Reading into fandom

Opening Day 2012, Philadelphia vs Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. Phillies win 1-0. One of 81 unsatisfactory wins that season.

[Part three of my Baseball Fan Trilogy. Parts one and two detail the general world of Phillies Phandom and then my development into one, respectively. All hyperlinks to Wikipedia will go instead to mirror site Wikiwand. Be forewarned.]

What does one do when he finds himself obsessed with a sport? How did this happen? How can a non-athletic sort explain to himself, let alone others, how he’s accepted the cognitive dissonance caused when his obsession for a sport coexists with his disdain for the jocks he’s encountered throughout his life? (And how much does this explain other such dissonant aspects of his reality?)

I wish I could tell you. Others have found themselves in similar traps: the accommodations are acceptable but one realizes escape remains impossible. We therefore tell our fellow captives what wonders our trap displays, how surely it transcends all other traps, about the beauty it exhibits and instills, how ultimately this trap must be an allegory for heaven…anything to justify dancing around our living rooms (with or without audience) when our chosen team sends a little white ball a few hundred feet and ignites an improbable run to a championship meaningless to anyone outside of the trap.

One of our more prominent captives, George F. Will, took a shot at explaining what the basic participants–managers, pitchers, batters, fielders–think about when they apply their talents to the game. His words continue to be quoted by the obsessed, one to another.

One of the best baseball wordsmiths, Thomas Boswell, wrote How Life Imitates The World Series in 1982, although in truth it collects columns he wrote prior to that for The Washington Post. If George Will is a dry-as-dust baseball intellectual (who also wrote for The Post but as a political pundit), then what are we to make of his quote on the cover of Boswell’s book? “The thinking person’s writer about the thinking person’s sport.” Those words set a high bar. Boswell clears it. His very first entry in the book is “This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.” Deeply down the rabbit-hole by the time I read the book, you will have to pretend to understand my thrill at its first sentences:

“Conversation is the blood of baseball. It flows through the game, an invigorating system of anecdotes. Ballplayers are tale tellers who have polished their malarky and winnowed their wisdom for years. The Homeric knack has nothing to do with hitting the long ball.

“Ride the bush-league buses with the Reading Phillies or the Spokane Brewers or the Chattanooga Lookouts, and suddenly it is easy to understand why a major league dugout is a place of such addictive conversational pleasures.”

He had me with that last sentence. I’ve watched the Reading Phillies, the Double-A affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies. I grew up in Spokane. I’ve been unable to confirm Boswell’s contention that a team there ever bore the name “Brewers” since the Spokane Indians were founded for the 1903 season and have been the Indians ever since. But look what just happened. Boswell and I now have a conversation going on, even though he doesn’t know I exist. It starts with a common love for baseball.

Boswell in his column announcing he wouldn’t cover the 2020 World Series due to worries about Covid-19–he was 72 at the time–wrote that he decided to remain a journalist with The Post due to covering the dramatic game six of the 1975 World Series where Carlton Fisk hit an historic home run. “Where would I be today if Fisk’s ball had gone foul?”

Where indeed? We understand, Mr. Boswell, those of us down this same rabbit-hole of a trap. I started digging ever deeper into the tunnels about 20 years ago when I read Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. Though entertaining, the movie does little justice to the deeper tropes of the book. In the book, Lewis expertly relates how eventual Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane attempts for years to explain to himself how he could have had such promise that the New York Mets drafted him in the 1st round (23rd overall), yet he flamed out with little to show for all those predictions of greatness: he played regularly only one year in the majors (1986) with a few plate appearances in five other years 1984-1989. His career batting average was .219 with a fielding percentage to match.

During that same time he played with Darryl Strawberry who the Mets drafted #1 overall in the same year they took Beane at #23. Theoretically the two should have enjoyed a friendly rivalry, spurring each other on to the big leagues. In actuality, Strawberry got there a year earlier than Beane. Strawberry played regularly as soon as he entered the majors, and played from 1983-1999 with eight appearances in the All-Star game. Beane had his one “good” year in 1986, when Strawberry earned his third trip to the All-Star game.

Beane deduces that the scouts basically screwed up when they thought he possessed talents anywhere near Strawberry’s. He learned of the nascent movement to quantify baseball more with advanced statistics when Sandy Alderson, Sr., handed him a pamphlet from Bill James one of if not THE pioneer of sabermetrics. And then he…ah, but there I go down the rabbit-hole again. Sorry.

Early in my baseball initiation I read Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout by Mark Winegardner. Winegardner follows Anthony “Tony” Lucadello who scouted for over 50 years, first for the Chicago Cubs and then for the Philadelphia Phillies and–wait what? The Phillies? Okay, I’m in. A great piece of irony occurs when the book details Lucadello’s pursuit and signing of Mickey Morandini, but the book’s appendix doesn’t list him on its list of Lucadello signees who played in the majors. Why? Because Morandini, who starred at second base for the 1993 National League Champion team, didn’t make the Phillies until 1990, the same year the book was published. Lucadello signed 52 players who made it to the majors including Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Schmidt. The description about how he finds, nurtures, and convinces Morandini to sign with the Phillies justifies the cost of the book.

Most baseball books do one of two things: they explain the aspects of the game or they serve to record for posterity’s sake the great teams and individuals of the game. A few overlap between the two, such as Men At Work mentioned previously. A few, though, do neither. They illuminate the soul. I purchased Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game by John Sexton in hopes of illumination. I left the book educated, provoked, but ultimately unsatisfied. I mention it here to show the lengths to which baseball fans who are also erudite readers find themselves pursuing to satisfy their urges. Sexton taught (still teaches?) a course at New York University on the same subject as the book. He writes about the shared aspects between baseball and religion. I saw the similarities. I didn’t see how baseball gave me a road to God in the Buddhist sense of many paths/one goal. But the 4.5 star rating on Amazon indicates many have found the book worthy.

More often baseball aficionados like to read about the nooks and crannies of the sport. One such book is Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game. For those who know little of baseball, a regulation game is nine innings long. Both teams get a chance to bat against the other, the visiting team going first in the top half of the inning. The home team follows in the bottom half. If, however, the score is tied at the end of nine innings, the two teams keep playing. Baseball does not tolerate ties (except when it does, albeit rarely). A Triple-A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings started on a Saturday prior to Easter Sunday 1981, and it seemed neither could score on the other–wait that’s not true! Both teams scored one run in the 21st inning! Baseball’s participants adhere to the game’s rules with the same religious fervor as those attending Easter Sunday services. Because no one could raise the league’s commissioner–the only person allowed to suspend the game–they played on. And on. And on. When it ended around dawn the next day, the teams had played nearly four games’ worth of innings. Future stars Cal Ripken, Jr., and Wade Boggs were players in the game. Future manager Bruce Bochy also was there.

Since Jim Bolton’s Ball Four, baseball books written by former or active players tend to be much more jocular and comically entertaining. Former relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst has written four such books. The first, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, remains the best from the standpoint of providing both entertainment and insight. In it, Hayhurst gives us his anecdotal account of being part of a Triple-A bullpen, hoping one day to play in the majors. I constantly think about his description of a sudden, late-season callup from the Portland Beavers to the San Diego Padres–not for his description of the play but for his Oh-My-God reaction to all the perks major league players get. Hayhurst spent all of 39 and one third innings in the majors, or approximately six innings longer than that Triple-A game in Pawtucket a quarter century prior. Somehow he managed to parley his constant conversation into a commentary role on several broadcasts.

In the same vein but more parochial lies The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made It to the Big Leagues After 11 Years in the Minors by Chris Coste. The novelty of a player languishing in the minors for over a decade yet never appearing in the majors at any time seems unbelievable to anyone who follows the sport. Few would stick it out that long, for one. However Coste played catcher, a coveted position making him instantly more valuable than just about anyone else on that Triple-A team. Relief pitchers with any promise have been called up long before their 33rd birthday. Starting pitchers have been converted to relief pitchers (see last sentence). Position players have been let go to clear the way for younger, more promising players. Coste pigheadedly played in independent leagues from 1995-1999, which is just crazy. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever made it into the Major League Baseball system of minor leagues by spending five years in independent ball right out of high school or college. Coste, however, managed to get signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1999, briefly, but wound up playing independent ball again that year. In 2000 he latched onto the Cleveland system, playing AA and AAA. In 2003 he moved to the Boston system, in 2004 to the Milwaukee system. In 2005 he signed with the Phillies, playing AAA in Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Scranton-Wilkes Barre now hosts the Yankees’ AAA club but was affiliated with Philadelphia at the time. And in 2006 he got “the call”.

Adding to the book’s value, Coste just didn’t make it to the majors at age 33, but when he got there he stuck there. This never happens for a backup player called to fill a minor gap at age 33, yet alone for a player who spent 1995-2005 just scratching his way toward yet another AAA assignment. Adding an extra layer of enjoyment: when Coste joined the major league club, he backed up starting catcher Mike Lieberthal the long-time symbol for futility for the Phillies. Lieberthal was the backup catcher for 1994-1996 right after the team went to the World Series, and then guided the pitching staff through 2007, the first year the team again tasted the postseason. Coste continued with the team in 2007 and 2008 when Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz solidified his claim to the dirt behind home plate (edging out the unlucky Lieberthal who retired). In 2008 Chooch helped lead the Phillies to their first Championship in 28 years. For a Phillies fan, this book is like being told you’re getting a triple-fudge chocolate cake and then seeing it’s iced with the richest frosting imaginable AND IT HAS ALCOHOL-INFUSED BON BONS ON TOP! (Well, at least for this Phillies fan.) Coste was traded to Houston in mid-2009 and that year was the end of his major league appearances. Want some extra ganache on top, Phillies Phan? Coste attended Concordia College in Morehead, MN, just across the river from Fargo, ND. My father had many close relatives living in or near Fargo, and his mother graduated from Concordia. My best friend in high school attended Concordia. Ah, sweet serendipity!

If we spend time going through my entire bookshelf of baseball books, it will be like those times you got stuck in a promising bar only to allow the bar’s resident know-it-all bore you tears because he promises you free drinks: a terrible price to pay for only mild enjoyment. Let’s just mention one more. My most recent baseball read occurred this year and takes its place alongside some of the best I’ve read: The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams by Michael Tackett. The subject matter nearly overpowers the author’s skills to tell it, but transports nonetheless. The book profiles Merl Eberly who coached a summer college league in Clarinda, Iowa. College summer leagues serve two purposes: (1) young players getting ready to enter college or just beginning their college baseball careers often need some extra work–or to showcase their abilities; and (2) college leagues use wooden bats where the colleges (and high schools prior to them) have provided only metal bats for their players. Metal’s makes getting hits easy; wood…not so much. In the middle of cornfields and nowhere, Eberly guided and developed many young players. Among them were future stars Ozzie Smith (15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer) and Von Hayes (1989 All-Star and a Phillie when the team went to the World Series in 1983). Tackett’s ticket into the story occurred when his son wanted to play for Eberly. The Iowan coach may resemble a small-town John Wayne–and Clarinda is only a 90-minute drive from John Wayne’s hometown of Winterset–but his compassion tempers his strict, disciplinarian approach. There were moments I wiped tears from my face, but I will not spoil it for you. As stated, “Field of Dreams was only superficially about baseball. It was really about life. So is The Baseball Whisperer… with the added advantage of being all true.”

I’ve failed to capture the elusive spiritual, pulse-of-life truth baseball holds forth for the seeker willing to dive deeper than comparing statistics or reading yesterday’s scores. To those such as myself, joy may be found on Little League and high school diamonds; pulses will quicken when we hear a horsehide-covered hardball strike a leather glove at 90-some miles per hour or hear that same ball meet a loosely swung round piece of wood; irrespective of having watched a game, we will dive delightedly into someone’s scorebook of it which bears esoteric notations known only to initiates; or our anticipation will leap when we hear our team’s signature sound bite of music blare from the TV, announcing another game getting ready to begin. These things remain elusive. Lao Tzu describes it best in the opening to the Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

This inability to fully communicate our forays into the mystic joy of baseball lies at the heart of one of my fellow captives in this rabbit-hole trap, and one of Major League Baseball’s commissioners. Professor of English Renaissance literature, president of Yale University, and seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti explained it this way:

[Baseball] 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 all 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.”

 [translation of Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, copyright 1972. Giamatti’s quote from “Take time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games”]