A version of this essay will be included in the third edition of "Baseball I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life," published by North Atlantic Books.
Keep your eye everlastingly on the ball while it is in play
- "Complete Official Rules, General Instructions to Umpires, 9.00"
LIKE MOST of the visual arts, baseball exists outside time. It is a resplendently pure game of continual action, the latter not tobe confused with movement.
Since the action in a baseball game is often subtle, many think of the game as boring, or slow. Slow in terms of what? The game is not played within a time framework, but within one of space. It has suffered terribly because of television, sinceits special qualities cannot be carried across the electronic dimension.
As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, it is a hot game, filled with high-definition performances, and totally unsuited to the cool medium of television, unlike time games in which the performances are group efforts played against a clock.
Everything happens in gleaming space in the game of baseball: One can see what happens.
Baseball games are played and end in their own terms, spatially. They do not end because of a clock running out. "Anything can happen" is the fact in the game. Indeed, it can and often does.
In a game of football, a team that $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)See VISUAL, K4, Col. 1 is four touchdowns ahead with minute to play wins the game. That last minute of play is meaningless. Nothing like this ever occurs in baseball, no matter the charges of boredom leveled against it.
How remarkably unsentimental a game it is, how unfair. The pitcher, no matter how sublime his efforts throughout eight innings, must get the opposing side out in the ninth. He cannot stall and wait for the clock to declare him the winner. Why is this? The spatial quality of the game, its arrogant dismissal of the time framework, has no interest in what he has done. Dokey Oakes will come up in the ninth and with two men on, lash a triple, delivering the tying and winning runs. The eight men who assist the pitcher can do nothing because the ball is hit where they ain't.
The ball, and only the ball, controls the game. The players must play, not against each other, but against the ball. It is a game that is played in terms of where the ball is, at any given moment, and where it is not, at any given moment. The ball may not be interfered with, stolen, blocked, recovered, rebounded: It must be played. Nor can the players, offensive or defensive, be interfered with by players of the opposing team as they address themselves to the ball. This interaction of player and ball gives the game a strange and calm magic.
One might say that it is a spare game, one of verbs and nouns, without the fussy adjectives of time games. It is absolutely linear, and hot. It is manifestly a game of nonspecialists, despite the recent designated-hitter rule in the American League, and Charlie Finley's experiment some few years ago with a pinch runner. Players substituted for are out of the game permanently. The ball waits, for it is the ball, and only the ball, that allows the game its shape, ever-changing.
Who was it who said, some years ago, that football would be just as interesting if the ball were eliminated, and the object of the game were to get the quarter-back across the goal line? The idea is not too farfetched; one can entertain it. Without the ball in baseball, however, one has nine men standing in the sun, looking at a tenth with a piece ofwood in his hand.
A game for dogs and cats. Yet underneath its childlike simplicity of surface, it is remarkably complex. It has the beautiful quality of repaying one's attention - that is, the more one knows about the game the richer it becomes. The same, I grant you, may be said of group-time games, yet they seem to me to be arcane on the surface; and beneath the surface they are unintelligible or secret. One can, for instance, watch a professional football team for an entire season and still not understand the playbook rationale behind that team's running attack. Yet any fan in the stands can keep his own pitching charts and use them for future games.
The fielders and batters and base runners are excellent in so far as their agility, strength and grace are coordinated so that they may meet the ball (or avoid meeting it). The spectators see them do this, or fail to do this. The pitcher, the maestro, the conductor, is excellent insofar ashe tricks or overpowers the batter. And the spectators see him do this or fail to do it.
Two years ago I saw Willie Stargell wait for what he and the entire Western world knew would be a Seaver fast ball, waist-high and rising. It was indeed delivered, on the money, and Stargell struck out on it. Everyone saw: The very candor of the act, its availability to the onlookers, lent it a reality far beyond the realities of the symbolic. The ball, the game, was present, absolute, unclouded.
The game moves to its own rhythm. It, in Joyce's phrase, "beats time."