Reading David Edelstein's review of Stephen Chow's martial-arts/sports flick Shaolin Soccer reminds me, on this Opening Day, of another deliriously funny tale of Eastern arts meeting Western sports: George Plimpton's 1985 April Fool's masterpiece, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."
The New York Mets, Plimpton reported, had built a separate, secret facility at their spring training complex, where a mysterious French-horn maestro was demonstrating the secrets he had learned from Himalayan monks who had taught him "the art of the pitch." Even as a Mets fan brimming with the optimism of spring, I knew the story couldn't be true. A 165-mph fastball?
Plimpton offered lots of plausible-seeming details — interviews and photographs of Davey Johnson, Mel Stottlemyre, Lenny Dykstra, Ronn Reynolds — but what made the story really enticing was the same idea that enlivens Shaolin Soccer. Even apart from the exaggerations of Hollywood and Hong Kong, martial arts masters are capable of amazing physical feats. It's tempting to think that those skills should translate to performance in other sports. I mean, if Bruce Lee could catch a throwing star with a broomhandle, shouldn't he have been able to catch hold of a curveball with a baseball bat?
For three summers I played on an underachieving team in South Philly's fastpitch softball league. Our sponsor was a karate studio and dance school called "Movement Workshop." (We shortened this to "Workshop" to cut down on the heckling from other teams.) The team was a motley collection of volunteer firefighters, magazine editors, teachers and karate instructors. We were not good.
The rest of us could never figure out why our black-belted teammates — bona fide nth-level masters who could break bricks and spin nunchaku with dazzling dexterity — didn't display equally impressive skills on the diamond.
"Wax on. Wax off," we used to say to one sensei after he had tried to catch yet another fly ball below his waist with the fingers of his glove facing up. Another guy, a man who could spin a quarterstaff with split-second precision, seemed never able to understand that you can't pull an outside pitch.
I don't mean to say that our martial artists were terrible, but the firemen were better. Why is that?
Anyway, Happy Opening Day.