By Jim Miller
Baseball season is here again and with it comes one of the last times in my only son’s fleeting childhood that I have the opportunity to help coach his team. This brings much joy and more suffering because, as we all know, most of the game involves failure.
When you watch young people pitch, they throw balls more often than not. And when they try to hit, they strike out a lot. It’s a house of pain.
So you spend a great deal of your time telling them to keep their heads up and to stay in it. Indeed, the game is hard enough that, for lots of our young people bent on more immediate gratification, the patience and work it takes to get better is too much for them.
Instead, they move on to easier pursuits where they can get lost in the crowd rather than stand alone at the plate or at their position with everything on their shoulders for those few precious seconds.
It’s moments like those, when the challenge to execute, to fulfill one’s task is so starkly exhibited, that have led many to think of baseball as a metaphor for life. But, as poet Gail Mazur tells us in “Baseball,” “The game of baseball is not a metaphor/and I know it’s not really life.” Nonetheless, it invites us to ponder “the terrible slumps” and ask,
the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves.
We know this because we are certain that “This is not a microcosm/not even a slice of life.” In fact, “The ballpark is an artifact/manicured, safe, ‘scene in an Easter egg’,/and the order of the ball game,/the firm structure with the mystery/of accidents always contained” is quite different than “the wild fields we wander in” that comprise real life.
But still, the effort to make poetry with action born from stillness suggests the possibility that we can emerge from the chaos and seeming meaninglessness of life and find the sublime refuge of grace under pressure. Perhaps that is why we try to teach our kids to fish in an ocean of failure for that one time when they can get it right. To fulfill a function, any function, properly is the root of the excellence and virtue that usually eludes us.
Even just watching the pursuit of it does something for us.
Sometimes it is that, as John Updike observes in “Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers”:
“Distance brings proportion from here/the populated tiers” where,
The thought of death is peppermint to you
when games begin with patriotic song
and a democratic sun beats broadly down.
The Inner Journey seems unjudgeably long
when small boys purchase cups of ice and, distant as a paradise,
and, distant as a paradise,
experts, passionate and deft,
hold motionless while Berra flies to left.
What does baseball do? Nothing but the thing itself. That’s why William Carlos Williams observed of the crowd at the ballgame that it is “a spirit of uselessness that delights them.”
In uselessness comes play and art and beauty and the gorgeous illusion that we can, in the too-short time we all have before death, steal a few moments of self-imposed order where we make it all right.
That’s why you stay solid and keep your head up. You stay in the game. Maybe you’ll redeem yourself and beat the odds for once in your life.