Baseball season has started, a long grind of 162 games, just to reach the playoffs, one day very much like the day before and the one after for the ballplayers who spend most every day the same way: going from hotel to practice to game to hotel again. Kind of boring. Kind of like self-isolating during the pandemic. Doomed to do the same thing over and over again, in the case of baseball, until the season ends; in the case of the pandemic, until we (as a series of interlocking societies) get it right.
A few decades ago, I took a very painful break from creative writing for about 10 years. The first poem I wrote after this 10-year hiatus plays on the eternal repeatability of baseball. The central plot of the poem is Mickey Mantle’s mental accumulation of various pains, some new and some remembered, in the split second he waits for the ball to arrive at the plate, a ball he heroically crushes for a towering home run, despite his many wounds. (For the uninitiated, Mantle, one of the greatest ballplayers of any era, was known for playing with crippling injuries and alcoholism.) It is only at the end of the poem when Mickey falls “into the arms of his waiting Yogi” and we see/hear the pun between Yogi Berra and a yogi that we suddenly realize that another version of the poem unfolds simultaneously with the baseball anecdote. This version contemplates the futile attempt to overcome the pain of existence through action in the world, an attempt that will only have to be repeated tomorrow. Thus, even the title takes on irony, because it not only means that Mickey has done this before, it also suggests the transitory futility of the act: he will have to do it again.
It is easy to mislabel the time it takes to sound the litany of Mickey’s pains in the poem as an oft-used cinematic technique of expanding time to increase tension, drama or suspense. Reading the scene takes much longer than the time it takes for a ball once released from a pitcher’s hand to reach the plate. In fact, though, the poem is not slowing down time, but merely residing in the mind of the athlete. Anyone who has ever played sports will tell you that in those rare moments when you are about to do something grand and heroic, time always appears to slow down. The ball seems to creep to the plate and it looks as large as a grapefruit and you can slowly uncoil and send it past the third baseman or out of the park.
ANOTHER SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON
- If a Bodhisattva watched a baseball game, how would he describe it?
He steps to the plate
a six-inch abscess in his thigh
tape’s tightness cutting both knees
pierce at elbow, pierce in shoulder
shaking in his stomach
alcoholic wail behind his temples
sting of missed chin music
sear of teammates’ ripped muscles, twisted ankles
writers’ recriminations little torques of pain
each fan’s boo another small wound
an overwhelming nausea at the roar of boos
his father’s jeers at past strikeouts,
missed cutoffs, all little slashes
the exhortation to practice, swing after swing,
catch after catch, throw after throw
his father’s shame at having never made the cut
his father’s throbbing lungs in the bed he never left
every past out a ridicule
every past hit a taunt that he might not do it again
the aching weight of the bat
in that instant when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.
He swings and without looking up
he knows what happens:
He hears it in the explosion of the bat
the flash of silence
the roar that expands for minutes
swallowing its own echo in new decibels
the tired thud as he trots around the bases, slowly,
head down, into the arms of his waiting Yogi.
Published in Jewish Currents (Summer 2015)