First published in The Boston Globe, April 1994
The scribes, stimulated by the sunshine of Fort Myers, have filed their first spring-training stories, thrown out their first cliches of the season.
And as sure as the hopeful reports will continue from City of Palms Park, as sure as the Mets — individually and en masse — will do something juvenile, baseball’s great myth, its greatest cliche, will again be perpetrated.
The literary lions will send back their musings about the boys of summer, about baseball as metaphor, about baseball as life itself. And once again, the seemingly intelligent among the fans will embrace their words, smiling at sentences praising baseball as the intellectual sport, as the pastime for thinkers.
A W.P. Kinsella will print it and they will come. A John Updike will describe a “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” and they will look at each other and nod knowingly. A David Halberstam will windily proclaim that the game will seem “more than almost anything else … to symbolize normalcy.”
The game will transcend other, less intellectual sports and become The Game. “Grace” and “elegance” and “ballet” will appear in the same sentences as “double play” and “shoe-top catch.” George Will, in his laborious way, will rhapsodize about the Craft and what it requires in watching. “Being a serious baseball fan, meaning an informed and attentive and observant fan … is doing something that makes demands on the mind of the doer,” he writes in “Men at Work.”
But as the exhibition games begin, the observant fan will note overweight human caricatures grotesquely stuffed into stretched knit uniforms. Patient, he will watch as they make obscene adjustments. Attentive, he will notice the oozing tobacco spittle and how it forms a brown accent line on the chin, as effective as face paint in establishing a clown.
He will stand and yell when these comic characters rush at each other, arms flailing, and fall to the ground in imitation of professional wrestling. He will shake his head when managers and umpires stand belly to belly, heads wagging, mouths moving.
After the game, maybe these grotesques will grace the fan with lighted firecrackers, if there’s still time after they’ve sprayed bleach at sportswriters or invectives at their teammates. The more intelligent of those fans will be safe at home when the clowns hold the bar-brawl ritual that often enough closes their day’s activity.
And the writers will continue their homage. Baseball is, Will continues, “a game that rewards, and thus elicits, a remarkable level of intelligence from those who compete.”
Are you listening, Vince Coleman? Lenny Dykstra? Jose Canseco, Wade Boggs, Jack Clark, Oil Can Boyd, Rob Dibble, Roger Clemens? And Pete Rose and Steve Howe and Denny McLain and Dwight Gooden?
And how about those who manage and own? George Steinbrenner and Rose again? And, attempting gender equity in baseball burlesque, Marge Schott? Their predecessors include Billy Martin, Horace Stoneman, Bill Veeck and Charles Finley.
In 1983, only a year after a cocaine scandal in the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, Sparky Anderson, pennant-winning manager and revered baseball mind, profoundly observed, “In the old days, 24 of the 25 guys on every team were drunk. Today, nobody hardly drinks anymore, and very few take drugs.”
Warren Giles, the president of the National League, was asked about drugs in 1969. “It has never come up, and I don’t think it ever will,” he proclaimed. Over in the American League, spokesman Bob Holbrook agreed: “Baseball players don’t use those types of things.”
Their thoughts, obviously, were on the higher truths of The Game.
The players, with their “remarkable level of intelligence,”
were finding higher truth in other ways.
Dock Ellis, who partied with Jimi Hendrix and pitched a no-hitter for the Pirates under the influence of LSD in 1970, told an interviewer after his career was finished: “I was using everything, I mean everything. For about eight or nine years, I was an addict.”
Bob Uecker, once a journeyman catcher and now a beer pitchman, found his high the old-fashioned way. “Anybody can play sober,” he once said. “I liked to get out there and play liquored up.”
Still, Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post sportswriter, can muse on The Game’s “sense of moderation — of both physical and emotional temperance.”
And novelist George V. Higgins can write, “Baseball is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech — a slightly elevated and concentrated form.”
Maybe the writers view the display on the field (and off) as the ancient Romans did their spectator “games”: aristocracy enjoying the skills — and follies — of the plebeian class.
Or maybe it isn’t really The Game itself, but the musings themselves, as William Zinsser wisely noted in his book, “Spring Training”: “Writing about baseball seemed to be some kind of validating rite for the American male.”
Or maybe it is simple guilt. A baseball game consumes several hours, time that could be spent on the Great American Novel, on an insightful political treatise, or a profound philosophical tome. The game must be elevated to The Game to atone for wasted time.
That’s the way Sinclair Lewis saw it. Cocking a cynical eye on the lower-case game in his novel “Babbitt,” Lewis wrote: “But the game was a custom of his clan and it gave outlet for the homicidal and sides-taking instincts which Babbitt called ‘patriotism’ and ‘love of sport.’ No sense a man’s working his fool head off. I’m going to the game three days a week.”