All I Thought about was Baseball:|
Writings on a Canadian Pastime
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|Anthology with Bases Loaded
by Judith Fitzgerald
On or about October 20th, baseball's character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might, for an evening in Skydome paradise, and there saw that an umpire had refused to yield or that a questionable commissioner had forsaken his yield. The change was not sudden and definite like that.
No, the change simply made itself most acutely manifest that unforgettable Tuesday night when Devon White made the catch of his career and 51,813 eyewitnesses-in tandem with millions of global viewers-watched as wonky Bob Davidson made the call that ended the era of belief in fair-play bat and ball.
But don't take my word for it. Pick up a copy of the clunkily titled All I Thought about Was Baseball, flip to Roger Angell's "Catch", and doubt no more:
"White's catch came in the top of the fourth, when he ran extensively back in dead center field and, without breaking stride, sailed up onto the fence, where he gloved Dave Justice's drive just before smashing face first into the blue padding.. A triple play by all counts, and only the second one in Series history, except that umpire Bob Davidson blew the call. No-one doubts this-least of all Davidson himself, who made a handsome apology the next day, after he saw a taped rerun-but of course nothing can be done; we fans must wait with equal grace for the next Series triple play, which, by the rules of probability, will arrive in October of 2064."
We lifelong fans caught Davidson's handsome apology, dug down deep for acceptance, forgiveness, and grace; but we still hit the boards mourning the white-and-black fact forever scored on the wall of organized, sponsorized, and bastardized professional ball.
So much for those Majors. So much for their Hall of Fame. This Canadian pastime would never-could never-be the same. After that egregious fourth-inning spectacle, we lifers simply took a pass and metaphorically walked, en masse, in the direction of cleaner, greener-but no less leaner-minor pastures.
So, it comes as no surprise that William Humber and John St. James include the premier U.S. baseballist's piercing analysis, which pinpoints the end of everything aficionados hold sacred; however, whether consciously or not, the Angell's polite and measured indictment ironically echoes Jacques Barzun, America's other astute observer of diamond dynamics: it seamlessly sets up this judicious pronouncement, in the eighth chapter of God's Country and Mine, that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and realities of the game."
(Incidentally, Barzun's book appeared in 1954, the same year Willie Mays of the New York Giants made "The Catch", that now legendary over-the-shoulder eighth-inning snag that strangled the high hit hopes of the Cleveland Indians' first baseman, Vic Wertz.)
The compilers of this meaty collection of baseball prose, with its title cast in the past tense, take great pains to include a generous sampling of both the finest and the most flawed sport-specific writing this country currently offers (while, naturally, excluding a heaping plateful of our inexcludables: Martin Levin, John Bell, W. D. Valgardson, Douglas Glover, William Klebeck, John Craig, Trent Frayne, and Stan Michna among them).
Ballites will welcome the convenience of a big-sweep compendium that includes "The Pitcher", Hugh Hood's errorless 1962 allegory, Laura Robinson's "When I Played at Sunnyside, I Thought I'd Died and Gone to Heaven", and Marshall McLuhan's sagacious 1952 exegesis, "Baseball Is Culture", back-to-back with Paul Quarrington's enchanting word-wizardry in "The Magick of the Druids" and a reprint of Milt Dunnell's stunningly prescient Toronto Star column of March 15th, 1966, "One Man's Family Is His Fan Club".
Here, the universally revered sportswriter puts his inimitable spin on our singular National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (Cooperstown, N.Y.) inductee, Chatham's Ferguson Jenkins. Dunnell relays the answer the Philadelphia pitching-coach Cal McLish offers concerning the 6' 5" phenom's "chances":
"What I like about him is that he throws strikes. . Some scouts told me they didn't like his fastball. So I went down to Dallas one night and watched him work. He threw 52 fastballs before one was hit out of the infield. . I decided I liked it."
When all was set and run, Jenkins's seven 20-plus seasons and 284 wins with 3,192 strikeouts vs. 997 walks for the Cubbies indicate that neither scouts nor hitters ever really warmed up to Jenkins's letter-high smokers.
In its 352 pages, the editors artfully touch upon almost every Canadian claim, aspect, and sign of baseball's enduring presence and importance to our citizens. William Humber recounts his humbling and poignant experiences as a coaching assistant whose two sons form part of his little-league artillery for the Bowmanville Glass and Mirror Squad, to delightfully timeless effect.
By way of a warm-up, he gamely points out that "over 300,000 children were registered in baseball leagues in Canada and perhaps ten times as many people played slow pitch, softball, and T-ball in settings ranging from company picnics to local tournaments" in 1993.
Many of the entries, in fact, address and convey a sense of Canadiana while comprehensively covering the geographical, historical, sociological, and economic bases of our Adopted Son of the Run (which, despite the best efforts-if not interests-of our American neighbours, will never usurp Hockey's numero-uno place in this nation's collective psyche).
In their introduction to the fifty-six fully loaded fictional and factual accounts (not counting appendices), Humber and St. James pitch the position that "Canadians know it is our regionalism, our pride of place beyond the fast-food hangout, that distinguishes us as a people. We don't need to travel to foreign places to see what is already in our neighbourhood. All we want is something different, but not threatening. Baseball in Canada is such a place for both locals and visitors searching for the just-off-centre exotic."
Further, in "Colonialism, Civility, and the National Team", Mark Kingwell intrepidly pontificates on definitions of our "self-image" and "self-understanding" as colonially driven "slaves" to our Southern master in terms of our continental context, borrows a Hegelian model to support his hypotheses, and concludes that we distance ourselves from non-Canadians by several degrees of politeness, while seriously suggesting that this qualitative attribute constitutes "a cultural property" worthy of investigation:
"The celebrated Canadian politeness, a politeness that looks at first blush like a form of weak submission, is in fact this kind of subversive response to imperial domination. Whether or not we believe in our responses, they treat insult in a particularly effective way. By setting a high standard of behaviour, we implicitly call attention to deficiencies of behaviour in others."
Had Freud taken an interest in investigating our philosophically designated "subversive responses", he would have dismissed what the University of Toronto professor considers "tactics" and "strategy"-in terms borrowed from Sun Tzu's Art of War -as a national pathological disorder, passive-aggressive division, and suggested appropriate therapies to temper precisely this pervasive and accursed psychic affliction.
Unlike yours truly, Freud would probably not have stooped to considering such myopic attempts at national-consciousness characterization, definition, and assassination as a simple case of base-ballyhooism.
Certainly, most ballophiles know Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run at Toronto's Hanlan's Point, that the first game of organized baseball occurred in Ontario's Zorra Township in 1838, and, key to an understanding of the shame of the professional game, Canada paid for Toronto's World Series Wins with concurrent losses in the "nation" column (courtesy of a pair of devastating lame-duck trade agreements).
Perhaps that explains why, of all the non-fictional accounts in this book, Stephen Brunt's incisive "1994: Breaking the Heart of the Game" hits closest to home, distinguishes itself as one of the outstanding entries in the field, and hearkens back to the sportswriter Milton Gross's response to a rookie writer asking the master about the heart of the baseball matter: "Kid, when you've been in the game as long as I have," he confided, "you'll learn there is no heart."
Brunt scrutinizes the upsy-turvy effect 1994's strike-bound season had on the Montreal Expos and the team's battered and shattered fans, in stylishly poised phrases that effortlessly mesh with the double-bind mystery inherent in the now-rhetorical question:
Would the 'Spos, "in first place with the best record in baseball," have gone on to lift "the pall of broken promises" under which the club perennially labours?
This seasoned, tenacious, and persuasive journalist leads off with a compelling inquiry into why, in his well-chosen words, "it has become so difficult to suspend disbelief" in the game's alleged pristine practices and values:
"Long ago, when it secured its anti-trust exemption in return for a pledge of moral purity, major-league baseball was declared a pastime by the United States Congress-a recreation, and not just another business. Who can pretend that's now the case? With eight work stoppages in the last 22 years, this latest strike wasn't a novel experience."
By the time he closes his investigative case and winds up for the grand finale, readers find themselves on their feet, collectively cheering for Bulldog Brunt.
Equally notable is Brenda Zeman's dignified fictionalized account of the barnstormer Jimmy Rattlesnake (1909-1972), "The Smilin' Rattler", an edited reprint that made its unabridged début in 1988's To Run with Longboat: Twelve Stories of Indian Athletes in Canada and, despite its clipped pace, still sparkles in an anthologized setting.
Entries from Morley Callaghan ("Fast and Loose"), Mordecai Richler ("Up from the Minors in Montreal"), Robert Fontaine ("God Hit a Home Run"), W. P. Kinsella ("Eggs"), and Roger Lemelin ("Three Cheers for Monsieur Folbèche") round out the stellar fiction roster and compactly complement Jane Gross's thoughtful observations on the ex-Expo Bill Lee's philosophy vis-à-vis competition, retribution, and spontaneity, alongside Barry Broadfoot's "There Was Always the Baseball", an uncluttered and achingly spare recollection of ball and game on the prairies during the Depression.
Of course, no respectable anthology of baseballia could even begin to consider itself complete without the appearance of George Bowering, Vancouver's ubiquitous Sultan of Scintillation, among the assembled aggregation. This time out, an excerpt from 1987's Caprice, "A Rifle in Deep Centre", foots the bill and salaciously walks all over the competition:
"But here she was, a poet, with a schoolteacher's left leg lying under her long right leg. She turned her head and took his left nipple in her mouth and gave it a slightly more than tender bite.
" `When are you supposed to be at the ballpark?' she asked.
" `Right now,' he said.
" `Are you supposed to do this before a match?'
" `Game. A game.'
" `Ah oui, un game.'
" `No, I am not supposed to do this for twelve hours before a game.'
" `Now that you have broken the rule, what do you think about doing it one more time before you go to the game?'
"He knew she was kidding. He thought she was kidding. She was probably kidding. He would get up in a few seconds and go. A minute or two more. Just kiss her body a few times, and then go and play ball."
Humber and St. James set their sights high; however, given the scope and range of the field, the pair deftly manages to offer readers an infinitely respectable gathering of some of the game's most valued visionaries, names, and voices ad mare usque ad mare, luckily for us.