Friday, November 02, 2007

A genial warrior calm

When people ask me why I love baseball, I usually boil it down to three elements:
1 It's played outdoors in the hopeful cool air of spring, the sweat of summer, and the glorious chill of autumn. (Let us not talk about baseball played under roofs.)
2 The lengthy careers of the best players provide for wonderful long-running soap operas. For example, #$#&*@# Roger Clemens has been a pleasantly reliable object of ire since I was in the fourth grade.
3 It's a sport of individuality, where there are multiple ways to excel--and, most importantly, where the fat man can have his day. And there are few things I love more than seeing a fat baseball player succeed.

It's that third point that brings on today's post and provides the reason that it's on this blog of things I've been reading, rather than the more casual baseball blog that my friend Jim and I run: Sports Illustrated has just put online a piece by Bill James, guru to baseball nerds (If you catch me in the right mood someday, I'll tell you about how I learned critical thinking from his books about the game.), in which he waxes exuberant about Cleveland's hefty lefty C. C. Sabathia. Following a week in which I raved to everyone in earshot about the glories of Luc Sante when he lets his enthusiasm fire his prose--about which more later this weekend--James's piece seemed appropriate for this venue.

James is a writer who would benefit from a good editor, yet he rarely seems to work under one: he's as perceptive as anyone who's ever written about the game and has a knack for a memorable phrases, but his writing frequently threatens to become too casual for the ideas it's trying to convey. Here, though, his breathless tone is perfectly suited to his subject, and it hits exactly the note I find myself striving for when describing favorite players:
I have to tell you, as a baseball fan, I absolutely adore C. C. Sabathia. I always have. I've compared all these players [on this list of top young players] to somebody else. It is sacrilege to compare C. C. Sabathia to any other pitcher. He is totally unique. For one thing, although listed weights of baseball players are so bogus that it's hard to see the point of listing them, C. C. has to be the heaviest player in major league history. He's huge--6'7"and has an aircraft carrier frame supporting large piles of necessary and unnecessary flesh, all of this adorned with comic little ears that stick out from his face as if the Lord couldn't find a flat place to put them. He has a unique delivery, hanging his massive leg in the air in seeming defiance of both gravity and nature, yet he is balanced and graceful. He projects a sort of genial warrior calm on the mound. He was an outstanding pitcher when he reached the majors in 2001 and has gotten steadily better, cutting his walks from 95 in 180 innings to 37 in 241 innings. He's 26 now, like Peavy, and his age is pushing him downward on this list; he is less of a young talent, and more of a mature product. But I don't think I've ever missed a C. C. Sabathia start in Kansas City when I was near KC or in Boston since I've been in Boston, and I hope he pitches forever.
That last line--I hope he pitches forever--is the heart of what being a baseball fan means to me, and it's the most important link between the game on the field and our daily lives. A lot of nonsense is written about how baseball is some sort of mirror of life, but James has hit upon the one tie that is indelible: in both, we always hope--against our knowledge of life's inevitable losses--that those people and things we love will be with us always.

Despite that hope, baseball forces us to confront change, and aging, in ways that the continuities of daily life allow us, most of the time, to glide over. Whereas in daily life, we can spend years pretending that we are the same--as sharp, strong, and good--as we were when younger, baseball is less forgiving. Jimmy Edmonds, great as he was, has lost a step, and my desire to deny that fact is frustrated daily. But the knowledge that our favorites constantly fight a losing battle against decay forces us to appreciate each moment just a bit more: every time Edmonds knocks a ball out of the park with one of his beautifully awkward uppercut swings I will stop and marvel, knowing my life's ration of those moments is limited. Literature at its best does the same, focusing our often wandering minds, reminding us that these moments are worth our thought, that freely given attention and care are nearly always repaid.

So even though Sabathia doesn't pitch for my team, and even though I only see him a few times each year, I'm with James: I hope he pitches forever.

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