“Sonnet 98” – William Shakespeare
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Poetry or Baseball: an impossible choice to make for this April post. So I decided not to choose. In honor of National Poetry Month, baseball season, and the fact that I am an avid baseball fan, this post is dedicated to things I love in equal measure: baseball and poetry. I have missed baseball. Even though I play with its shadows all year ‘round (the Hot Stove season, filled with trade rumors and free agent watching, has plenty of intrigue to keep me going), there is nothing quite like watching actual games. Bring on the peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and beer! My soul is trapped in winter without my Bronx Bombers. (Yes, if somehow you missed it, I am a Yankees fan. You are allowed to despise me now.)
The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in the history of sports. Even if you hate them (which many of you do), you have to grudgingly admit that the Yankees have set the standard for excellence in team sports. Here is a bit of trivia: did you know that Yankee Stadium was the first baseball venue in the United States to be called a stadium? Not a park or a yard or a field. A stadium. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, closed in 2008, re-opened in 2009, and the name has never been changed. It has never been sold to be PNC or M&T Stadium. The word stadium means the same in Greek and Roman languages – it is a unit of measurement. It was also used to describe a tiered structure with seats for spectators surrounding an ancient Greek running track. And perhaps, more interestingly, the word means a stage in a life history.
The Yankees have won 27 world championships. No other franchise in any other sport comes close to that. The Yankees also boast so many great players – players who haunt the history of the game like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, Jackson, Rivera, and yes, even Derek Jeter. Someone recently wrote about all of the numbers that have been retired by the Yankees. Pretty soon, they could run out of eligible jersey numbers, as Jeter’s number 2 will surely never be worn by anyone in pinstripes ever again. In fact, no one will ever wear the numbers 1-10 again for the Yankees. That is unprecedented, but not unreasonable given the players we’re talking about here. The true greats are honored with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of mini-hall of fame for Yankees legends. The plaques reside now in a special hall enclosed in the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The purpose of a monument is that it stands to commemorate historical significance or importance: in this case, the greatest players of the greatest team. I visited Monument Park the first time I visited the old stadium in 2006.
In old Yankee Stadium, Monument Park used to be in the middle of left field. Before the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s, the monuments were even in play – quite a hazard for the left-fielders to navigate. The monuments were approximately 460 feet from home plate, so it wasn’t everyday that a ball would get lost out there, but it did happen. Eventually, Monument Park was moved beyond the left-field fence, and for any true baseball fan, a visit to Monument Park is a pilgrimage worth making. My first visit to Monument Park got me thinking about my brother – we were both big fans of baseball. Someone recently asked me about my brother because I referred to him as I was telling a story about our youth. The friend I was speaking to didn’t know I had a brother because I seldom do refer to him. That is not because I don’t love him or think of him, but because he died 22 years ago.
I have told this story before. I first brought this story to Journal Club in 2001. But now that I am blogging, I will tell it again because I want the record to show this story. It is kind of an origin story for me. It is also a tribute to my brother, Bryan. In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” He was talking about how his sonnet was a monument to the person he loved. Just like the Yankees have Monument Park to commemorate their great players, in the stadium of my mind, this story about Bryan stands to honor him. You know how in the movie Field of Dreams, they say: “If you build it, he will come?” Yes, I thought: “If I write this, he will be remembered.” Though I have worked on this story for many years trying, without success, to perfect it, the title has never changed. I thought I’d share the very first version of it I ever wrote because somehow it seems the purest.
“Seasons of Perfection”
I have grown to love baseball because every boy always told me that I couldn’t play it. There’s a secret here that boys don’t want girls to know: they can play it, and they can be a lot better than the boys are. My brother Bryan and I played baseball together in little league. He didn’t want me to play because I was a year younger than he was, and way better, and oh yeah, I’m a girl. So my mom thought it would be a good idea if we played on different teams – he for the McMinn County Reds and me for the McMinn County Astros. In high school Bryan worked hard at it, and soon baseball was my brother’s best sport – it was the only sport that he was better at than me, and just barely. In his senior year of high school, he got on base every single time that he came to the plate – not all hits, but still: a perfect season. I really admired that, but I never told him. It’s against the code of sibling rivalry to congratulate one another for anything at all – a stupid code I now think. It’s not the only thing I never praised him for. There is a litany of silences that I regret now in the way that you can only regret things you will never get to do. After my brother died in 1993, my mother asked me if there were any of his things that I wanted. Of all his things, the only thing I really wanted to take was his baseball jersey. The way that I remember him now in this jersey, in his life, is spotless. It’s a trick of the memory to clothe people in their best possible robes after they are gone, like a jersey worn in a season of perfection.
When I was seven, our father took us to a minor league baseball game to see the Chattanooga Lookouts play. They are named the “Lookouts” because there is a great mountain near Chattanooga called Lookout Mountain. It’s the only really prominent thing in Chattanooga other than the famous choo-choo train, and no team of men wants to be called the “Choo-Choos” I guess. We sat very close on the third base side of Lookout Stadium. My dad told me to bring my glove in case there was a foul ball hit our way. I was seven, but he was certain that I could catch the ball if it came near me. He taught me to play ball before he taught my brother. Bryan wasn’t very coordinated when he was a kid. Dad thought that I was a prodigy. Anyway, this was the first and last game my dad ever took us to, and it seemed like it was going to be perfect. A few innings into the game I got the chance that I had been hoping for: a foul ball was hit my way, but it was coming too fast and I was not ready for it. I was lost in the pink and blue fury of my cotton candy, and even though I did have my glove on, it was whizzing past my right ear and smacking the seat behind me before I could even move the mitt. In a perfect world, I would have gotten that foul ball, but that is not how life goes.
When I was nine and ten and eleven, I spent summers with my grandparents. I remember the summer evenings that stretched out lazily into warm, dark Tennessee nights and the apparition of curtains that advanced and retreated eerily in the soft night breeze, carrying the sweet smell of crab apples and wet grass and wood and coal from the shed on the hill. My Papa Odum, a Yankees fan, was a baseball nut. He watched games all day, every day, whenever they were on, and when he went to bed at night, he listened to the games on the radio. It is this ritual of listening that I remember most clearly, the way the game sounded on the old clock radio. It’s the kind of clock radio with the flip numbers, the kind that growled instead of shrieking, the kind that clicked methodically. The sound on the radio was never good; neither was the reception. But Papa Odum always seemed to be able to find “the ballgame” no matter what. The games were quiet and far away. The announcers droned on over the restless buzzing of the fans: “Two outs now, and Mattingly to the plate with nobody on…he digs in and takes a called strike… 0 and 1 the count now on Mattingly in the top of the fourth….the Yankees trailing 3 to 1…” The windows were always open at night, allowing for the most glorious concert of sounds – the baseball game, but not only that; the baseball game and my grandfather’s heavy sleep-breathing; the baseball game, and sleepy breathing, and creaking of the house, and the mad crickets and the whispering rain…
With its tragic ease, baseball is both dull and wonderful in its perfection; but it’s the imperfections that provide the real opportunities for humor and grace. There is a poetic rhythm to baseball that no other sport can imitate, and this is precisely because baseball is about the so many things in-between, the so many lost moments. Like the way that the crowd lulls in lethargy between pitches, between batters, between innings; like our mistakes of silence – things we don’t say, things we’ll never be able to say.
I love baseball because it reminds me to revere moments of imperfect life and preserve them in perfect memory. For me, baseball is a day at the park with a favorite friend, sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog, Cal Ripken breaking the streak, cotton candy stuck to the pocket of my mitt, Mike Schmidt hitting his 500th home run, the foul ball that sails just past my head, Harry Carey calling the game for the Cubs, the organ music – out of tune, Sid Bream, with his leg brace on, sliding home to beat the tag and win the ALCS, the seventh inning stretch, the ground ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s legs, and Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbling into the batter’s box and hitting the ball clear out of the park in October of 1988 in the World Series. Baseball is the great poem of my life, and baseball is still, for me, about remembered seasons of perfection; they are the stuff that dreams are made on, and so much more: the way that we remember the suddenly ubiquitous smell of grass, the first warm, long evenings, disappointment, childhood, fathers, brothers, and histories.
© 2015 Ryna May