Taking it personally: baseball and writing

Right this minute I’m taking baseball and writing personally.

Once again Jim Bouton comes to me, as if in a dream–unexpectedly and precisely–to put words into my head that I suspect will never leave me alone until I write about them. I mentioned in an earlier post about the “gripping” end to Ball Four (1970) that 20+ years after reading it, still resonates with my heart, still shakes my soul, still sits in my mind and defines how obsession works for me.

I just finished reading his follow-up tome, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally (1971). It appeared before me one day, and I was there, and it was there, so I read it. I started it last week while I was eating dinner and kept at it a bit at a time until today when I decided I needed to get through the final half. The pages are vintage 1970s–big print, lots of yellowing where the white space used to be, some old font I adore, ratty dust jacket all falling to pieces–and a giant black and white picture of Bouton on the back cover looking terribly handsome and very like the ham he confesses to be.

Bouton’s lyrically, deliciously, funny stories are alive to me again… and I recall how important Ball Four was to me at a critical point in my life. He/it was a “one.” You know what I mean–one of those moments, one of those influences, one of those turnings-down-a-path that colors the rest of your life. Reading his book, being open to the revolution of it, being willing to be guided by a passion greater than mine at the exact moment I needed that… well, it is truly a grand call to adventure that I answered and how. I read Ball Four for the first time when I was re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) a second or third time (and a lot of Samuel Beckett, too–what does that say about me?). Surely this can be no coincidence; surely the gods in Campbell’s book were looking out for me on that day in Chavez Ravine when a friend said, as we deliriously, happily, gleefully (always) watched the Dodgers, ate Farmer John hot dogs, and had a beer: “You like baseball so much, you really need to read Ball Four. I’ll lend you my copy when we get home.” And he did. Myth and baseball crashed at home plate. Baseball scored. Path defined. Path taken. Master’s thesis on baseball written… because my director asked to be my director when I said I was really doing a lot of thinking about baseball. He said, “I grew up going to Ebbets Field; I love the Dodgers; you should really do your thesis on baseball/rhetoric/mythology/sociolinguistics.” Or something like that. So I did. The director of my master’s thesis then showed me a doctoral program to go to, and forced me to apply (really, gave me the application, a pen, and said to get busy while he went to get us coffee), and the mything of my life went on and on. He was a “one,” too.

Even now I can tell you how every “one” in my life has helped me fulfill some aspect of my hero’s journey (I use the term hero to apply to my life only in the sense that I am on a long ol’ journey that periodically, and oddly, seems to follow the form of the true hero’s journey–not sure how it happens–is it because I always see what I’m looking for?). Lots of “ones” have inspired me, and not just Jim Bouton in baseball. I would include Gary Carter who hit for the cycle, at 37 years old, one night when I was at Jack Murphy Stadium watching him catch and hit like he was fifteen years younger–I would definitely include him as a “one.” He was beautiful, and 37 seemed so ancient and wise to me then; I was stunned by his performance and wondered, post-Ball Four, if this was the last time I might see him do that, if he was at the end of his career, if he would find that baseball had gripped him rather than the other way around. (He was just 37–can you imagine?)

Shoot, I can’t tell you much of anything about Gary Carter. I have no idea where he played or how long or the kind of career he ended up having (though I recall he was a great player–I’m sure he’s a Wikipedia entry–I hope he’s in the Hall of Fame). But I remember that night, sitting on the first base side, and him wheeling around to third for a triple… he was all kinds of lovely. I was so happy, I jumped up and down, and hugged my friend, and we yelled, “GARY GARY GARY.”  Who did he even play for in that game? I so don’t care. It was edifying to watch his hero’s journey and know that was what I was witnessing. If it was toward the end of his baseball journey, then it was a special moment; if not, it was still a special moment–who gets to do that in such a celestial sphere, surrounded by the most athletically talented in the world at their chosen sport? Not many. Playing major league baseball is breathing rarefied air indeed.

At the end of I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, Bouton talks about a former manager who suggested there are “three ways to get out of this wonderful game” [baseball]: “He said you could drink your way out, you could eat your way out, or you could f*&% your way out.” Bouton then writes, “You can also, I believe, write your way out” (219). I’m drinking the best coffee this Sunday morning, entirely enjoying the reading of this book that takes me back, not only to Bouton’s early 1970s, but to my early 1990s, and I get to this passage at the end, and I think:

Holy 8-ways-to-get-on-first-base moly.

I get that.  I’ve never had to work out how to retire from baseball, but I have had transitions that mocked my effort to understand my motivations, that grieved me greatly, that made me question what I was doing and what all around me were doing.  I’ve often thought about how to get out of something and into the next phase of my life. Not that I think the manager was right about everything. But then I think:

BLOG.

Yep. I have always written my way into and out of things. Not always productively, though. The manager was right in one way–there are always several ways for a body to screw up. And I’ve probably chosen questionable paths plenty of times, on purpose and not. Bouton is right, though, too. He wrote his way to another part of his journey. And writing is a mighty powerful thing to do. Bouton, who calls former players things like perspicacious (thank you, James Alan Bouton), is once more right here to clarify my thinking for me. He’s a “one” still. Much of this book is about his writing his way through the transition out of baseball, into full-blown authorial celebrity, and into broadcasting, and processing the aftermath of the huge success of Ball Four. I not-so-secretly adore him and wish Elizabeth Gilbert had been around for him to hear/read when he was in his early 30s wrestling with the changes he was undergoing and writing about in both books (she had a freakishly successful book, too–though it wasn’t about her writing her way out of baseball but out of a serious relationship funk). Her talk on Ted.com really gets at the core of what Bouton writes about: 1) showing up to do your job (in baseball or whatever) no matter what; 2) how genius occasionally comes to you (but can’t be counted upon, like the knuckleball which seems to go to its knuckleball “space” whenever it feels like it and only sometimes shows up for the game); and 3) how writing is a weird business (whether it’s a vocation or avocation or a profession–messing around with words can mess you up).  Perhaps in a perfect universe-colliding moment they will run into one another and recognize their similar geniuses (which only some times show up for work), and I will get a mental text on my mental smart phone that this happened and be full of myself for thinking it was a good thing that came true.

Baseball and writing for me then, is about showing up to do the work even when my genius won’t come out of the wall. Coming back to this blog when I think I can’t write anything of import. Going ahead into the game, going ahead with the words, with the charts, with the writing, with the thinking, with the cartoons, with the dreams, with the “play ball”–even when there’s no chance I’ll get a hit. It’s about taking what I do personally. Like this writing. It’s so personal, and yet, it’s seriously public. The minute I published one word here, it was forever cast in stone in some Library-of-Congress-time-machine-internet-capturing-conspiracy-net that keeps everything forever. It became history that I’ll never get away from, at word one. And what’s especially shocking to me is that I never would have taken this writing seriously (personally) until someone said to me: “You should really blog. Just do it–it’s a good place to work out what you’re thinking.” Good suggestion. So I did. I recognize a call to adventure when I see it now (like working as part of the team that does things with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource). It’s all part of understanding how to be a fully realized human, and recognizing the journey I’m on that gets me to a place of quiet, peace, unity, and words that sing. Sounds sort of cornball, but there it is: me taking it all personally and connecting things and ideas and finding my way to something I didn’t have before writing today. Now I have this. This piece of writing, this thinking, this moment of bliss that is being followed (“Follow your bliss”) thanks to Jim Bouton, Joseph Campbell, and a host of other co-conspirators on my journey who I guess would prefer to remain “players to be named later” or not at all. Because of them (and me), I followed my bliss. And how fine is that? Very fine.

I wish, wish, wish, just a bit of this hero’s journey vibe will rub off on my teaching so my students will know that what feels like colossal errors now are just speed bumps in their lives slowing them down, for sure, but not stoppage forever. I hope they get that. I’m a living embodiment of overcoming colossal error–in fact, I’m not even close to over that part of life–it’s just easier to forgive myself now. Is that maturity? If it is, I’m afraid it’s being wasted on me. It should be dusted on the young so they will have grander journeys, so they will change the world in better ways than I have, so they will recognize earlier in their lives the importance of their existence. Or, damnitalltohell, is that the point of the journey? That it isn’t until later on that we get what it all means and why it takes so long to get it and then, only then, we are driven to attempt to teach the young and feel everlasting-have-mercy-on-my-soul frustration when they don’t seem to listen!? Aha.

Irony of ironies.

So my words of wisdom to my young friends might be: baseball and writing, learning and the hero’s journey, mythology and baseball (Luke accepts the call to bat, Obi-Wan is the 1st-base coach, Luke is on his own for stealing or getting to second, Yoda is the 3rd-base coach, Darth Vader the pitcher, Luke is the boon-bringer as he comes home to score)–see the ball, be the ball, hit the ball, run like hell. Doesn’t it all just make the MOST sense?

I write here when I’m full to the brim and have to say what I need to say.  Does that mean what I think? Could I possibly be my own boon-bringer? If that’s the case, I’m rocking it. My writing here has led to celebration, satisfaction, loads of fun, and, what’s more, productive thinking for school, work, home, and everything/everywhere in between. Perhaps my writing is gripping me now instead of me gripping it. Is that possible?

Wouldn’t it be nice if baseball gave me all that? Maybe it just did.

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Filed under Magic and Writing, Writing and Identity

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