Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence

We need something "less" basic. When I married Peggy, I was a virgin of enormous naïveté, but I brought to our relationship all the determination and will of my baseball construction of desire. I mean, sexual love was something that one achieved, and I intended to be a winner. I had read all the sex manuals; I had the techniques correctly abstracted in my mind. It was like baseball. It requires determination and will. In the outfield you get a running start at a line drive hit in front of you, catch it in full stride, and release the ball with all your momentum going toward the plate.

This is not the way to make love.

I have come to believe it is not the way to play baseball either. I don't mean you never make such a throw home. Such a throw can be one of the wonderful moments of the game. I mean, rather, that I played too much with my will, whatever in hell that is. I was so determined to win, to do it right, that I missed too many opportunities to play out of my desire or, when I did so, I played out of a distorted desire. I tried too hard to prove too much and missed the chance to play. I channeled too much of my passion into determination and overwhelmed the aesthetic flows of the game.

My point here is not that there is some essentialist kind of desire that naturally flows into baseball and other performances. All desire, so far as I can tell, is socially located and mediated, and expressions of desire in art forms like baseball require skills. Moreover, I am making no claim that I would have played better, though it is hard to believe that I could not have played a little better since I was as bad as I was. But I would have played differently. My love of the game would not have been so consumed in extrinsic efforts to prove my manhood or to be a winner. Winning would not be eliminated, but had I enjoyed the dance more, the end of the ball would have taken a different turn.

In speaking this way, I do not mean to suggest that this is something I never experienced. I remember coming in to relieve a game in the old Northeast League, a semi-pro group of town teams along the Merrimack River in Massachusetts. That afternoon is luminous in my memory. We were playing Newburyport, the best hitting team in the league. But that afternoon the strike zone was as big as a barn door. I could pitch down and in, out and away, up and in, and waste a pitch off the corner. The fastball jumped and the curveball broke like a darting dragonfly. I was in that zone where you don't think about your manhood or winning. There is only you and the ball and the catcher. The batter is almost insignificant to the action. Your windup is like some pirouette in slow motion, and your skin, muscle, and bone are connected to reality. You can feel the ball like some extension of your hand, except that your hand participates in some larger ecology, some enormous capsule that envelopes you and everything around you. At times the field seems to be only some surface resting in some infinite void of things, an emptiness filled with the trace of balls flying through space, of bats swinging, players running, and of the graceful beauty of the human body doing something well. You don't wonder where the pitch will go. It is flying along some mystic plane moving to a destiny undeterred by finitude or self-doubt. You become the beneficiary of some seemingly inexhaustible flow of energy. This is no longer war; this is aesthetics. This is no longer willed determination; this is desire moving in the forms of life of baseball and ballet.

We lost. While I gave up a scratch single in the four or five innings I pitched and shut them out, their three-run lead, which I inherited, held up, as I remember. But that day the losing was irrelevant. I could have cared less. In the face of such ecstatic experience I did not give a damn. I know now that even failure on a canvas of such excess is part of a larger thing of beauty.

I have a half-dozen memories like that in forty-six seasons of playing ball. I know those moments "in the zone" don't last, and I don't for a minute think that all of sport can be like that, at least not for more than a fleeting time. What I do believe is that at other times I could have played ball on an entirely different basis than I did. I do not mean that I would have somehow overcome my limited skills, not that I could not improve, but that it would never be enough. Still, my skills were sufficient to play the game. I missed so much because I thought I had to dominate it in order to prove something finally external to baseball itself. I wish I had played out of my desire, aesthetically formed, rather than out of my will and determination shaped so thoroughly by commitments extrinsic to the game.

Comments like these have significance far beyond my personal experience alone. I am not the only person who played ball in these extrinsic ways or found such frustrations. As I grew older I had occasion to get to know and play with people who were professional baseball players, and a few big leaguers. I found experiences quite close to my own. One time a former major-league pitcher heard me give a lecture in which I talked of my frustrations with baseball. He said, "Tex, you need to understand that we all top out." He said that he played five years in the "Bigs" and that he felt very much the way I did. He said, "I just topped out a little later than you." The comment did not help, but it did remind me of something I have known a long time. Talk with deep honesty to a man who played ball in this country and he will tell you finally of his own sense of failure. There are those who boast of their talent and blame loss on teammates or circumstances, but in all my experience, if you get them into the closet of their athletic lives, you find self-blame. Even ol' Joe DiMaggio required as a condition of his appearance at an event that he be introduced as "baseball's greatest living player." If he really thought so, then why did he need it said? Somewhere in all that talent is the gutted, emasculated emptiness of what is arguably baseball's most graceful player.

10/23/2009 4:00:00 AM
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