft grass and rough dirt can both stain bodies. The bases, though fixed onto anchors, are sometimes upended. Home plate is often buried. It is a static field in almost constant flux.
Fiction and film have romanticized the game, but poets have given the mythology further refinement and form. Marianne Moore, who threw out the first pitch of the season at Yankee Stadium in 1968, finds “excitement-- / a fever” in the unexpected nature of the game. Unlike basketball, with set hoops, and football, with end zones that must be reached like conquered land, baseball hinges on the relationship between pitcher and batter. If baseball hits bat, the ball springs, and the action follows that white blur. For a sport billed as slow and steady, the movement can be swift and erratic. In “Writing and Baseball,” Moore finds a connection between the unpredictability of both arts, and her uneven structure pushes forward the breakneck lines: a “leaping” player “snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest, / one-handing the souvenir-to-be / meant to be caught by you or me.” Moore’s witty poem is framed by her epigraph: “Suggested by post-game broadcasts.” Baseball is a game clothed in commentary from raised booths and rows of seats: a world covered in words.
Fernando Perez, the first Major League Baseball player to be published in Poetry, writes that the world of baseball is infinitely splintered and complicated. Minor league players are like itinerant bards, “slouched on a bus, watching small towns roll by matter-of-factly like stock market tickers,” even, as he quotes Ginsberg, “‘shopping for images’ in a Wal-Mart.” Perez knows that “eventually my prime will end” and baseball will “slowly break my heart.” He turns to poetry “because it is less susceptible to circumstance,” and yet he is “not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other.” A baseball player, he wants the worlds of poetry and baseball “apart.”
That could be the ultimate draw of the sport to poets: it feels like a mythological other, a well-groomed natural world that resists the occasional simplification and nostalgia that poets wish to drape on it. Robert Creeley, Perez’s favorite poet, laments: “The one damn time (7th inning) / standing up to get a hot dog someone spills / mustard all over me.” In a sport where Babe Ruth is king, where The Pride of the Yankees inspires those who can’t stand the Bronx Bombers, hyperbole and humor equal a second reality, a pastime more game than sport. It is a game where rules are bent, where decisions of safe versus out, ball versus strike are handed down by umpires who sometimes shout, nearly mouth-to-mouth, with frustrated coaches. A game where pitchers might bean batters, where a thief of the infield--a base stealer--is praised by Robert Francis: “How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird, / He’s only flirting.” Only in baseball can the grand and legendary, the progressive and monumental reside next to, and perhaps thrive on, the loopy, the subversive, the angry. Such power and possibility in these names: Jackie Robinson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Joe DiMaggio, Cecil Fielder, Pearce “What’s the Use” Chiles, Ty Cobb.
Is this not poetry? Another pursuit mistakenly thought as passive, where the careful accumulation of image can create the tender or forceful. Archibald MacLeish’s “The End of the World” is not about baseball, but in the pageantry of this particular circus, I find correlation. The best moments of baseball and poetry happen “quite unexpectedly.” The “top” blows off when, distracted by an overfilled cup of beer or a vendor screaming about peanuts, we hear the bat crack against ball, and watch it disappear into the blue. We know the ball will return, but for now it remains unseen, while it “hung over / those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes.” Even the most lackluster popup can drop, like a ton, on the grass, and what happens next is controlled chaos: coaches scream, the bench clears, the winning run on second sees the absurd possibility of home. This is the movement of poetry: like “a piece of ice on a hot stove.”
But what is that ice doing on a stove? Only Robert Frost knows, and we know he certainly loved baseball. It might have been his poultry farming background, the marriage of the pastoral and patience. He said that “nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write -- unless it be to have assumed that I once pitched a baseball with distinction.” Frost thought of baseball as a form of prowess, and saw that as its “common ground” with poetry: both had “something to achieve, something to win or lose.” In the same way we are startled by a late-inning rally, we are shaken by a poem that prodded along until a charged final couplet, and perhaps we feel guilty that we did not see the beauty all along.
An exhibition and demonstration sport since the 1904 games, medals for baseball have only been awarded in 5 Olympiads. It is unfortunate that such a storied sport is absent on the world’s athletic stage. Imagine, as poets are inclined to, the dramatic perfection of a gold medal no-hitter. Yet there is sufficient drama in a batter’s repeated foul balls as he battles against a determined pitcher on a full count, or the long, slow walk of a relief pitcher from the bullpen. The length of this game is what I find most beautiful and complex. Despite innings and outs, there is always the possibility that a baseball game could go on forever. This glimpse of the eternal is contrasted with the fear and pressure of the final out of the ninth inning. Even in the World Series, we know that these teams will live to play another day, but there is so much grace and terror in that moment before we all go our separate ways, before we take off our team’s caps and celebrate or sulk. We know that tomorrow the groundskeeper will mow lines of light and dark into the desolate outfield while summer help pull rakes along the infield. But in those tense final moments, the possibility of an eternal game can be snapped with a third strike, a caught line drive, a lazy runner picked-off at second. Calm cloaking intense drama. What else could we hope for in the world of sport?