"Half my poet-friends think I am insane to waste my time writing about sports and to loiter in the company of professional athletes. The other half would murder to take my place." So Donald Hall introduces his collected sports writings, confirming the somewhat throaty title with notice that we're going to get some writing here. Cuffs are shot; the poet's eye is going to focus on our sweatiest pastimes.
"In the country of baseball," Hall says, in an essay of the same title, "men rise to glory in their twenties and their early thirties -- a garland briefer than a girl's, or at least briefer than a young woman's -- with an abrupt rise, like scaling a cliff, and then the long meadow slopes downward. Citizens of the country of baseball retire and yet they never retire. At first it may seem that they lose everything . . . but as they wake from their first shock they discover they live in the same place, but that they live in continual twilight, paler and fainter than the noon of games." Yep, that's writing.
Its author, a confessed jock manque', finally throws up his hands at a lifetime of athletic frustration (except for ping-pong), settles for spectatorship and finds in that role the soul's balm that poets need, that other writers get from Scotch, adultery, trout-murder. Hall's is ultra-spectatorship, however: He contrives to attend spring training, to hang out in locker rooms; he writes of how he makes connection with sports in a poet's life.
The title essay demonstrates the method -- openly acknowledged Plimptonizing -- and establishes the flavor. It's a journal of a week of spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1973. Hall works out with the team, offering himself as aging butt, painfully acquiring a kind of mascot status. Eschewing Plimpton's aging-preppie cool, Hall burbles with a continuing amazed joy at being in the Presence. Donning a team uniform for the first time, "I discover that my sense of calm and control increases. I feel as if I could walk into bullets. I am aware that my happiness now is as absurd as my earlier terror." This innocent fervor is the book's greatest charm.
Among the book's entries, "The Poet's Game" is a mock-scholarly search for baseball-poet connections, with obligatory Marianne Moore anecdotes. "Proseball: Sports, Stories, and Style" is a lit-review of sportswriting, containing some frank dismissals but no surprises, serving chiefly to replay, with appropriate credit, some other people's anecdotes. There are shorter baseball pieces -- one actually entitled "Baseball and the Meaning of Life" -- and two poems. The nonbaseball entries are chiefly memoirist, but include a gentle profile of Boston Celtic Kevin McHale. All are lively, elegant, entertaining. The longest and best piece in the book is the excerpt from his fine "Dock Ellis and the Country of Baseball" (1974).
Hall is an engaging consciousness and writes a good line. Tiger Stadium is "like an old grocer who wears a straw hat and a blue necktie and is frail but don't you ever mention it." The young Ted Williams is "slim as a trout." "Both sports encourage penis-envy prose: football, envy of meat violence, splintered bone, and cleat marks on the eyeball; in basketball, gray-boy envy of black cool." But just as when reading Roger Angell -- one of Hall's non-athlete heroes -- dread finally begins to creep in: Hang onto your hat, here comes another one of those exquisite metaphors.
"Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, the long arc of the years between," Hall says, plucking his title from one of his own numerous riffs on the aching-with-nostalgia, emerald-green-tableau school of baseball writing. "As the ripples in the sand (in the Kyoto garden) organize and formalize the dust which is dust, so the diamonds and rituals of baseball create an elegant, trivial, enchanted grid on which our suffering, shapeless, sinful day leans for the momentary grace of order."
Ah, poets. "Why did I omit to be an athlete?" Hall asks himself, and his writing provides some clues. "Fathers Playing Catch With Sons" is a little about people, a lot about emotions -- spectators' emotions, writerly emotions -- and not much about sports. Not about athletes. What makes an athlete is the fiery obsession with the acts themselves, with doing the physical thing. This Hall likewise omits.
A player spots him watching batting practice long before the game: " 'What're you doing here so early?' he asks, cocky and fresh and friendly. Oh, I tell him, I love baseball; I'll watch anything, even calisthenics." But what is it the poet's eye sees in mere calisthenics? What might the legendary precision of poetic language reveal to us of the game, the skills, the efforts themselves? Of why his heroes are so exceptional: of what they do so well?