Monday, September 24, 2012

Looking The Other Way: A Love of Baseball Culture



by Bradly Baird (bio)

SpringMobile Baseball Park on August 31, 2012 (photo courtesy of Heidi Baird)

The summer came to a close recently and my family marked the occasion by attending a Salt Lake Bees game at Spring Mobile Park in Salt Lake City. The park is sandwiched between homes and businesses in a quiet little neighborhood south of downtown Salt Lake City, and there is very little available parking to be found. Nevertheless, we were excited at the prospects of the fun to be had and did not mind the long walk through the neighborhood. Once inside, we noticed the heat from the afternoon sun melting into a pleasantly cool evening with a gentle breeze, providing the perfect summer evening to take in a game.

The atmosphere of the ballpark at gametime always energizes me. I love the strangely tantalizing aroma of food and drink coming from the vendors in the concourse, the noise of the crowds trying to find their seats or purchase a game program, and the obnoxious shouts from enthusiastic peanut vendors. I also love the exciting sensations of emerging from an over-crowded concourse into the bleachers: the explosion of cool air, the glare of the bright lights, and the brilliant green of the ballfield grass. These are the things that make or break a ballgame for me, and the evening brought no disappointments.

We settled into our seats to watch the Bees - a triple-A affiliate for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - take on the Sacramento River Cats. The game was great fun and offered some very exciting moments, including a couple of spectacular home runs. Everyone in the family cheered along with the crowd and soaked up the atmosphere, especially my son who waved a giant foam finger about and rocked out to the music blasting from the park loudspeakers. Even our daughter and her best friend made the most of the atmosphere, racing off to buy pizza and snacks and riding a small passenger "train" that carries spectators from one end of the park to another. And, of course, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the seventh inning stretch when the audience stood and sang Take Me Out to The Ball Game.

I developed a taste for the game of baseball just before my ninth birthday. My family visited Boston for the very first time that year and my father made a surprise by taking us on the subway to see the Red Sox at Fenway Park. It was an incredible evening, filled with much excitement, and I can very nearly remember every detail of the night, especially the thrill of seeing the Green Monster for the first time. By the way, the Red Sox whipped the California Angels by quite a margin.

I also developed a love for baseball-related culture. Some of my favorite childhood memories  include watching great baseballl movies like The Natural with Robert Redford, the gut-bustingly funny Bad News Bears, and the wonderfully imaginative, The Sandlot. I also really loved Casey at the Bat, the great baseball poem by Ernest Thayer:
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game ...

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
In college, I learned that in 1953 the great American composer and former head of Lincoln Center, William Schuman, along with the librettist J.D. McLatchy, adapted Casey at the Bat into a one-act opera called The Might Casey. Now, William Schuman is a determined modernist composer and can be very challenging, but I wanted to hear this opera because of its subject matter and - as luck would have it - the Juilliard Opera Program made a recording of the work in about 1993.

To my surprise, Mr. Schuman departed from his usual style and created a wonderful piece of theater, with loads of memorable melodies, a charming story that deeply humanizes Casey, his fellow ball players, and the entire town of Mudville. The music is delightful and so much fun that it could easily be performed as a musical, without the heavy-handed operatic voices, and would have wide appeal. I have kept a copy of that recording for almost twenty years.

But, it is no surprise that baseball has been the subject of music. Aside from the perennial favorite, Take Me Out To the Ballgame by Jack Norworth, singers such as John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen have written wonderful songs about baseball that became hits. And apart from the Springsteen song Glory Days, one of the anthems from my teenage years, I also love a much more obscure baseball song. This one is from the musical Ragtime, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The lyrics are bawdy, quite rude, all in the name of irony, and affect a real sense of the game in the early 20th Century. A sampling from What a Game follows below:

Father:
You'll like baseball. It's a civilized pastime.

A Group:
AIN'T THIS THE KIND O' WEATHER
FOR SMACKIN' LEATHER,
FOR PLAYIN' BASEBALL!
THE KIND O' WEATHER MAKES A MAN
HIT LIKE HELL!
(hock, spit)

Fans:
Let's go, you sons o' bitches!
Let's see some pitches!
LET'S PLAY SOME BASEBALL!
The Kraut is strikin' out again!
Schmidt, ya smell!
(hock, spit)
---

A Group:
THE GIANTS HAVEN'T GOT A PRAYER.
AHH, YER UNDERWEAR!
UP YER ALLEY!
GO BACK TO WHERE YOUR MOTHER ONCE CAME!

HIT THAT BALL!
Run, you bastard!
HIT THAT BALL!
Kill the Kraut!
WHAT A GAME!
(hock, spit)
---

A FINE, UPLIFTIN' ATMOSPHERE.
BRING YER CHILDREN HERE.
TEACH THEM BASEBALL.
THE GAME ALL TRUE AMERICANS
DO DAMN WELL.
IT'S LIKE THE CONSTITUTION,
THE INSTITUTION
OF DEAR OL' BASEBALL,
WHERE EVERY MAN IS TREATED THE SAME!


My bishop may want to have some words with me after knowing that I enjoy a song like this (and so may many of you), but when you hear it in context and understand the cultural-historical statement the song is making about America and who we have become, its rudeness begins to make sense as a satirical profile of America's love for sport and all things sport-related.

The other aspect of baseball culture that I love is its influence over television, and one of my favorite baseball-related episodes is from the little known and short-lived comedy, Sports Night. Sports Night - the creation of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme who abandoned it after only two seasons to create The West Wing - was a highly intelligent and very compelling show about the talent and staff of a third-place cable sports show.

In an episode entitled, The Giants Win the Pennant, the Giants Win the Pennant!, one of the main characters - Dan Rydell - wants to do a piece commemorating the 1951 pennant playoff game between the Giants and the Dodgers, when the Giants staged one of the biggest comebacks in sports history to win the pennant; and the winning homerun became known as Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world." Dan learns that the managing editor of Sports Night was at the game and bugs him throughout the episode to describe the game on television, but later learns that Isaac missed seeing the homerun because he was in the bathroom.
Dan: Were you bummed?
Isaac: For a while. But then you get older and it just joins all the other things that happen in your life while you were looking the other way.
Dan: Did you see your daughter get born?
Isaac: Yup.
Dan: Did you see her graduate college?
Isaac: Yup.
Dan: Were you watching Sports Night tonight?
Isaac: Yep.
Dan: Then shutup. The guy hit a baseball.
Isaac: (laughs) I know.
So, as an extraodinary blue moon rose over Spring Mobile Baseball Park on the last day of August 2012, I felt a sense of contentment about the end of another summer and the knowledge that the end of another baseball season is coming. And, while the game has brought a great sense of enjoyment to my life over the years, I am reminded by these thoughts that the most important part of the evening was not who won or lost the game - the Bees won, by the way - but that I spent an evening together with my family. Because, like Isaac from Sports Night, I am far happier that I get to witness life's most important moments than that I ever saw a guy hit a baseball.

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