September 26, 2021

How Does It Feel?

September 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“Numbers merely describe the surface of baseball . . . No incisive statistical pocketknife, wielded however skillfully, can dissect and reveal the heart of baseball to the serious souls who study the game.”

David Baldwin, Snake Jazz

For the past few months I’ve been studying baseball and reading its literature almost exclusively, at the expense of all the other fine books that are calling to be enjoyed.   Sometimes I feel sad that I’ll never understand everything about this game (as I’ve already lamented in an earlier post).   There’s just not enough time in one lifetime to know it.  The subject is too vast, the writers too many.

The sheer volume of baseball books is overwhelming.  Just ask my blogger friends, who write reviews on a regular basis.  You could become a doctor of philosophy and still not have read the entire repertoire that includes histories, biographies, essays, fiction, creative nonfiction, sabermetrics, the sports pages, lyric and narrative poetry, autobiography, and memoir.   Not to mention the day’s news and stats unfolding at a rapid clip even as I write this.

Every author, like every fan, has his or her angle on the game,  Through words we attempt to access baseball, know it more intimately, get at the heart and truth of it.    Our work is fundamentally not so different from fans who actively seek autographs, wear vintage uniforms, stumble over others when lunging for foul balls, and share countless unsolicited memories (“I saw Lowe’s no-hitter at Fenway” …  “I met Bob Feller HoF ’62 in Winter Haven”) – as if such experiences link us to greatness; as if these connections endow our own underwhelming lives with a little more importance, which in fact they do.   We touch it or write it in order to make it real.   “I was there.”   “I shook her hand.”   “I wrote his story.”

The library of baseball literature is a formidable and intimidating place.  My goodness, like the game itself, it’s a huge industry.   Mind-boggling.  Here’s a list of just a few works I’ve enjoyed this summer, in no particular order:

  • Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man
  • Barbara Gregorich, Women at Play
  • Robert Creamer, Babe
  • Edward Achorn, Fifty-Nine in ’84
  • Stephen King, Blockade Billy
  • Martha Ackmann, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone
  • Josh Wilker, Cardboard Gods
  • Baseball Prospectus (stats plus stories)
  • Dorothy Seymour Mills, Chasing Baseball
  • The Baseball Research Journal (SABR)
  • Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball
  • S. L. Price, Heart of the Game
  • Kevin Kerrane, Dollar Sign on the Muscle
  • Hank Aaron, I Had a Hammer
  • John Underwood, It’s Only Me:  The Ted Williams We Hardly Knew

Worthy subjects, wonderful stories, so many of them masterfully told.    My mind is hungry for this stuff, my heart too.

Authors accumulate prodigious amounts of evidence, their stories meticulously researched and lovingly crafted, as they seek to do justice to their subjects and bring baseball to life for the rest of us.   We come to know the “truth” of a ballplayer’s existence, including flaws of character and redemptive strengths.

The artful telling of a baseball story often dignifies the raw material of human life.   Baseball authors can be Prosperos who turn Calibans into Apollo-like legends.   Men who chew and spit and live recklessly on the road become aggrandized and mythologized through the magic of the printed word.  The subjects are great men and women by many measures, yet like Caliban, they “suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (The Tempest, I,ii,565), the real truth of a life remaining somewhat elusive, never completely accessible.

We measure individual performance in words, numbers, and dollars in an effort to reach the game’s soul.  Baseball careers are thoroughly analyzed, assessed and interpreted;  yet  even upon reading or hearing the most complete analyses and narratives, we remain one step removed from reality.

How refreshing, then, to come upon a ballplayer who writes his own story and does it well.     No ghost writer; no co-author; no tell-all celebrity gossip. How refreshing to have a comprehensive, first-hand account.  The game itself.   The man himself.   The player who played for real, who knew it in the truest ways it can  be known.  No intermediary through whom we view one life’s complexities.    Lots of former players tell their stories, of course, but the really good ones don’t come along often.

Snake Jazz is the sustained and compelling story of one man’s experience in the game. The  somewhat discursive narrative is beautifully paced, beginning with the early years when a quiet only child – a relatively shy young lad named David Baldwin – threw day in and day out to  a home-made box in the Arizona desert, as if there were nothing in life he would rather do.

Baldwin takes his time reliving the journey, giving generous and equal amounts of attention to  every stage of his baseball life.  He entertains the reader with the childhood pickup games we’ve all played, including the pointless arguing that often precedes those games, especially when boys are playing.  (I know it well, I used to hear those amusing conversations outside my study every single evening in spring, wondering why in the world they spent so much time arguing.)

The author seems in no particular hurry to rush us to the big leagues, because that wasn’t his experience either.  The imagery of childhood is important:  makeshift fields, dust in the eyes, the hazards of cactus and rattlesnake, the dogs who took to the outfield for lack of human players,  and the girls known as “pigtails” who served “honorably” as backstops.

How does it feel?

That’s the question reporters always seem to ask first, whether it’s LLWS, CWS, ALCS, or a walk-off win on any field.   As if a ballplayer actually wants to talk about his feelings moments after finishing the game.  As if emotions spoken into a microphone are the ultimate significance in a game that’s mostly about numbers.    Wow, I don’t know what to say, this so awesome.  O man, it’s unreal.  Unbelievable.  A dream come true.

How does it feel to work your way up, slowly and methodically, suffering set-backs and injuries, demotions and releases and trades; making adjustments and profound changes in your delivery and in your personal life?   How does it feel?

Here’s a book that gives you a clear sense of how things feel.  Not in that emotional sound bit kind of way that microphones want to hear, but in the equally important tactile meaning of the word.  Touch.  The physical feel of the ball and the physics of the game – whether he’s throwing a slider or a looping curve or some other snake jazz, using an overhand or sidearm or submarine delivery.  For example, Dave tells us that as a child, he discovered that a lacrosse ball had a better  “coefficient of restitution” (19) – or “bounciness” – when it came to throwing against the backboard.

How does it feel to be a ballplayer?  Start by learning the geography of the ball.   If you’re a pitcher, you come to know “the texture of the great gently rounded white plains and the narrow hourglass isthmuses lying between the red striated hills of seams” (196).  The feel of a ball is something an experienced pitcher knows acutely:  “He could recognize rough, overstretched skin where the ball had once been damp.  He could detect seams that were defectively flat or pleasantly high.  These tactile faculties were cultivated through hours spent stroking the ball like a seasoned gigolo – knowing every curve, crest, and cue”  (197).

How does it feel?  Let’s go a little further inward:   “Bad luck feels like failure as much as good luck feels like success” (80).

Success on a championship high school team (Tucson, Arizona).   Two devastating losses in the College World Series (vs two formidable rivals, Texas and Oklahoma State).  Whether the venue be Omaha or Tulsa, northern Mexico or Niagara Falls, we experience success and bad luck, victories, setbacks, promotions, releases, temporary homes, adjustments, six bumpy years followed by ten much smoother years.   The geographical sweep of Baldwin’s baseball life often seems erratic and nomadic:  Williamsport,  Buffalo, Chattanooga, Dallas, Durham, Burlington, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Portland, Milwaukee, Iowa, Chicago.    It’s not until page 233 that the former pitcher describes his first experiences in the big leagues, at which point the pronouns change noticeably from “I” to “we.”  (I counted “we” eight times in ten lines of prose.)

We encounter significant individuals at every level of the game, including Don Larsen (whom Baldwin defeated in 11 innings), Ted Williams in all his profane splendor, Chicken Lady and Cake Lady, various pranksters from minor league ball, and the ever impressive Gil Hodges, who “could work miracles with a team of limited ability” (234).   This is something you already know if you followed the Mets in ’68 and ’69, as I did.   “I have never known another manager to plan his strategies so thoroughly”  (235).    Naturally.  Hodges was, of course, a Brooklyn Dodger and a Marine.

Don’t expect to hear too many swears in Snake Jazz, if that’s what you like (except when Ted Williams makes his appearance, and then you’ll likely enjoy the lilting rhythm of numerous bleeps).  Don’t expect sordid gossip.  The author displays a gentlemanly reticence about players’ private lives (including his own), the more personal territory where fans don’t routinely belong anyway.

Baldwin includes some worthy names that may no longer be familiar – Dennis Ribant, for example, the RHP (5′ 11″  165)  who signed my fourth-grade autograph book at Shea Stadium a long time ago, making my heart go aflutter when he penned his nickname: “Den.”  How sweet it was to encounter him again, viewed through the eyes of a fellow player.

With its impressive blend of dry wit and self-deprecating humor, wise insights and solid numbers, Snake Jazz is no facile exercise in self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement.   While implicitly addressing the meaning of greatness, Dave Baldwin questions common assumptions about “talent,” quietly arguing that true achievement in baseball is as much a matter of “throwing at the box” as it is a fortuitous blessing of genetics, excellent eyesight, and “many mitochondria in the neurons”  (65).    Baldwin’s latter career as a geneticist is often manifested in his intelligent prose.

We have grown to expect greatness as a given.  I love greatness and heroism and characters of epic stature, especially in literature and in sports too, but who ever said a ballplayer has to be great?   I get a little tired of hearing men in chairs talk about greatness.    Of daily predictions of who’s going to make it into the Hall.  And who’s not.

What’s wrong with being good?   Whatever happened to being just plain good?   So-called greatness often comes at great expense – to others, to self.   Or so it seems to me.   Sometimes we lose sight of how hard it is to be good in this game of failure.

How does it feel?    It feels good to play baseball.  At times it feels downright terrible. Success feels like good luck.   Bad luck feels like failure.   How does it feel to get the call when it’s not the call you’ve been hoping for, not the news you wanted to hear?  Instead, you’re listening to an oft-sung refrain, and it doesn’t feel very good:   “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do ….”

I will never have enough time  to read all that’s been written about baseball.   Not in this lifetime.   But in what’s left of it,  I like a story that feels real.  I like a  player who is just plain  good, at times truly great.   Sometimes – not always – I like a story in which there’s  no intermediary.    No narrator except the one who lived that life.    The complete player.  The actual person.

How does it feel?    When you read Snake Jazz, you feel privileged.   You feel at every step of the way that you’re reading something real and good.   From the opening sentence to the summary of lifetime statistics at the end, it’s a complete and very satisfying story of one baseball life.     How does it feel?   It feels real.

Highly Recommended:

Dave Baldwin, Snake Jazz (XLibris, 2007)

Please click here to view Dave Baldwin’s artwork

(including Baseball Art and Shakespeare Series)

Judy Johnson has taught English literature at both the high school and college levels. She has three grown children, a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from Brown University, and an agented nonfiction manuscript called “Watching the Game: A Memoir of Family, Baseball and Friendship.”  You can find more of her work at her website, Watching the Game.

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