Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memory & Desire on the Diamond #1

 Of course we all know Eliot’s lines about April & memory & desire—& if I twist them to make a point about baseball, then we can also agree perhaps that I’m doing nothing more egregious than has been done in countless undergraduate English papers over the last 50 or 60 years.

But I said in the initial post that baseball is all about memory, & a good friend said she’d like to hear more about that. This friend is a brilliant poet, & I believe she holds Eliot in high regard, so the connection was clear to me: baseball season beginning (traditionally at least)
in April, & that season indeed “mixing memory & desire” as we consider past seasons & look forward to the successes & failures & the narratives surrounding them all in the season ahead.

& of course these narratives are perennial: we expect certain patterns of disappointment & success based on both the overall lore of the game—the patterns of surprise & regularity in terms of performance that have been repeated season in & season out for nearly 150 years. In a country as young as the United States, baseball is primordial, springing up in a form more or less recognizable as the game we know today during the Civil War era—another even more profound primeval event—& in fact spawning the first professional team in 1869, just a few years after the end of the fighting in that war, & still very much in the midst of the decades of turmoil the war would precipitate.

Thus, an 1876 box score is recognizable to us; in fact, while there would be many unfamiliar aspects to the games, we would recognize a pennant race from the earliest leagues in the 1870s—the long season (tho it wasn’t until the 1880s that the season extended to 100 games, & not until 1890 that it expanded to 150; the current 162 game season started in the early 60s); the changing vicissitudes of the teams; the players who remained consistent & the players who played well “in streaks’; the players who exceeded expectations, & those who failed to live up to advance billing.

In that sense, the system is a liturgical event—a year in which we know all the festivals & all
the hierarchies of saints & angels (not to mention the infernal characters from the hated rival teams); a medieval mystery play cycle that doesn’t take place simply during the few days of the Corpus Christi festival, but extends from spring thru fall—& a cycle in which we always recognize Noah’s shrewish wife or the clownish Nativity shepherds or boastful Herod, even if the names of the actors change.

When a right fielder throws a “bullet” to third base to cut down an advancing runner, we return to memory—depending on our age & frame of reference, we not only see that fielder, but we may also see the great Roberto Clemente performing the same feat; if the batter strides into his swing with a big leg kick, we may think of the Mets Darryl Strawberry, of prodigious power & troubled fortunes; if a pitcher turns his back to home plate during his wind-up, how can those of us who followed baseball in the 60s & 70s not think of Luis Tiant?

But this is just the surface—in watching baseball or listening to it on the radio, there’s always a well of memory that comes accessible to me. Why is this? Because it’s been a constant thru the better part of my 55 years; because in the emotions of spectating (or even when I used to play in my own small way), I had access to related emotions that resonated with those the game evoked—for better or worse.

You see the impossibility of dealing with this in a single blog post! Hence the #1 in the title. See you next time.

Pics from top (all link to their source): The 1875 Hartford Dark Blues, charter members of the National League
Opening lines of "The Wasteland" (you knew that)
The great El Tiante, I believe during his days pitching for the Cleveland Indians

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