Friday, May 13, 2011

Baseball and books

It was one of the best kinds of afternoons - hours spent browsing through book stores followed by a wonderful late lunch at a favorite restaurant. All with my favorite person.

It's one of those pleasures that may be fading away in the future as book stores struggle to stay open in the age of Internet book buying. But today at least we still found a couple of them open and full of books. Full of books that I just had to have.

I had a mental list of books that I wanted for my "to be read" list and I found several of them, but then I found another book that I didn't know I wanted until I picked it up. It was Good Poems, American Places selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor.

I picked it up and the book fell open to this poem:

Baseball
by John Updike

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop's wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball's
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It's easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody's right,
beginning with baseball.


Reading that poem, I knew I had to have that book.

My poor Houston Astros are suffering through a very forgettable season so far. They have the worst record in the National League. They are mostly young and inexperienced, in their first or second year in the big leagues. Sometimes their games are painful to watch as they fail to catch "that small black dot a city block or more high" in the outfield or they "whiff on a terrible pitch." It happens all too often.

But then there are a few games where things go right and give promise of a brighter future. Games where Hunter Pence hits a double in the ninth inning to knock in the winning run in a tied game or Bud Norris strikes out batter after batter and looks completely unhittable. "Ya gotta believe!" is the cry of the true baseball fan and you've got to believe there will be more games like that.

But even if there aren't, there's still baseball, the poetry of the game itself and a game about which it is possible to write true poetry, thus combining two of the great passions of my life - baseball and books.

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