Baseball

Satchel Paige

Satchel Paige

It is that blessed time of year again, when the season opens in uncertainty and hope. When new guys blaze across the outfield, slamming into fences, and superannuated sluggers acquiesce to the role of designated hitter. Five months ahead of games behind and on base percentage. A pleasure except for all those goddamn truck ads.

I played a lot of baseball. When I was a kid it defined the months when there was no snow on the ground. I was good at it, but never big enough or strong enough to be more than just good. I was a catcher mostly, and what I liked about the game was that even if you weren’t the best you could often out-think them. I made it to semi-pro in the summer of my seventeenth year, catching for Hewitt-Robbins in the Greater Buffalo Industrial League. They paid me when we won. Then I discovered other things, like girls and the private joys of wandering. When I was a kid I measured the worth of things in catcher’s mitts. Top of the line was about twenty-five bucks, four to a hundred, forty to a thousand. The day my dad sprung for a pair of pricey (one catcher’s mitt) kangaroo-skin spikes I knew he truly loved me. I had a good arm but had trouble hitting the slippery shit that the old guys threw.

 

Easter, Passover, Opening Day
________________

Another thing I like about baseball
is that they don’t give anyone
whistles to blow or buzzers to
set off or only so many time outs.
As my wife says, it’s real time
and therefore gets to set its own pace.
I describe to her how
your hands sting in early April
when it’s forty degrees out and you
foul off an inside fastball.

What’s so cruel about spring
is that it’s not yet summer,
dusk comes too soon, and everything
must start again in mud and hope.

 

The Throw to Second
_____________________

If your body can’t—if blind you can’t—
make that throw to second in your dreams
you got no business catching.
The mitt goes down and out
like the weight on a catapult and
from behind your right ear the ball is launched
with a peculiar straight-arm snap of the wrist.
It’s a throw unlike any other,
a bazooka’s accuracy or nothing.
Explosion has no grace. You end up
on your face or close to it.
The shortstop’s safe because
the throw was there in time
to cancel the slider’s need for spikes
and you’ve nailed the sucker.

 

Leroy Satchel Paige
__________________

The soul of any journey
is its unendedness,
therefore all our heroes
should be those who just
refused to fucking stop.

Like someone who at 42
began his “rookie” season
in the show with Cleveland
some thousand wins behind him
in the Negro Leagues, the bush

which counted for zip in
the real books, the white books
the history of the bigs.
Like some unpublished Homer
some hero of an unknown kingdom

an ageless sage playing baseball
in a shadow world of greatness
ever moving—Mobile to
Chattanooga, Pittsburgh to
K.C., Cleveland to the Cards.

At 59 he was still throwing
shutout innings for the A’s.
Excuse me if I stare
trying to see who’s pitching there
extra innings after midnight.

 

The Zen of Baseball

Satchel Paige didn’t throw fastballs
or curve balls or sliders. He threw
what he called the trouble ball
along with the bat dodger and bee-ball.
He called it the bee-ball because
“it be right where I want it to be.”

He was a skinny dude and I bet
he hid the ball well and worked fast.
I would have liked to catch for him.
Somehow I would know where he wanted
the target of my mitt to be
—bat dodger down and away.

The Zen part is we wouldn’t keep score,
no stats, just the next swing and miss.

(Poems from 14 Degrees South, University of the South Pacific Press, © John Enright, 2012)

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Tough Guys

Humphrey Bogary “He looked at me as if I was a cigarette stub, or an empty chair. Just something in his line of vision, without interest for him.” (R. Chandler, The Long Goodbye)

Immersing myself in old-shelf Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, their folk art, indulging the Bogart in me. At the local public Jamestown Philomenian Library (no one knows what that middle word is supposed to mean) the separate shelf space for mysteries is almost as large as the shelf space for all the rest of adult fiction. I wonder why I stayed away from it so long. There are even large-print editions of some of the classics, for us old folks, who remember the original editions.

Sure, the plots are familiar, but the plots aren’t really what the stories are about. They are all about self-knowledge—not deep self-knowledge, just a sure awareness of what’s coming down and how ego—the personal third-person, hardly omniscient narrator—will react to it. The goal of each story is our man not having to alter or even seriously question—much less apologize for—his sense of himself. The ones that get roughed up are the best at this.

You got to like these guys. Shamus surely should be a cognate of shaman. Anchorites on the edge, approached only for their special knowledge and extra-societal competence. The rules are made to be broken. I glimpse features of Amerindian trickster heroes here—coyote unbound by politesse—and the Wild West tall-tale. An American hero, someone your wife would never invite twice for dinner. That dangerous friend.

The only way to solve a mystery is to become caught up in it. And, of course, the babes are always young and comely, decked out in bespoke Hollywood innocence, but always with their own agendas. Lashed to the mast of his low-life craft, our man is tempted but does not yield. Babes are nothing but trouble. The streets are noir. There is no gore. The dialogue is repartee.

Like the words on the page, it’s a black and white world, but with shades of gray in the best. Those are a sort of history, snapshot albums of an American time when men wore fedoras and cars had running boards. Chandler’s Los Angeles and Hammett’s San Francisco are more real than what is there today. The Greatest Generation Tom Brokaw called them, the tough guys. Once they were role models, cigarettes and all.

Our Fear Of Food

Eating raw

Eating Raw (Photo: L. Ellis)

Along with all the other things that today’s Americans have been trained to fear—Arabs, microbes, liberals, aging, immigrants, erectile dysfunction—is food. Food prejudice has become so common place as a personality trait that there is a full Internet smorgasbord of groups you can choose from to join of like-thinking devotees to your particular anti-taste.

Certainly, food taboos are as old as indigestion. Leviticus raised diet no-nos to an alchemical art form, with abominations based on abstract theories of the pure and the impure. Why is it again I can’t eat rock badger? (Did Leviticus suffer from a gastro-intestinal complaint? We know that Martin Luther was tortured by constipation.) Sure, lots of it made sense—Uncle Fred ate that and died. Every species figures out what it can and cannot eat. Nothing mystical or even mysterious about that. But the secret to our species’ frightening success is its rare and wondrous feat of being omnivorous. We even learned how to leach and cook the bad stuff out of poisonous food.

One of the revelations that remains with me from Stephen E. Ambrose’s wonderful saga of the Lewis & Clark Expedition Undaunted Courage is the description of what the expedition members ate on their multi-year trek. For weeks it might be just meat—bear or buffalo or horse or dog—then just foraged roots and berries for a while. Hard tack biscuit and salt beef for a spell? Fine. Those guys would eat (and drink) anything, and none of them died from their diet.

I was certainly raised to eat whatever was put in front of me. Sure, I had my favorites, but I did not pass the turnips without taking some. They weren’t punishment; they were food. Nothing to fear. Put some butter on them. Growing up, I never knew anyone with a food allergy other than lactose intolerance, which was a drag because she couldn’t eat ice cream. Nothing to brag about there. Nobody passed on the peanut brittle. Of course, our diets were limited. Our Irish American mothers never cooked Italian, for instance, which is why pizza places were such a hit when they arrived in our teenage years.

My first introduction to food as something other than just food came in the home of my name-same uncle Dr. John Enright, a family doctor (they weren’t called practioners yet) in Buffalo. I was maybe ten and was there for dinner. Uncle John would borrow me now and then because he had just girls. Reconstructing the scene from facts gleaned later in life, I think Uncle John had discovered the recently available Oesterizer blender and was experimenting on his family’s digestive systems by serving them food that they did not have to chew. On our plates were three mounds of mush—brown (meat), green (veggie), and white (carbs). I ate it, but I thought it was weird. I thought maybe I should be blind-folded as well, then led back to a cell.

Beggars can’t be choosers is among the most blatantly true clichés. And you can be on a socio-economic rung or two above beggar class to personally attest to the fact that the hungry can’t be picky. I do not want to look up the U.N. number of how many millions of children went to bed hungry tonight. (I get up to fix myself a snack of cheese and crackers.) Facts like that stop everything, and I do not want to stop. I want to go on about this fear of food thing. I just wanted to remind us of the reality, of the fact that our parents and their parents and theirs back to our let’s-get-out-of-the-trees ancestors were thankful for their daily gluten, for whatever they could get to eat. And happiness was going to bed with something in your stomach besides empty rumblings.

Fear. What a powerful cultural force fear is. If you can control what people fear, you can control them. Human communities were born because of fear and its perceived countervailing safety in numbers. A savage was once sauvage, just someone who lived outside the walls. The fear of death was used to ritualize and control the lives of our predecessors. Fear—fight or flight—and its resultant pheromones are as basic to our nature and survival as the reproductive imperative and its raging hormones. Only, fears are learned, and they are contagious. There are both rational and irrational fears, but the defining adjective does not alter their efficacy.

We have a word for irrational fears—phobias. The suffix phobic has become as familiar as backward baseball caps in America. As our contextual world has expanded, so has the universe of things to be afraid of. In some ways our phobias have come to define us. I know a woman who will not fly on any airlines with the word west in its name. Another friend, a nice guy but a filthy-lucre germaphobe, will not touch money. Perhaps it is because we are already protected from so many real dangers.

Food phobias constitute a special case, though. If we fear what we eat, and we are what we eat, does that make us fear itself?

Slow Motion

No need to surprise.

I’ve been surprised before

and it doesn’t last.

It’s the slow things now

that make me take notice.

Got something slow to show me?

How snow drifts disappear,

ditch water with nowhere to go?

 

You hear how catastrophes happen

always in slow-mo—the car

tumbling once then again,

stretching endtime like taffy

—half way to eternity, then

half way again, ad infinitum.