Outside Baseball

Looking for capital-M Meaning in a magical game

“It’s baseball, Ray.” This quote from Field of Dreams is one of the all-time great pop-cultural koans, perhaps second only in cinematic history to “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown.” As an explanation for the persistent tug of America’s pastime, the quote is both inadequate and perfect, as though nothing more need be said—though, of course, much more has been said, and is said, and will be said, in that movie and elsewhere. Like most memorable movie quotes, “It’s baseball, Ray” is actually a misquote, much like “Play it again, Sam”; the actual line from the film is “The one constant through all the years has been baseball.” And that line comes nestled in a longer, languid, mellifluously sentimental bit of speechifying by James Earl Jones. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” he intones in his famously resonant voice. “It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

As difficult as it may be to explain the peculiar appeal of baseball, it is just as difficult to define what makes great baseball writing great. Yet it’s practically a prerequisite of modern baseball fandom to buy into the assumption that baseball, as both an athletic pursuit and a handy metaphor for everything, is uniquely poetic among sports. It’s not. I say this as a lifelong baseball fan. I say this as someone who grew up watching the bad, protean version of the Blue Jays as they patrolled the hard green carpet at Exhibition Stadium in their slim-fitted white pajamas. Who woke up his sleeping parents with his unhinged whooping as Mookie Wilson’s bounder snuck through Bill Buckner’s legs. Who felt physical nausea as the Jays’ first chance to win a World Series, in 1992, went into extra innings, yet who felt eerily calm and confident as Mitch Williams grooved a meatball to Joe Carter, who redirected it into the left field stands of the SkyDome the following fall. Who later walked up a jam-packed and jubilant Yonge Street in a kind of catatonic numbness.

Which is to say: I love baseball. It’s baseball, Ray! Yet I’m not convinced it has magical powers. Martin Amis and David Foster Wallace have both written brilliantly about tennis, Nick Hornby has written brilliantly about English football, and the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read about sports is King of the World, by David Remnick, a meditation on Muhammad Ali that doubles as a deft history of race and the American media. The temptation when writing about baseball is to avoid the hard work of finding the magic in the game and to instead lean on its hand-me-down mystique like a crutch. As with any metaphor, baseball is only as powerful as the writer who wields it. The best novel about sports I’ve ever read, for example, is not about baseball; it’s End Zone by Don DeLillo, about American football and, not incidentally, nuclear war. It contains this haunting, perfect passage, about the introduction of a college team’s first black player, Taft Robinson: “Taft caught a flare pass, evaded two men and went racing down the sideline, Bobby Iselin, a cornerback, gave up the chase at the 25. Bobby used to be the team’s fastest man.” I’d argue that is as telling and poetic and resonant a distillation of sports and life and race and America as anything about steamrollers and blackboards.

Two new books arrive, along with spring, along with the baseball season, each invoking a similar mission. The first, Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters, is a long, sprawling and loosely linked series of essays by the philosopher and public intellectual Mark Kingwell. The second, Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me, is a long, sprawling and loosely linked memoir of sorts from the journalist and novelist Stacey May Fowles. As their titles suggest, these books are not here to shoot the breeze or joke around: no, we’re in the territory of lives saved, of mattering. “Baseball is hope. Baseball is narrative. Baseball is a thing to do when there’s nothing to be done,” writes Fowles, echoing, perhaps inadvertently, Samuel Beckett. For Kingwell, such echoes are not inadvertent; they are so loud they barely qualify as echoes. “Fail Better” is, as the book’s epigraph drives home, a snippet from one of Beckett’s most famous, and most fridge-magnet-ready, quotes: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Already we’ve sailed past the domain of skinny Lloyd Moseby and Gary Carter and, in the modern day, Jose Bautista’s epic bat flip and Josh Donaldson’s hair; past, even, the iconic Canadian sportswriter Alison Gordon and the mythopoetic baseball novelist W.P. Kinsella; and into the realm of capital-M Meaning and capital-B Beckett. Baseball tends to inspire this sort of ambition. Occasionally, it even supports it. The New Yorker staffer and baseball writer Roger Angell has not, to my knowledge, in his 96 years and counting, ever put a single word wrong. But, to lean on another well-worn baseball metaphor, when you swing for the fences, you occasionally whiff. You strike a foul ball into the stands. You pound a dribbler up the middle. You go down, pinwheeling, in the dirt.

Fowles is up first. Her book grew out of a collection of thoughts, tweets, columns and, mostly, a weekly newsletter she began publishing in 2015, which collected particularly inspiring baseball quotes along with her impressions of the game. Her book doubles as a pseudo-memoir, chronicling her own bouts with a near-paralyzing anxiety, and examining how a complete immersion into baseball, bordering on the obsessive (she attends nearly every Jays home game in person), helped her deal with a troubling period in her life. As a result, the collection has a breezy, ephemeral quality but a self-serious mission. “I’m not in any way resentful of baseball’s strange grip on me,” she writes in an opening chapter, “but rather am grateful, and would even go so far as to say that my need for it saved my life.”

This proves a difficult trick to pull off. It’s difficult enough when done with careful consideration and the benefit and context of time—when you are looking back through the prism of hindsight at the strange pull that baseball exerted on you, and why—but it’s especially difficult when you’re essentially corralling a herd of more or less contemporaneous musings and observations and repackaging them as a book. One handy way to evaluate any book about baseball, especially one that revels in a rambling, collegial looseness, is to decide whether, as a reader, you might enjoy watching a game with its author over beers. I suspect that if a stranger sat down next to you at a sports bar and opened by saying (as Fowles does), “in recovering from mental illness, I’ve learned that structure is the key to any therapeutic process,” you might smile politely, then look for your chance to scoot a few bar stools in the opposite direction. This is not to make light of Fowles’s experience, or her book’s premise, but rather to make clear what that premise is (as she does, early on), and the difficulty of delivering on it successfully.

A project like this poses a writerly challenge, and a readerly question: can the author take her own experiences, her own struggles and stumbles and tiny triumphs, and recast them in a way that feels universal? Sports, as a vessel for writing about personal feelings, offers the handy element of common experience; we don’t all know what it feels like to be crippled by anxiety, but we do know (or at least those of us drawn to a book like this) what it felt like to watch Jose Bautista defiantly flip his bat after hitting a monumental home run. For a writer, tying those two things together—the personal and the communal—in a way that feels fresh and revelatory is where the magic happens, or doesn’t.

An early chapter on David Price, the pitcher obtained in a trade by the Blue Jays for their 2015 stretch drive, illuminates this dilemma. The chapter carries the date stamp November 27, 2015, and it’s a long exposition on Fowles’s feelings about Price’s potential post-season departure from the Jays as a free agent. She recounts Price’s appeal—“he was indisputably affable, charming, and kind-hearted, with a winning smile and an adorable French bulldog named Astro”—and adds her own arm’s-length observations, which she admits are overly starry-eyed. “The hopeful (or perhaps naïve) among us would like to think that Price is driven less by money and more by heart,” she writes. There is an opportunity here for Fowles to explore thornier elements of fandom: For example, why do we invest essentially imaginary attributes to players we really don’t personally know at all? What’s in it for us? The true fan roots blindly—it’s what makes being a true fan so much fun—but the writer should at least cast a self-critical eye on the roots of his or her own fandom. Instead, Fowles’s chapter fixates on a simple question: will Price, the affable, charming bulldog owner, stay in Toronto, or will he go?

Spoiler: He went. This is a fact long since resolved, over a season ago, which in baseball time is an eternity. Why this chapter has not been updated, or expanded, but instead simply arrives with an italicized addendum declaring that Price signed with the Red Sox in December of 2015, is unclear. It’s also a shame, given it would have been genuinely interesting to read about the aftermath of this event for Fowles herself, especially having just read so much on how irrationally invested (because every single thing about being a sports fan is irrational) she was in Price’s decision. Instead, her insights only go so far as “the reality is that, in life and in baseball, people pack their bags and move on.” That they do. As a tweet, it might have some resonance, but as a chapter in a book, it feels like a reheated meal that has barely been warmed back to room temperature.

The larger problem is that Fowles sets herself the task of not just revisiting her observations about particular moments of interest, but also diagnosing baseball’s recuperative, even life-saving, powers. Yet she too often lands on squishy sentiments such as “and maybe it’s only in these communal moments of suffering that we realize that all we really have is each other.” Or, on the very next page, “I’m okay with admitting that my ‘insider information’ primarily comes from inside my heart.” (This line makes even the author cringe, as she follows it with an apologetic shrug: “Yeah, I’m kind of ashamed I wrote that, but it’s the truth.”)

Fowles fares better when she zeroes in on targets like the perils of fandom-while-female, as in the chapter “Watching Like a Girl,” in which she details the clumsy efforts by Major League Baseball to appeal to women, with such gimmicks as pink-accented uniforms on Mother’s Day or special events like “Fields of Fashion” targeted at female fans. She fares better still when she explores the influence on her of Alison Gordon, who covered the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star and became the first female beat reporter in baseball history. (Gordon is referenced reverently in both of these books, and rightly so.) But Fowles’s reportorial chapters generally work better than her essayistic ones—which limits the satisfactions of the book. This, after all, is the underlying challenge of any writing about sports. We’re all watching the same thing. We don’t need to be told what happened. We need to be given a new way to think about it, to consider it, to see it again afresh.

It’s unfair to compare any writer to Roger Angell, since Angell is as good at writing about baseball as any other living writer is at writing about anything. But consider this passage from a brief dispatch he wrote on Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium. Following a Jeter double that helped tie the score, he wrote, “we were free over the next hour or more to watch his naked, intelligent face in riveting closeups, while he fought and almost lost the battle with his emotions. Between pitches out at short, or while on the bench, he flicked his pale gaze this way and that, taking in the heart-rending familiar, and he pressed his lips together, or dropped his head, or looked elsewhere in birdlike twitches.” You could have sat right next to Roger Angell at the stadium that day and seen exactly what he saw, but you would never have seen it in exactly the way he saw it. And you would revel in sitting next to him, and hearing him recount it to you, and what it meant to him.

A paucity of interesting observation is certainly not an issue in Mark Kingwell’s collection. It’s not quite correct to call Fail Better a tour of Kingwell’s baseball knowledge, fandom and history, because “tour” suggests there is material he left out, which seems unlikely. But there are many kinds of baseball books, and many kinds of baseball fans, and if you are the kind that longs for a book about baseball that also contains a chapter called, simply, “Love,” and which begins with the solitary sentence “What is love?,” then Kingwell has written just the book for you.

Kingwell has an agile, and active, and engaging mind, and has no problem—in fact, seems excited by—dropping references to Aristotle and the movie Frozen just 26 words apart. At a certain point, I stopped dog-earing pages with mentions of Kierkegaard, or Hegel, or J.D. Salinger, or Wittgenstein, or Glenn Gould, or Seth Rogen, or Marshall McLuhan, or Heidegger, or Justin Bieber, or Sun Tzu, because my copy threatened to become a dog with infinite ears. Kingwell’s bailiwick is applying his expansive knowledge of philosophical principles to quotidian pop pursuits—he has written 17 previous books, including one titled Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life—and one of this book’s recurring pleasures is learning the distinction, say, between a pragmatist, an empiricist and an authoritarian, as it applies to umpires. The pragmatist says “There’s balls and strikes, and I call them as they are!”; the empiricist says, “There’s balls and strikes and I call them as I see ’em,” and the authoritarian says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothing ’til I call ’em.”

The ranginess of the book underscores its occasional flaw—any book that takes such an ambling path will inevitably wander off into the weeds now and again. If Kingwell commits a crime, it’s a crime of curation: at times it seems there is no fact or snippet or tidbit of knowledge he won’t happily trot out to display. In fact, reading Fail Better is not unlike the satisfying experience of watching a lazy baseball game on a summer afternoon. Lounging in the bleachers with friends, you easily and happily spend a few hours shooting the shit, one-upping each other with stats or trivia, occasionally stumbling on actual insights, and enjoying it all the while. In this sense, Kingwell makes for an excellent companion. As with the famously unhurried game of baseball, you sit back, settle in, endure the occasional stretches of tedium, wait patiently for an outbreak of beauty and wonder, and are reliably rewarded.

Perhaps my biggest personal disappointment in both of these books is in how much they leave out or fail to explore. The state of modern fandom, especially in regard to baseball, is novel and fluid and perplexing and endlessly intriguing. For example, I am, as stated, a baseball fan. I also play fantasy baseball, a bizarre and ignoble pursuit by which I “employ” real-life players on a fictional team, accruing their statistics, in competition with other fans. For both of these books not to even flick at the essential absurdity of fantasy sports seems, if not an indictable offence, then at least an egregious missed opportunity.

Similarly, while both Fowles and Kingwell nod toward the advent, over the last 30 years or so, of advanced statistical analysis to baseball, neither delves too deeply, let alone deeply enough, into its philosophical implications. The rise of sabermetrics—basically, the use of data and algorithms to analyze past performance and thus attempt to predict future results—is a subject that seems so tailor-made for Kingwell’s particular affinities that I hope he one day writes a book about it. Baseball statisticians can now, for example, tell you the exact distance, velocity and trajectory of every single home run, and how many previous balls batted in precisely that way enjoyed a similarly glorious outcome, and how many died at the warning track. There is an obvious existential desperation to this brand of analysis. What is more fundamentally human than a longing to conquer the unknowable? To read, in the tea leaves, or chicken guts, or Wins Above Replacement of a backup infielder, a sense of what the future might hold?

Baseball, among all sports, is singularly well suited to statistical oversaturation, in part because so much of the play on the field involves solitary humans engaged in easily definable acts. (Whether a batter gets a hit, for example, is less complicated, on a metaphysical level, than all the kinetic interaction of a basketball fast-break or a kickoff return for a touchdown.) If we can predict a player’s future batting average accurately to a fourth decimal place (as the statistics seem to promise), can the mysteries of the universe, of life and death and love and meaning, be far behind? It’s no coincidence that Nate Silver, the current pop guru of predictive analytics, rose up through the ranks of baseball analysis. He applied his critical thinking to tracking base hits, and then, later, to tracking political polling. And if you don’t think we as a society have become overly invested in the notion that numbers, properly processed, can magically predict our collective fate, then you were deaf to the confounded wail that rose, south of the Canadian border, in the late hours of November 8 of last year. If that is not a subject worthy of the collected wisdom of Heidegger, Glenn Gould, Sun Tzu and Seth Rogen, then I don’t know what is.

 

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Alison Gordon’s first name; the error has been corrected here.]