Alan Catlin: An Essay
“To everything there is a season……..”
For many of us there are only two season of the year: baseball season and offseason. And offseason could be more aptly categorized as: anticipation of baseball season. Baseball season is a time of warmth and activity, summer fun and endless topics of discussion revolving around the success or failure of a beloved team. Offseason is a time of darkness, featuring a lack of completeness, where one always feels slightly unfulfilled. A standard topic of discussion, then, is about ways to insure the success of a team or to prevent further failure of said team, all of which leads up to Opening Day; that ultimate time of Hope and Optimism, when all teams, even the ones obviously fated to fail dismally, are equal, if only for a day.
Baseball season is long, a slow, symphonic pacing, whose themes are gradually established and repeated with various thematic narratives, until a complete work is revealed at the culmination of the year. Some see this as endless and pointless, but no less a mind than Henry Kissinger has suggested, and I agree with him on this point, perhaps the only point I agree with him on, that ninety per cent of baseball is mental. The only limitation to the game, under this construct, is a failure of the imagination imposed by the mind which fails to see the possibilities this matchless game affords.
As George Carlin observed, in his opening night monologue on Saturday Night Live some forty years ago, (and I paraphrase): football may be the new national pastime because it is about one purely American trait: land acquisition. The field is a rectangular grid, the same in every stadium where it is played, and the point of it is a violent confrontation, with the goal in mind, of usurping the other’s territory by violent means. Baseball, by comparison, is played in parks, the dimensions vary from park to park, and they are laid out in way that proceeds from a focal point and expands ever outward, perhaps to infinity. The point of baseball is to arrive home, in football, to vanquish. Football is rigidly timed and is at the mercy of the clock, while baseball has no clock, is, essentially, infinite, as the game is never over until it’s over, as the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said. While Carlin was not advocating one sport at the expense of the other, it clear which sport he preferred.
As I write this essay, it is decidedly way offseason, temperatures barely breaking zero, wind chill plummeting to near Arctic levels, with several feet of snow on the ground. This is Offseason in Spades. Yet the news that baseball camps are about to open for pitchers and catchers to report, in less than week, offers a glimpse of hope. In the meantime, the mind wanders and thoughts turn to the realm of speculation and the imagination.
Off‑season can be a time for the restless imagination. In the void created by the absence of the real thing, some of us are forced imagine a league of our own. The first teams are easy: my sons are big on Confederate Generals and it seemed natural that if they were playing ball, it would be against the Kentucky Bourbons. It wasn't long before a lineup took shape that looked like this:
Carter Littlepage Stevenson lf
Ezra Brooks 2b
Dabney Herridon Maurey ss
Jack Daniels rf
Howell Cobb rf
I.W. Harper 1b
Bryan Grimes cf
Jim Dickel c
Fitzhugh Lee 3b
Hiram Walker 3b
Sterling Price 2b
J.W. Dant ss
Lunsford Lindsay Lomax 1b
Jim Beam cf
Bushrod Rust Johnson c
Austin Nichols lf
John Sappington Marmaduke p
"Wild" Turkey p
William "Big Bill" Mahone dh
J.T.S. Brown dh
Now we are in the realm of ridiculous baseball and absurd conversations. My wife says: "How can we do Italian composers? We don't even know who they're playing yet."
"What difference does it make, just get the Schwann catalog."
"Wait a minute, who have you got so far? Using reference books is cheating!"
"Not always. This isn't the Times Crossword Puzzle, this is ridiculous baseball. Never mind, I've got Antonio Vivaldi, definitely a first baseman. Big Swing. Hits a lot of home runs, strikes out a lot."
"Okay, who else?
"Verdi. Sounds like a manager to me."
"The Boss, huh?"
"Just like Springsteen."
"Who? I never heard of an Italian Composer named Springsteen"
"Never mind, who else is there?"
"How about Cherubini?"
"How could I have forgotten him, the greatest Italian composer ever to play third base. You're the Opera nut, who else is there?"
"I still think it would be helpful to know who they're playing."
"The Joyce characters from Ulysses B Team."
"There are a lot of characters in Ulysses."
Ulysses B team
Dominico Scarlatti cf
Miles Crawford 2b
Lodvicio Guistini 2b
Hugh Boylan lf
Luciano Berio c
Rudolph Virag 1b
Amelere Ponchiell rf
Barney Kirnan cf
Luigi Cherubini 3b
Long John Fanning 3b
Antonio Vivaldi 1b
John Henry Menton rf
Giacomo Puccini lf
Bull Cohen c
Gaetano Donizetti ss
Dennis Bream ss
Tomaso Albononi p
"Don't you feel vaguely ridiculous," my wife asks, "Doing teams like this: Careful, you're dropping pizza sauce on your lineup."
"You could be doing something useful."
“Useless is as useless does.” At least, that’s what I think my grandmother used to say. She was big on aphorisms. I once accused her, in one of my less generous moods, of having memorized all of Poor Richard’s Almanac of Platitudinous Wisdom. She was right to be offended. When I said that, I was probably 19 and knew everything, and it is only now, as I approach her age then, that I have begun to realize that I really don’t know much at all.
I turned the page of my writing tablet and considered the blank space beneath the European Philosophers vs the Modern Irish Poets. I thought of John Montague, Irish poet, whom I'd met at a pair of Writer's Institute Workshops and had enjoyed a friendly, man to man type of teasing relationship with. John wouldn't like me putting him on my team so I penciled him in on first base. He could take a joke, I thought. The Irish poets were going to be easy, it was those European Philosophers you had to watch out for. Better ask the kids. Their designations for the Italian Team were often inspired. It's not everyone who could see Giocchino Rossini as a utility infielder or Vincenzo Bellini as a right handed relief pitcher. "Ok, guys, Friedrich Nietzsche, what's he sound like?"
"Okay, we'll come back to him. How about Spinoza?"
“Spinoza’s are always shortstops.”
Absolutely. I penciled in Spinoza at shortstop batting in the eighth position and wondered where Wittgenstein was going to play. Definitely in an A League……
I thought about forming a Misfit Fantasy League using real ballplayers who were noted for one eccentricity or another. Or who, like Bob Welch, said his biggest thrill of his career was striking out Reggie Jackson in the World Series. It was cool for Bob, not just because it was the World Series, but that he did it sober. He confessed that the next year, he probably wouldn’t have been. Years later, completely sober, one of the most lasting images of a baseball game stays with me of Welch, then with the A’s, on the field, a child on his shoulders, another one clutching his hand, his wife held close by his side during the earthquake series interruption, as he led his family to the relative safety of anywhere-but-the-baseball-stadium.
Or of Bill Lee, the Spaceman, who wasn’t adverse to a little recreational toking or novelty pitches or, well, anything truly offbeat during a memorable career. Or of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych , a one year wonder who captured baseball lovers hearts and minds through his antics on the mound which included talking to the ball before he pitched. Whatever he said must have worked as he won Rookie of the Year but faded rapidly from view after injuring his arm and died tragically young, though not forgotten. Or Bo Belinsky, who was more noted for his dates with starlets such as Mamie van Dorn, than his success on the ball field, although he did pitch a no hitter. Still, the lasting image of old Bo, is of him shooting pool in some roadhouse, with Mamie leaning against the table, busting out of her blouse as he shoots, than it is of him on the baseball mound. I did see him pitch once or twice during his brief major league career, throwing hard but probably should have been yelling, “Look Out!”, after he let the ball go, as no one, least of all him, knew where the ball was headed. Bo was a guy who didn’t mind getting sent back to the minors as long as the team was in Vegas.
And then there was the immortal Doc Ellis, who pitched a no hitter while tripping on acid. When you think of all the games that have been played at the major league level and how few of them, less than one per cent, end as no hitters, his achievement is worthy of some kind of special hall of fame tribute. As I have no authority to grant Mr. Ellis the kind of recognition in a shrine, I can offer him a small poetic tribute.
In the Zone
"(Dock) Ellis said he and his girlfriend were dropping acid the
afternoon of a game when his girlfriend, who was reading a
a sports section, said, "Dock, it says here you're pitching tonight."
AP News Article
He was in that special zone
athletes go to for optimum
achievement, the one they
refer to as that out-
where you can do no wrong.
Except in Dock's case
he was artificially inspired,
though no doubt, totally in
a groove, sometimes seeing
batters, sometimes not,
the catcher's sign coming
from another dimension,
one way beyond balls and
strikes, a no hitter's zone,
the first and last of his career.
Special thanks to Therese Broderick for suggesting “an essay” on misfit athletes.