In 1968, Robert Coover wrote a novel called The Universal Baseball Association about a character named Henry Waugh, who created his own board game with imaginary teams and seasons that ran in concert with the real deal. Although the book was published long before sabermetrics, Henry brought a statistical analysis to his game that mirrored real professional baseball.
Year after year he played throughout the regular season, his dice-rolling stats generally falling within his, and baseball’s, norm. Then, one season the entire system began to crumple, dice roll by dice roll. Henry couldn’t understand the statistical insanity that was occurring and the rest of his life fell apart in his desperate attempt to “get it.” Something he was never able to do and for which he paid a dear price.
Well, I’m happy to report that despite Boston’s horrific Wednesday night collapse and Tampa Bay’s incredible extra inning victory, my life isn’t headed toward Henry Waugh’s mental dumpster.
I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember. Sitting on a stool at my grandfather’s (then father’s) tavern, waiting for the arguments about which game to show on novelty of all novelties—the bar’s television. I was a Dodgers’ fan, but when they and the Giants deserted New York for sunnier pastures, I became my Aunt Jeanette’s (who bartended at the tavern) Yankee disciple. She took the time to introduce me to the game’s subtleties and the different nuances of each Yankee player. She also had the uncanny ability to foresee when a Yankee batter was “due.” “He’s due,” she’d announce to customers and the bets would begin to fly. She won a hell of a lot more of them than she lost.
Jeanette was so entranced with the Yankees, I never had the guts to tell her about my infidelities. At night, under the covers, I’d huddle up to my transistor radio to listen to the San Francisco Giants games—or, at least, New York-based Les Keiter’s version of it. Using a ticker tape, a recording of crowd noise, two sticks, and his fluid patter, he made you think you were listening to the real thing rather than his reenactment.
But then baseball at the bar and under the covers came to an abrupt end. It slid to the back burner as I attended yeshivas where emotional survival became my game, and University of Wisconsin, where we ran the bases of politics and protests.
I quit school, joined Volunteers in Service To America (VISTA) and was assigned to Chicago where the two team city reignited my love for the game. Although I lived and worked on the North Side, I became a White Sox fan since they had one of my favorite players, Richie Allen. And, like other two team cities, you either rooted for one or the other. In Chicago, to this day, The White Sox were and are “the other.” Despite their historically low status on the rungs of winning, the Cubs are, and always have been, Chicago’s “darlings.”
Now I’ve lived in Boston for close to forty years. Which means I’ve lived for close to forty more years. I now have more room in my psyche—I can do “and,” not just “either/or.” My heart belongs to Sue and I still have affection for past loves. And my heart belongs to the Red Sox with affection left over for the teams I rooted for in past. Maybe that’s maturity, or maybe it’s because I just love the damn game.
Hell, sometimes I think it has mystical powers. Sue, her brother Jeff, sister-in-law Donna, and I took shifts caring for Sue’s dying mother, Tsiv, who lived outside of Detroit and was hospicing at home. Sue and I were there together during the 2006 World Series and danced around Tsiv’s bed, singing, “Go Tigers, go Tigers.” As sick and weak as she was, Tsiv invariably waved her arms and sang along with gusto. Gusto which ‘til my dying day I will always believe added to her life and was fueled by baseball.
It’s the game that holds me captive. I enjoy rooting of course, but it’s baseball itself I find beautiful and fulfilling. The grass, (even the new turf), the grace of a second baseman leaping, twisting, and throwing the ball to first for a double play, the subtle but real strategies, the individual competitions within the larger struggle, the timelessness both in the game’s history and within any specific contest. The late George Carlin has a bit where he compares and contrasts football and baseball’s vocabulary and the degree to which the words reflect each game’s values. I’m not willing to say that any game is a metaphor for life or reflects our cultural ideals, but even cynical me would like to think that the game played between the white lines and within the diamond reflects the best of the American us. The individuality, the collectivity, the energy, and perhaps most importantly, the hope.
Even this last Bad Day In Mudville when three minutes after the Red Sox blew their lead and Tampa Bay (a team I viscerally dislike) overcame a seven-run deficit to win the last spot in the playoffs, there was a rightness, a justice to it. My team had spent the month sliding down a cliff, Tampa Bay spent that same month climbing a mountain.
Sure I was disappointed. But my cousin and I, who had been texting throughout night closed shop by writing almost simultaneously, “baseball is sure one amazing game.”
Ex-Commissioner and sadly departed “Bart” Giamatti On Baseball: “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.”