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Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Humphrey Bogart said, 'A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.' Are you going to argue with Bogey? Do you even American, bro?
As a licensed, board certified Genius, it goes without saying that I have a wide and eclectic range of interests. From World War I to Shakespeare, from Jazz to a vast array of world cuisines, from the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone Park to the upper 2/3s of actress Kat Dennings. I am a man of many parts.

For all my pursuits, though, there are only a handful of things I am really passionate about. Music, obviously, is chief among them. I have harbored a deep and abiding love for it virtually my entire life, even before I took up a musical instrument at the age of 12. There is food, being from a food-centric culture in Southern Appalachia, particularly pizza and Barbecue*. And then there's baseball.

It would be an understatement to say that I am a sports fan. While I don't spend my time memorizing stats or going to games with my face painted the colors of the home team, I do spend a goodly portion of my leisure hours watching sports. In the fall, I enjoy the quaint and vaguely anachronistic collegial atmosphere of Washington & Lee University's football games. As fall turns to winter, I can be found at the home rink of Roanoke's hockey team, the Rail Yard Dawgs (yes, they spell it like that and yes, I think it's cutesy and annoying). Having been a wrestler myself, I also enjoy college wrestling. But as winter turns to spring, a special part of my soul awakens with those four magic words: "Pitchers and catchers report."

It's sort of the same thing with Jazz. I like a wide variety of music, from vintage alternative rock to Mexican banda, but only Jazz awakens that part of my soul that nothing else can touch. It is as pure a feeling as an imperfect human such as myself can experience, and the best part of it is that it is not rare. I can have that feeling any time I want just by putting a Coltrane CD into the player. Or by attending any one of the thousands of baseball games that will be played this year.

I have already purchased my half season tickets for the Salem Red Sox, of the venerable Carolina League. You will find me in my designated seat for at least 35 games, enjoying an overpriced beer and an undersized hot dog as I cheer on the local nine. I also plan on attending my annual Orioles game with Commodore Ricci, and seeing my beloved Atlanta Braves in their shiny new park. And I will be in my Zen, a place of great peace punctuated by moments of boundless excitement disturbed only by the occasional request for the umpire get his head out of his ass and watch the same damned game the rest of us are.

Moving forward.

There is something about baseball that inspires me to leave the comfort of the Geniusdome 35+ times per summer and sit out in the balmy evening air watching men attempt to hit a ball with a stick. And it goes even deeper than the fact that I've been a baseball fan since I first started playing Little League 42 years ago. It speaks to my elemental being, my unalterable self, where lives my most basic identity as an American and a Virginian. It is as ingrained in me as is my left-handedness, my heterosexuality, and my steadfast belief that Sofia Coppola was not the only reason that Godfather III was such a flaming pile of fail.

On the surface of it, baseball is a relatively simple game. The game is divided into nine innings, each inning gives both sides three outs to work with, each batter gets three strikes or four balls (quit giggling) to get either a hit or a walk. The pitcher delivers the ball, the batter tries to hit it. If he hits the ball, all nine defensive players try to catch it before it hits the ground; or, failing that, catch it and throw the batter out at first base. Once on base, the object is to move around the bases and return home to score a run. As easy as getting naked or killed on Game of Thrones.

Beneath the surface, however, baseball is a game of almost unfathomable depth. To the untrained eye, it might appear that there's a whole lot of standing around doing nothing. That's the same attitude that hears Jazz as just a bunch of tuneless noodling. There is always something going on during a baseball game, wheels turning even between innings. The pitcher and catcher are constantly conspiring as to whether to deliver the pitch fast or slow, high or low, inside or outside. The batter is trying to predict the pitcher's intent. The managers in the dugout and the coaches on the field are constantly relaying instructions to the players by way of cryptic physical signals that the other team is trying to decode.

Furthermore, off the field, everything is being counted. Balls, strikes, outs, hits, walks, everything is tallied. A hitter is measured by his batting average, a pitcher is measured by his earned run average. Defensively, each player is measured by their fielding percentage. There is nothing in baseball that escapes scrutiny, that cannot be quantified. Stat geeks can luxuriate endlessly in the minutiae of the game, arguing the merits of any player against whatever criteria they choose and backing it up with a virtually endless parade of hard, if sometimes obscure, numbers.

The beauty of baseball, though, is that it can be enjoyed even by those who don't see the world through the looking glass of mathematics. As for me, I could care less about most of the numbers associated with the game. I've been a Braves fan for four decades, and I still couldn't tell you the batting averages of my favorite players. In fact, over the hundreds or perhaps thousands of games I've seen, I doubt I could even recall the outcome of more than a handful of them. Even the greatest game I've ever seen in person, when the then-Salem Avalanche won the 2001 Carolina League championship with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, I don't remember the final score.

There is a beauty, a perfection, to baseball that transcends mere numbers. For me, it is the ebb and flow of the game, the moments of stillness that can erupt into heart-pounding action with the mere swing of a bat. Add to that all the manifold games within the game, the incessant strategizing, and I can lose myself in the psychology and mindfulness of it all. Add to that the fact that there is beer, another thing I consider to be elemental to my being, and I am as close as I get to a state some people spend a lifetime trying to achieve called Nirvana. And, not coincidentally, I often leave the park afterwards listening to the Foo Fighters.

Baseball is Our Game, the same way Jazz is Our Music. It is an indelible part of our American identity, whether we consider yourselves baseball fans or not. Even if you've never seen a baseball game in your life, you know what it means to strike out. You've had something come out of left field. You've watched a screwball comedy, been to second base, and were thrown a curve. You've also probably eaten a $10 hot dog and drank a $12 beer, both common occurrences at the ballyard.

Essayist Gerald Early said that in 100 years, America will be remembered for the constitution, jazz, and baseball. I'd like to think that, a century from now, all three will still be relevant. We'll still be living within the framework of the republic bequeathed to us by our forefathers, listening to Miles and Coltrane, and playing the game of baseball the way it has been played for centuries.

Baseball is the only game that a time traveler from 100 years ago could watch and still recognize. The game is still played the same way it has been ever since the pitcher's mound was moved to its present location (off exit 150, behind the Civic Center). It's still 90' between the bases, 60'6" from the pitcher's mound to home plate, and always half an inning's distance from my seat to the beer vendor and back. Not that all measurements in baseball are absolute, as they are in football. Each ballpark still has its own idiosyncratic distances to the outfield fence, unique to that park, that hearken back to the days when ballparks were wedged into available downtown space and not custom-built cathedrals of the game built wherever they damned well please.

After tinkering with the rules throughout the 19th century, they've been constant for nearly 125 years. The game is still played by nine men (ten, in the heathen American League, with their indefensible designated hitter rule). And the uniforms those men wear, except for a shameful period in the 1970's when polyester reigned supreme and style took a holiday, are still remarkably similar to the attire worn by players at the turn of the previous century. The equipment is still as basic as a wooden bat, a ball, and a leather mitt.

Unlike Our Music, where change has always been the only constant, baseball has been the stalwart standard bearer for its share of the American identity. But both have been responsible for some of the landmark changes in our nation's history. Our Music was the conduit for both white and black musicians to play together, something that would have been unheard of in any other genre. Baseball was played by both white and black from the very start, finally integrating for good in 1947. Immigrants also played a major role in both Our Music and Our Game, assimilating and being accepted into our culture quicker in some instances than they were in society at large.

It was baseball that normalized the Irish and the Italians at a time when both were considered alien to the average American. Germans were making their mark on the game even as we were in conflict with Germany through two world wars and one very heated game of Go Fish. And even when black players were barred from the Major Leagues, they formed their own leagues and played on, proving once and for all that the game belonged to all of us. Just as Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer evidenced conclusively that Jazz was not just "race music." Our Music and Our Game helped unite this nation, putting the Unum in E Pluribus Unum. Even now, when this nation could use another good uniting, Americans of every ilk can still find some common ground in both. Though my political opinions probably run counter to most of the writers and readers here at AAJ, I've still been accepted here for the last sixteen years without prejudice. Whether we're talking Thelonious Monk or Donny McCaslin, we can find common ground without the need for trigger warnings or shouting matches. The same with baseball.

I've enjoyed the game with Conservatives and Progressives, along the entire spectrum from Left to Right. When it's two out in the bottom of the ninth and the home team is down by a run with the bases loaded, there is no debate. We're all hoping for the same thing, our differences washed away by the tide of the game (and, in my case, more than a few $12 beers). Baseball has a power to unite that is greater than almost anything else one can imagine.

The season will soon be upon us. Even as I write this, local college teams here in Virginia are braving the late winter weather to play Our Game. The paid professionals are doing so at Spring Training, in the more hospitable climes of Florida and Arizona, preparing for the long season ahead. It won't be long before we hear those two sweet words, "play ball" echo across the diamond.

So do yourself a favor, get out and catch a game. Lose yourself in the physical, the mental or the mathematical, whichever's to your liking. Go ahead and splurge on that $10 hot dog. I can tell you from experience that a dog never tastes better than at the ballpark (Humphrey Bogart said, "A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz." Are you going to argue with Bogey? Do you even American, bro?). You might just find something that complements Our Music in that special place inside of you. At the very least, you'll come away feeling like a citizen of an America used to be one nation. That nation might not exist now, but it can again if enough of us put aside our differences and concentrate on the things that make us We the People.

Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

* Barbecue in the South is a proper noun, it is a specific thing. Namely, it is pork, cooked low and slow. Out of deference to my friends from Texas, I will grudgingly accept that beef may also be considered Barbecue under some circumstances. But I will never accept the definition of Barbecue to include grilling hamburgers on your backyard Weber. So let's consider the matter settled.

I may have ganked that phrase from Ken Burns, I honestly don't remember.

Photo credit: Charlotte Brooks, photographer, LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division) [Reproduction number e.g., LC-L9-60-8812, frame 8]

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