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. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops … and summer was gone.
Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game’s deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio–not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television–and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind.
A. Bartlett Giamatti (father of actor Paul Giamatti) penned these words as part of his essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” which was published in his book From a Great and Glorious Game. Giamatti understood intellectual pursuits: he had a doctorate in English Renaissance literature from Yale, the same university he would go on to serve as president for nine years. He left that job to become President of the National League before briefly succeeding Peter Ueberoth as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He would die before finishing one year in office, but not before dealing with one of the biggest and most controversial decisions of any commissioner: the banning of Pete Rose from baseball for life. As a lifelong fan of the game, it must have been gut wrenching to be a part of the sad but necessary duty of defrocking one of the game’s most accomplished players.
This particular writing is pretty much a classic piece of baseball literature now. Baseball, like all other sports, is about glorifying great accomplishment. But baseball, I think differs in that it serves as a stern teacher that failure cannot be avoided; rather that failure is a constant companion on the journey of life, and that it must be accepted.
Other sports don’t do that. Take for example soccer: Back in 1994, when the United States hosted the FIFA world cup, a Colombian player named Andrés Escobar scored an own goal for the United States (he accidentally put the ball in his own net, and scored a point for the United States). When he returned home, he was gunned down. It was likely related to someone losing money on the game, but the response to making a mistake like that was to takes his life. Columbia would likely have not advanced, and certainly would not have been a favorite for placing. Nonetheless, failure was seen as something that was irredeemable. There are times when failure can lead to fatal outcomes … but they are not too often.
Consider in contrast Bill Buckner. Bill Buckner not only cost the Red Sox a chance to win the World Series in 1986, but an end to (what was at that time) a 68 year wait for a World Series winner! The people of Boston were understandably upset. In the film Rounders, Matt Damon’s character describes his feelings on visiting a Russian mob boss whom he owes money to as “this must be how Buckner feels when he comes back to Fenway”. Yet, Bill Buckner is now rehabilitated. People recognize him for the great player he truly was. In the end, baseball fans learn to understand failure. The greatest hitter to ever walk the Earth still failed over 60% of the time.
This wonderful piece of poetry also reminds me about that baseball serves as a clock; unlike other sports it is intimately intertwined with the passage of time … it starts in spring like a flower opening for the first time … it goes through the comfort of summer, and it ends when the days are shortening and you have to realize that winter is creeping closer. Every baseball season is in some ways like the entirety of life replayed over and over again with great hopes, and in the end more lost opportunities and failure than successes … and we learn to live with them. It is with great irony that baseball is one of the few major sports that operates without a clock … this is one of the great mysteries of the game: a clock without a timepiece.
As Giamatti points out though, as you grow older, the summers seem to be a little shorter each time. I suppose that is that biological timer reminding you that time has been passing … and that there are fewer and fewer days ahead of you, and that you should enjoy them as best you can. There have been 101 million poems on that topic, but none captures that essence (I think) to a modern American like this one.
This summer I will leave my 30s behind. Quite by accident, and only because of a quirk in the schedule, I hope to be in Denver visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin to see my first ball game at Coors Field (the White Sox will be paying a once-in-six or seven years trip to play an interleague game there against the Rockies). The middle game of the series happens to be my birthday. So, by coincidence, I hope to be enjoying myself as I turn 40 contemplating outfield shifts, hit-and-runs, and coming home.
Today is opening day. That’s one of those days where it is much easier to remember the good times in life.