Mary Helen at Yankee Stadium.
I’ve been watching a lot of baseball lately—these past few seasons, I mean. I’m not sure why. I don’t root for a particular team, although I have my favorite players. Not that I need a fancy reason to enjoy the Great American Pastime. But why did I spend most of my life feeling that professional baseball was the most boring of spectator sports—well, the second most, after golf—whereas now I find every pitch—every pitch—absolutely gripping?
“Did you say ‘gripping’?” my sister-in-law asked me recently.
“Yes!” I said. She said, “Hunh.”
Some of it has to do with camera angles. You don’t have to be a Phillies fan to appreciate a close-up of Cliff Lee’s Gary-Cooperesque face while he squints with fierce determination from the pitcher’s mound, and you don’t have to know the Cubs from the White Sox (believe me) to feel your heart go out to young Starlin Castro biting his lip at the plate (before he smashes one out of the park). As currently televised—whether at home or on the giant video screens at the ballparks—baseball offers more convincing emotion, play by play, than reruns of the original Law and Order.
It’s the ultimate reality TV. These guys are intense. They’re not play-acting. You can tell by the way they chew and spit and adjust their underwear in public. And consider the umpires. Would they straighten their Frankenstein shoulders and stand by their most outrageous calls if they had a chance to do another take? When they get it wrong, there’s nothing they or anyone else can do about it. The damage is done.
They’re like book reviewers that way.
In one sense, baseball and I go way back. At St. Veronica’s Grade School in Milwaukee, our principal, a stately nun of the Order of St. Francis, was an ardent fan of the Milwaukee Braves. (I did say “way back.”) Thanks to Sister Ignatius, O.S.F., we heard the Braves beat the Yankees over the school’s public address system in 1957, 50 of us first graders sitting in long, straight rows of desks that must have looked about as infinite as any first-base line to the poor teacher up front. We even watched a World Series game one time, on a television usually reserved for our weekly dose of Sister Tomasita’s “Let’s Make Art!” which came to us live from Cardinal Stritch College on the other side of town.
Our school was near the airport. The nuns took every opportunity to march us up to Howell Avenue, where we waved at motorcades of notables on their way downtown from General Mitchell Field. Even if I’m not quite sure that I remember the convertibles full of World Champion Milwaukee Braves rolling past in 1957, I was there, a first grader on tiptoe at the curb, waving with a host of others at Henry Aaron and Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn.
An experience like that probably marks a person for life, whether she knows it or not. We’re talking about a little girl who spent her formative years thinking that the last line in the national anthem went “O’er the land of the free and the home of the Braves.” Why else did they sing it at baseball games?
All of that went underground for me when the Braves left Milwaukee. I hardly noticed the arrival of the Brewers in—well, I’d have to look up the date. I might not have noticed them at all if it hadn’t been for George Webb restaurants changing the signs that used to predict the Milwaukee Braves would win 12 straight in whatever season was currently in progress. It was the Milwaukee Brewers who finally made George Webb’s home team prediction come true, resulting in an all-day give-away of mini-burgers, but that was after I left Milwaukee for Iowa in 1982. The Brewers made the World Series that fall. I didn’t watch a single game.
Others have written more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could about the many analogies to be drawn between baseball—with its emphasis on coming home and how hard it can be to get there—and life, so I won’t spend my word count there. I’m just trying to figure out why it suddenly means so much to me that Cliff Lee pitched ten strikeouts in the first game of the 2009 World Series, that he allowed the Yankees no earned runs in the whole game, and that, when one of them managed to hit a line drive straight at the pitcher’s mound, Lee spun around and caught that ball behind his back.
Why do I pity anyone who missed the 2011 Series game in which the Cardinals got to the point of what would have been their last strike-out twice—and then went on to win in the 11th inning with a walk-off homer by St. Louis homeboy David Freese?
In A Great and Glorious Game, A. Bartlett Giamatti reminds us that in baseball, time doesn’t matter. I used to hold that against the game, but no more. The last time I was at Yankee Stadium, I could hardly believe my good fortune when the 9th inning ended at 0-0, as did the 10th. This year, I happily watched the last seven innings of a 16-inning opener between the Indians and the Blue Jays. Even a nine-inning game can be stretched out by fouls and walks and singles. I love the way the count can be 3 and 2, with two outs, bases loaded (or not), and still the at-bat can go on and on—“Way to get a piece of it!”—forever.
Does it have to do with getting, as they say, older? Is that why scoreless innings that would have made me fidget as a kid now keep me at the edge of my seat? Or am I drawn to the impossible odds of the batter stepping up to the plate, one guy against nine, taking his stance while everyone thinks: Hunh, let’s see what you can do. And if the batter’s box is a lonely spot, how much lonelier is the pitcher’s mound? Sure, the pitcher’s got his team in the field behind him and the catcher signaling him from up front, but nobody’s looking at the catcher or the fielders. All eyes are on the pitcher, the game suspended like a breath until he throws a ball or a strike, or maybe allows a hit that makes the whole field spring into action like a pinball machine. In the stands, crowds big enough to populate small cities leap as one to their feet.
Back in May, I heard a sportscaster talking about Albert Pujols, who’s hitting—or not hitting, at least back in May—for the Angels this year, instead of St. Louis. The announcer said Pujols was looking at where we were in the season and asking himself if he still had time to come up with the numbers. (As it turns out, he did.)
I often ask myself if I still have time to come up with the numbers. Being a writer, I’m looking for pages, rather than homeruns, but it just goes to show that we have something in common, Pujols and I. That, and our love of a game where time doesn’t matter.
Plus, our salaries.
I mean, we both get one.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.