Gimbling in the Wabe – Hey, Batter, Batter!

I enjoy sports, but I love baseball.  I mean, I Really Love Baseball.  Mid-January through mid-shortstop3March are barren for me, not because of the cold, snow or ice, but because they are devoid of baseball or even the distraction of football and the holidays.  The day that pitchers and catchers report to camp is my true promise for a first day of spring, and Opening Day is a cause for open celebration.  Anyone who knows me knows that I live and die by the Minnesota Twins, and no day could be finer than the slow summer afternoon on my front porch with a cool breeze, the smell of freshly mown grass, a tall glass of frosted lemonade at my fingertips, and the game playing on my small transistor radio.

Now, I’m not one of those super fans who can spout off statistics and know years’ worth of rosters or minor league line ups, I don’t follow trade rumors or the trades themselves (unless they involve my Twins) and I can never remember the names of our prospects, even if I did watch the MLB draft.  I’ll leave all that stuff for my son, who continually amazes me with his knowledge of the metrics of the game.  Nor am I one who will watch just any old baseball related movie (even though “Field of Dreams” is perhaps my favorite movie of all time) or read any baseball themed book just because it features baseball.  Don’t even ask me.  The game is the real deal; everything else is a pale shade.

But every once in a while, I read something that exudes baseball, that truly evokes the feel of the game, so that the reading of it makes the moments on the field come alive on the pages of the book.  And since I had to spend another treacherous morning picking my way across glare iced sidewalks (due to melting of snow yesterday and hard freezing last night – gotta love Minnesota!) and try to forget that we are expected to get another foot of the white stuff on Monday (please, please, please Baseball Gods, don’t let it snow on Opening Day!), I thought I would share with you one of my favorite baseball moments in fiction.

Maybe you don’t need it, but I sure do!

This extended except is from the 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  It is a wonderfully written book that follows the friendship between two college students who are brought together through a love of baseball, and chronicles the way that multiple lives can change drastically in one unexpected moment.  Unfortunately the second half of the book, for me, strayed into areas that I had a hard time embracing even with the well crafted prose, but it nevertheless held magic for me – and still does – in the opening chapters.  With the Midwest locale and the natural and exquisite baseball references and action, it is a treasure in my lexicon of favored books.

This excerpt from the first chapter marks the day when Mike Schwartz, whose “Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament,” first becomes aware of Henry Skrimshander.  Schwartz is heading to his second year at Westish College, “that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin”; Henry, who had just finished high school, is one of the South Dakota farmboys on the losing team.  It is Schwartz who will recruit Henry into the baseball program at Westish, crusade to get him a scholarship and help the stripling youngster polish his skills and build his career.  In the following passage, Schwartz is resting from catching the game his team just won, and Henry is putting in some fielding practice (which feels almost like a litany) before heading back home on the team bus.

Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other.  He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat.  Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly.  The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.

The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first.  Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond.  It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off.  The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report.  Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little.  The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.

The coach hit the balls harder and farther afield – up the middle, deep in the hole.  The kid tracked them down.  Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one of them with a beat to spare.  He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed.  Or as if time slowed down for him alone.

After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth.  He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run.  He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive.  Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air.  Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuosos practicing scales.  He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum.  Where the kid’s thoughts were – whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look – Schwartz couldn’t say.  He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class:  Expressionless, expresses God.

Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket was full, and all three men left the field without a word.  Schwartz felt bereft.  He wanted the performance to continue.  He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion.  He looked around to see who else had been watching – wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness – but nobody was paying any attention.  The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell-phone screens.  The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks.

Fifteen minutes to game time.  Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet.  He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive.  But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear.  He’d figure out what to say on his way over.  All his life, Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius.  Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.

Oh, yeah… that’s good.  And oh, my, I needed it!  Hope you enjoyed it, too, and that you, like me, will hang in there and remember that Opening Day is only 17 days away.  Only 17 days.

~Sharon Browning

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