Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Poetry of Baseball

Last week, I was thinking that I needed to veer away from poetry for a while in this blog. Then I was reminded from several different corners that April is “National Poetry Month.” I was also reminded by my sports enthusiast friends that the opening day of baseball season was coming up. It happened yesterday, the first crack of the bat, the President tossing out the first pitch, already an amazing play noted in that game with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

All of this reminded me of the first poem I committed to memory that was not a nursery rhyme. I was in the third grade, and the poem was “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Thayer. It was spring, and all of my classmates were getting excited about baseball. My mother showed me the poem that was reprinted in The Saturday Review. I read the poem and was thrilled by the words and the drama that unfolded. I took that page from the magazine, folded it neatly to carry in my back pocket. For the next several days, I would read it whenever I got the chance. Somehow I got the notion that I could memorize it. I continued to work at it until I was able to recite the entire piece "by heart." Looking at the poem now, I am a bit amazed that that third grader took on such a challenge. If my teacher had made it an assignment, I’m sure I would have balked.

There were many other great memories generated by baseball. We could walk down to our small town ball park on warm summer nights to watch the teams play. We kids enjoyed the snow cones and the gatherings before we understood the game. Then there were the peanuts. There was a fellow in our home town who was at every outdoor event (which meant baseball or football) selling his own roasted peanuts. Everyone called him “Jam-up,” I suppose it was because he was a thin man, with a hunched back, but that was how he was known. Everyone liked Jam-up, and his peanuts were always perfectly roasted.

We call it our national pastime. The game has inspired such movies as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, Bad News Bears, The Natural and Angels in the Outfield. The game is so full of fun that we are disturbed when things go awry. The country was shocked by the “Black Sox Scandal” in which eight major league members were barred from the game for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series game. The memorable line from that story, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” was reportedly uttered by a boy to “Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the eight team members indicted in that scandal, as he left the courtroom. I felt the same way the year that Sammy Sosa’s bat cracked, revealing a cork interior, and many have felt that way with the issue of performance enhancing drugs.

Maybe it is the memory of those small town little league games that is where the true essence of baseball lies. There we saw the magic of teamwork along with the impressive individual feats of skill. We learned about winning, losing, and those especially harrowing moments when we were “Oh so close.” Then we all went back to our homes, talked about it a little bit, maybe recounted it with friends the next day, and then it was on to something else.

I may get out to the ballpark more this year. These days, the television producers won’t let you actually see the game. Instead, we are given a montage of three-second close-ups of players throughout the game along with frequent head shots of the play-by-play announcers. You don’t get that broad panoramic view of the field, showing the delightful symmetry of the game. That is were the poetry of the game takes place.


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