What is it about baseball? Thoughts on a mental game

Fathers Playing Catch With Sons: Essays on sport (mostly baseball), by Donald Hall. San Francisco: North Point Press. 198 pp. $13.95, paper. Pine-Tarred and Feathered: A year on the baseball beat, by Jim Kaplan. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Pages unnumbered. $14.95, cloth. What is it about baseball?

We recall that the ancient Romans feared the onset of the flagrantis atrox hora caniculae -- the relentless hour of the blazing dog star -- and the dead of summer, but then they didn't have baseball.

Baseball is a mental game; a game of craft and cunning. Tom Seaver has been pitching in the major leagues for 18 years. In 1967 as a rookie he faced his hero Henry Aaron and tried to outsmart him with the same pitch twice. A mistake. Since then, Seaver says he has ``found that the game continues to shift, and there are no absolutes. Each batter, each situation, each pitch I throw is dependent on so many variables.''

A Tom Seaver is our popular hero, our wily Odysseus. Odysseus had to learn to know his own strengths and weaknesses against the always changing sea on the long voyage home; Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton has said of Seaver: ``Actually, I've never known a pitcher so into what he can and can't do.''

O, the wisdom of including yourself among the variables!

In his memoir of a year on the baseball beat for Sports Illustrated magazine, Jim Kaplan gives us an insider's view of the inside story. His day-by-day (the pages are not numbered, but dated) log of his activities includes interviews, travel, assigments, a stint as editor. It constitutes a fascinating glimpse of a journalist at work. Nineteen eighty-three was the year of the Pine-Tar game, in which wily Billy Martin, Yankee manager, claimed that the bat George Brett had just hit a homer with had too much pine tar on it. That was also the year big Dave Winfield got tangled up with a sea gull. (He made a public apology to Toronto fans for killing a gull with a warmup throw.)

Since the baseball beat as Kaplan lived it makes a neat paradigm for all beats, his book should be read, slowly, by all aspiring journalists.

Fine baseball writing is another thing altogether. There's a tradition here, and Donald Hall's collection of essays, ``Fathers Playing Catch With Sons,'' has assumed its rightful place in it. Fine writing, like fine pitching, is a temptation and sometimes a settled vice. Perhaps the greatest sports writer, Red Smith, did not always draw the line between sentiment and sentimentality. Fine writing and sentimentality go with the territory.

Hall mentions one Art Hill, a Detroit Tiger fan who wrote a book about his passion. ``For Art Hill and for many others, baseball is a clean, well-lighted place that keeps terrors away until dawn.'' The style of that sentence -- a steal from Hemingway and almost lurid sentiment -- illustrates the elements of the baseball tradition.

For Art Hill, baseball is a huge consolation and a defense against the song of the cricket raging in the night.

Donald Hall's specific contribution to baseball literature is to have pointed out that for many of us, baseball is not necessarily major-league games under the lights or box scores. Baseball is the rhythm of the ball thrown between father and son, the hard and soft of it, the crazy knee-bending jab, the awkward high jump, and all the evenings after work in the damp and grassy dusk. Sometimes the white ball is the only visible object out there, but the rhythm has been established.

As Hall leaves a training camp after a week of close involvement with the seasoned and the green, he's stopped by a younger player he had befriended. With very little chance of making the team this year, the young man still promises Hall free tickets should he make the cut, and says ``he sure would be pleased to see us again.''

Which gives way to a sentence of almost biblical passion: ``And I him, and my father and my son, and my mother's father when the married men played the single men in Wilmot, New Hampshire, and my father's father's father who hit a ball with a stick while he was camped outside Vicksburg in June of 1863, and maybe my son's son's son, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.''

That's not fine writing; that's great writing in the baseball tradition.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book pages.

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