When Your Mind Cracks in Half, Play Ball!

Koufax Pitches to Mays—Can't We All Just Get Along?

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Now, F. Scott was probably too busy circling a gin rickey to elaborate precisely what he meant by the ability to function—did he mean the second-rate dualists would put their pants on their heads in the morning, or inadvertently make the sound of a bugle when they meant to ask to have the butter passed? Or did he mean some high-level functioning, such as a captain of industry perhaps being able to fire half his workforce at noon and discuss the hard plight of humankind at afternoon tea?

I ask this not in theory, but in fear. For here in central California, birds are freely speaking their morning minds, and bushes are bountifully budding. It’s the advent of spring, and with it, the ritual beginnings of the most cherished of contests—spring training. Now you might dismiss baseball with a lofty wave, sniff at the prancings of overpaid egotists acting out meaningless maneuvers in a silly sport. But it’s a sport with more than a century of history, its movements and moments have run parallel with the thread of our times, its iconic figures have embodied tragic folly and immortal fame. It’s that history that harkens to my confession, the source of my fear, the undoing of my second-rate intelligence: I am both a Dodgers and a Giants fan.

For those of you who are one or the other, you know my position is an abomination, a fish with wheels, a thing with no moral compass. Two ideas, forever opposed.

History with Heat
You see, the Dodgers and Giants have been feuding for more than 100 years, harkening back to their New York roots, where they vied for the hearts and wallets of National League fans, until both teams were transplanted to the West Coast in 1958. The teams have continued to revile each other since, and it’s been blood sport at times, such as when Juan Marichal took a swing with his bat at John Roseboro’s head, rather than the ball. Being from LA, my team allegiance held steady with the Dodgers, the Boys in Blue, the feisty teams of the 60s filling my dreaming head, with Tommy and Willie Davis, Maury Wills, Wes Parker, Don Drysdale, and the Titan among them all, the incomparable Sandy Koufax, the most dominant pitcher ever.

And yet. My favorite non-pitcher, the person I considered the best baseball player of all time? Willie Mays, a magic man, whose on-field “flow” was matchless, who performed every aspect of the game at magnificent levels, and who smiled while doing it. The only problem was that he was a Giant. And we Dodger fans hated the Giants. Thus, a crack in my intelligence. The crack deepened when I moved up to the Bay Area, and lost access to most of the Dodger broadcasts (those from the mouth of Vin Scully, as glowing in the booth as any of the greatest players on the field) in favor of Giants games. Now I’ve lived up here much longer than I lived down south and I’ve become that sports leper: a Dodger/Giant fan. I’m the thing that I’d suggest shooting years ago.

I’ll Take a Hot Dog with My Schizophrenia, Please
I still cherish my first love, but this is now the air I breathe. (Note that I’m not trying to excuse my disease, but just explain the origin of the condition.) F. Scott might say I’ve lost the ability to function.

For you non-baseball people, at least you don’t recognize just how loathsome I am. Aside from my schizophrenia prompted by these opposed ideas, it’s moving toward spring, and that’s a fine thing.

Play ball!

Microwaving Peeps, the Greenness of the Grass and a Writer’s Sunrise

It’s one of those cosmic confluences: It’s Easter Sunday, and it’s the opening day of baseball season. Because I am a lapsed Catholic, I tend to mix a dollop of the profane with the holy. The Catholic Church has had a very bad spring training, and has come out swinging, but to this point, its batting average is plummeting. On the holy side, the beginning of baseball season—despite swollen-headed steroidal savages, astronomical salaries, and the fact that they’ve never rescinded the Designated Hitter rule—is a time of promise, the greenness of spring, that singular sound of ball on bat, the anticipation of glory before inevitable (perhaps only temporary) disappointment that allegiance to any team will bring.

Even though it’s the Damn Yankees opening up the season (I can’t ever forgive what they regularly used to do to my Dodgers a thousand years ago), the first games of spring are fragrant with memory and with fresh promise. When I was a child, after my initial fascination with dinosaur books, baseball books became my solace. I read widely, from statistical gleanings of the Baseball Encyclopedia (proudly, the heaviest book I owned) to biographies (the tale of Jimmy Piersall’s madness, fascinating and frightening) to novels, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Natural, The Southpaw.

The Sweet Soulfulness of Baseball Writing
Baseball writing is a long, soaring, majestic fly ball better than other sports writing (see any of Roger Angell’s work), because it often reaches back to its long history, its heros before this era of taint, but also because so many us played the game, whether on the street where we were raised (yes, for me) to Little League (yes) to the slackness and beer-fed, bumpy infields of company softball leagues (yes). It’s hard not to imagine yourself up at the plate, waggling your rump and digging in with your spikes before you embarrass that pitcher’s flat slider by ratcheting it into the gap for a stinging double. Of all the sports, to be a hero in the summer sun waxed most lyrical. My love of reading about baseball (and playing it) shaped the diamond of my writing interest.

When I was 13, I had a five-foot high poster of Willie Mays in my bedroom, flanked by a five-foot high poster of Jimi Hendrix. (Jimi might not have been able to hit a curve, but he could flutter a note like the best of the knuckleballers.) It was a damning contradiction that I had a poster of Mays, since the hated Giants were the storied rivals of the Dodgers, but dealing with contradiction is a fine exercise in focus and grappling with ambiguity.

Easter Gloves
Moments ago, I just got out my glove (I haven’t played organized softball for a couple of years, but I’m ready when the fat contract comes) and pounded the ball in the pocket to smell that ineffable scent of spring. So, Easter Sunday. Baseball season. Let’s remember the fallen as well as the risen. Let’s write well, with long sentences chunky with subordinates and compounds, like the improbable path of an inside-the-park home run ball, and let’s also write flinty and fast, like a Koufax high, hard one only smelled, not seen—a one-word declarative sentence. Yes! Play ball!

Oh yeah: the marshmallow Peeps, if you were lucky (?) enough to get any this Easter. Listen, you really should eat them once in a while, to remind yourself that the world has produced truly strange substances improbably intended for ingestion. Approach them as something exotic, like sushi once was. But if you can’t bring yourself to risk ingesting them, try microwaving them: they expand into huge, oozing sponges. It’s science! It’s fun!