Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A GAME TO BE LOVED

It is about the time of year that Reamus delivers his yearly disquisition on the joys and vicissitudes of Spring Training. I am going, it is late this year, and having come across this article I could not help but put it here since it says more about the love of a game than any philosophical waxing that I could do about the new and wrongful uses of instant replay in a game that started as described here and one perhaps wishes resembled this a bit more.
For these young and old on Long Island, I hope the cry of “Game On!” will be carried forward for many more generations by them and their ilk that understand the baseball, as life, is a human endeavor, beset and made more fractious by its need for order and rules, but somehow all the more fanatically fun because of them .

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

      

Yearning for the Fields of Summer


By DAVID VECSEY

Something strange appeared in front of my house recently: a little patch of grass and dirt, peeking out from the icy crust that has enveloped Long Island for most of the past two months. A sign of life. On the news, I caught glimpses of David Wright making those loose, easy first throws of training camp. George Harrison’s voice filled my head.

The emails should start coming any week now. As soon as the blades of grass outnumber the snowflakes, somebody is going to try to get our Sunday softball game up and running. It took about 60 inches of snow to finally put the game down for the winter, after some of the boys tried to keep playing even after temperatures started dipping into the 30s.
“Game on!” the subject lines would say, sometimes in all caps, sometimes with multiple exclamation points. “It’s going to be clear and in the 40s! Who’s in for softball on Sunday?”
At 40 degrees, I was most certainly not in for softball. I can just imagine the sound of my rotator cuff tearing on a frosty December morning, like a frozen branch snapping off a tree.

So I didn’t respond, even as enthusiastic replies flooded my inbox. Almost enough for a full game.
“C’mon guys, its big-boy time,” the next email said. It was from George. “Drag yourselves down to the field like the beer-swilling, [expletive], football-watching, [expletive], meat-eating, hammer-swinging men that we are.”
More emails followed. They urged and implored, cajoled and castigated. To not want to play softball, they reminded us, was to call into question our masculinity, our patriotism, our belief system and moral code. I was fine with that.
I have been struck by the direct genetic relationship between our weekly softball doubleheader and the antebellum game of town ball. It was named, at least in part, because a game was most likely to spring up when all the outliers had occasion to venture into town — for the Fourth of July, say, or Election Day. Tied into such events, the game was inherently nationalistic, even without the bump from the born-in-America myths. It was an organic happening, a reaffirming of community, when friends and neighbors bonded through the shared experience of physical game play. Toward the middle of the century, clubs were formed for men to play town ball or the modified “base-ball” — mostly as intramural affairs but eventually expanding to include interclub challenges.
From March to December (generally), our group performs the same kind of ritualistic gathering every Sunday morning at an elementary school ball field in Port Washington. Players drive in from all over Long Island — from Syosset and Massapequa and, in George’s case, from Mastic, a little more than an hour away. Some have been playing the game for decades; some watched their fathers play. At 44, I’m somewhere in the middle of our age curve. We have contractors and mechanics, cardiologists and dentists, graphic designers, bankers and lawyers. Try arguing the infield-fly rule with a lawyer.
It is a self-governed game, with teams divided into comparable sides and playing by an amalgam of baseball, softball and schoolyard rules. Disputes arise. The strike zone is something of a free-form abstraction. And we have a fouling-out rule that is a bottomless wellspring of constitutional-style debate.
The peace is kept in large part by our de facto commissioner, Mark, who puts his skills as a legal marketing executive to good use. He’s just one of our characters. Jarrod — J-Rod — is the dispenser of nicknames as well as some of the vilest infield banter ever heard; Hugh dives headfirst for every fly ball and into every base; Spence sprinkles outfield chatter with Yiddish; and Rich — Tino — is a pull-hitting left-handed first baseman with the demeanor of an oversize puppy (shake a ball and throw it, and he’ll run after it).

Then there is George.
George drove tanks in the Army; now George is a tank, a regular Old Hoss Radbourn, pitching for both teams in both games when we are short players. He swings a wood bat, and he has the Yankees logo and Thurman Munson’s No. 15 tattooed on his arm. Every week he takes line drives to the arms, thighs and belly. He proudly displays his hideous bruises, gimps around the mound and keeps pitching.
Gruff as he appears, George is the consummate town ball gentleman, tirelessly serving up hittable pitches. He pitches me low and away, where I like it, but he’ll happily go high and inside to Chris, a savage tomahawker who petitions to play more innings every week. Chris would have loved town ball, with games sometimes played to 100 runs.
In those formative years, winning was not the presiding objective. More so, the men were there to compete, to bond in a healthful, upstanding manner. For professional men in the urban centers, it became a valued source of clean, wholesome recreation. For us, their descendants, it may not always be that. But it’s as close as it gets.
Certainly we play to win, but that’s not why we play. We play to make that one backhanded stab deep in the hole or to rip that one double into the gap — or even just to land that one good zinger and draw a laugh. It doesn't matter if it’s schoolyard softball . It is a universal and archetypal experience.
This has been a long, cold, lonely winter. The ice is slowly melting. I know the boys are eager to play ball. I am, too. And every day that patch of grass sprouting out of the ice becomes a little bit larger.

I hope you enjoyed what you could of this brutal winter and that the green is beginning to poke through the snow where you are as well. Stay well and in touch. I will no doubt have opinions of the quality of play  and the abilities of those who do it when I return .

I am certain only that it will be no more fun than softball on Long Island this year.

Editors  note: Reprinted with slight editorial changes from the New York Times Opinion Section, March 1, 2014, with thanks to the author.

2 comments:

  1. Great article! I enjoyed it immensely. And I'm looking forward to your own deathless prose once more.

    ReplyDelete