Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anticipation, tacit knowledge, and singularity. And baseball.

{Photo by rocketlass.]

In a new novel built around baseball, The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach describes one of his protagonists, slick-fielding shortstop Henry Skrimshander, as he crouches at his position and gets ready for the pitch:
In one motion he yanked his navy cap with its harpoon-skewered W toward his eyes and dropped into a feline crouch, thighs parallel to the field, glove brushing the dirt. He looked low to the ground, but light on his feet, more afloat than entrenched. The pitch was fouled back, but not before he had taken two full steps to his left, toward the place where he anticipated the ball to be headed. None of the other infielders had moved an inch.
Skrimshander is a defensive prodigy, his instincts easily outstripping those of his peers, but even a poor player knows that jump. Without conscious thought or analysis, years of playing and watching coalesce in some tiny sense, the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and begins to describe its trajectory, of where it will cross the plate--and whether, if met by a bat and sent screaming back at us, it will come to our left or our right. And before we even realize it, we get a half-step head start to the spot in space where we can intercept it. It's a manifestation of the tacit, and on those rare occasions these days when I still get to roam the outfield, it brings me palpable joy, this reminder that there are things I know that I don't, moment to moment, know I know.

Tonight's the last night of the baseball season. After six months of daily engagement--listening to games on the radio, checking box scores, sitting with my usual seatmates at Wrigley Field--the 162-game season has come to down to one last, crucial game for the team I have followed since boyhood, the St. Louis Cardinals. They enter tonight tied with the Atlanta Braves for the Wild Card in the National League, the last open playoff slot. A win would guarantee them at least a shot at a winner-take-all play-off game tomorrow, while a win coupled with a Braves loss would complete a remarkable month that has seen them climb back from 10.5 games out, as they played their best baseball of the year and took advantage of a historic collapse by the Braves.

The greatest pleasure of sports is, of course, that no one knows what will happen in any given game. But greatly enhancing that pleasure is that we know so much else that we bring to this one night. We follow players and careers and teams and stories from year to year and decade to decade, seeing minute variations on countless familiar situations, most melting into the mass but a few standing stark, unforgettable. We know, from nearly 150 years of professional baseball, what's common and uncommon, rare and unprecedented, implausible and impossible. If you'd asked me in August if this Cardinals team could possibly play well enough to have this final game matter, I would have said it was impossible, and, given where they stood then, history would have buttressed my argument. Yet here we are, and no one knows what's next.

Reading Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States on the train home tonight, I came across a quotation from a character in Chekhov's "A Love" that seemed apt:
What seems to explain one instance doesn't fit a dozen others. It's best to interpret each instance separately, in my view, without trying to generalise. We must isolate each individual case, as doctors say.
Everything in our universe, is singular, different, and while it's impossible to go through our lives every day without letting that knowledge give way to simple sanity's requirement that we categorize, generalize, and gloss over, it's good to be reminded once in a while of the reality. There's never been a Cardinals team like this Cardinals team; this game has never happened before. Let's play ball.

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