Baseball Letters (1996)by Seth Swirsky
Major-league baseball has still not fully recovered from the strike eight years ago (it didn't help my writing career any, either), yet once again the limos are lining up to whisk away the game's multimillionaires to whatever private paradise they inhabit during the three months they're not being paid millions of dollars to have fun.
When the minds of ballplayers are not occupied with the woeful unfairness of their lot in life, I don't know what they're thinking about, some of these guys, because it's sure not the game. Sloppy playing is common, unlike in the days when competition for positions on only sixteen major-league teams tended to weed out players deficient on the fundamentals, or just mentally deficient. Coaches yell at toddlers in tee-ball for the kinds of bonehead errors these guys are getting fat salaries not to commit. I just watched the Cubs end up with two baserunners on third. After the play, as the goofball who forced the other runner to be put out stood there dumbfounded on third, you could easily read his lips asking the base coach, "Wha-happent?" I'll tell you what happened, bucko: you had your head up your butt instead of in the game, is what happened. I realize it's the Cubs we're talking about here, but still.
Hey, I heard that. You just said "Who cares?" out loud. Don't you lie.
Yes, admittedly, there is a lot not to care about when it comes to both professional and scholastic sports. There is no question that too much attention and too many dollars are paid to both.
Some people, however, practically boast about their lack of interest in sports, as if that deficiency were a jewel of character or mark of intelligence, rather than (as it usually is) a reaction to not having excelled at or at least enjoyed playing any sport themselves. (It's interesting that people who cannot sing -- those who admit they can't, anyway -- usually do not let that prevent them from enjoying the singing of others, yet a lack of athletic ability often engenders a tenacious bitterness.)
Whatever the cause of the lack, it is important to acknowledge it as a lack, for there is a good reason that athletic contests have always attracted interest, all the way back to the Greeks (who invented the Olympics) and beyond.
There is, of course, the lower type of interest in sports, the "bread and circuses" deplored by Juvenal and the wiser of the ancient Romans, who recognized the Roman obsession with games and spectacle as a sign of idleness and weakness of character. This is probably the most common sort of sports interest today, sometimes known by the technical term, football (whether American football or that street thug training course the rest of the world calls football).
No, just kidding. All you football fans put down your switchblades and stop swinging those chains. This lower sort of interest is not limited to any one sport. It is the consumerist interest in sports, and all sports partake of it because -- as in all human endeavor -- even in the midst of strength, human weakness will have its say, and its voice is loud. Damned loud, in fact.
There is also, however, a higher sporting interest.
It was true even before Darwin discovered it and turned it into a truism: all of life is striving, and always has been. Human beings strive, self-consciously, to achieve goals. It's why so much of our time is taken up by our interest in stories -- we want to see how things turn out, to know whether the characters achieve the goal or goals set out by the story. We're all interested in outcomes. That's why we don't like to miss the ends of movies and television shows, and partly why we watch them in the first place. It's why even those of us who heap mean-spirited abuse on reality shows end up watching some of them anyway.
Stories interest us because we're interested in what human beings do and become and in what human beings can do and become. Humans have always been fascinated by contemplating all possibilities, which is one reason that freak shows were as universally popular as they were (some would say are -- which brings us back to reality shows, but we're supposed to be talking about sports here.)
In contrast to real life, the goals of sport are clearly recognized, understood, and agreed upon by both participants and spectators, and the scope for their achievement is strictly limited. We know at the outset that we will see whether the individual or team will achieve the goals the game sets out for them. Sport, at its best, is a kind of story, and is best appreciated as story.
Even as animals play, as a means of equipping themselves for their lives, sport, given its proper sphere, teaches humans valuable principles about their existence. Animals play less and less the older they get; they have learned the lessons of play and are too taken up with the business of existence for which play helped prepare them. Most human beings also play less the older they get but, unlike animals, we humans, with our love of story, continue to take a strong interest in adult forms of play.
Ultimately, however, our interest (probably, in this case, of the bread and circuses sort) has led to millionaire baseball players repeatedly striking for more money. A strike in professional sports can be a good thing if it weans people from an overarching fixation with what should be, and once was, a pastime, a game to be enjoyed intelligently, not obsessively.
Which brings us (finally) to the book in question.
One good thing, at least, came of the '94 strike: Seth Swirsky's Baseball Letters. Swirsky relieved his strike-induced boredom by thinking back to a different era in baseball. He wrote to baseball players of the past to ask them things he'd always wondered about. He didn't go the obvious route and send dull questions to the usual Hall of Famers. Instead, he asked some unusual questions and wrote mostly lesser-known players, such as Warren Peace (one of my favorite baseball names, right up there with Urban Shocker, Yankee pitcher of the teens and twenties), Bob Stevens (who wrote, "In my day (1927-1934) baseball underwent a big change. Night baseball crept in slowly. The lights were terrible in the beginning. Nothing, really, can take the place of the sun."), and former catcher Hobie Landrith, who was asked about a promotion where he was supposed to catch a baseball dropped 575 feet from a helicopter (no easy thing to do -- the first ball was missed and buried itself six inches into the field). "I had a bet of free cokes with my team mates that I would touch one of the three attempts," Landrith writes. "It felt like a sledge hammer hitting my mitt. It was fun."
Baseball fans, more than fans of other sports, are said to be stats-crazy, but they have also always been fascinated by the unusual. They won't be disappointed by Swirsky's book, which includes:
Ballplayers would do well to return to the attitude encapsulated in a question Swirsky asked of former Dodger pitcher Claude Osteen:
"Were you ever standing on the mound, on a beautiful day, and just say to yourself -- this is amazing!?"
Note: Please do not write demanding to know what a prank involving live bats teaches us about the human condition.