Baseball Language and “The Players”

In light of the pleasures of baseball lingo it’s vexing to consider how infrequently the poetry beat and the baseball beat cross over. What is there after Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s hoary “Casey at the Bat”? There is, thankfully, Robert Frost’s “Birches,” which contains one of literature’s great forlorn descriptions:

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball…

And after that there’s not too much else that comes to mind.

Which again, is odd, because baseball does “sound” great, doesn’t it? Think of every ball carved foul, every outfielder camped out under a towering fly, every curveball dropped off the table. For some reason, baseball’s clichés – and the previous are all clichés, phrases announcers reproduce hundreds of times – contain a perpetual energy. Other dialects wear out quickly. For instance, in the business world, as we all know, to encourage another person to venture “outside the box” long ago became the verbal equivalent of stabbing that person in the ear with a letter opener. On reality television, when a character snivels about “being thrown under the bus,” the burst of hatred we feel for the speaker is only a fraction cooler than the hatred we feel for ourselves for watching. Each time a politician promises to “change Washington” or “reach across the aisle,” we are reminded of the meaningless garble of grown-up conversation in Charlie Brown cartoons.

Now, it’s true baseball talk doesn’t go on all year round. From November through late February the pastime gets a rest and so do the country’s ears. Business, reality television, and politics never stop.  One might also make the argument that baseball language has an advantage over those other languages because business, reality television, and politics are mostly dreadful, while baseball is mostly wonderful.

But the glory of baseball language really has two parts:

First) The peculiarity of so much of what is said in baseball demands to be relished and pondered. Who the hell is “Uncle Charlie”? Did he invent the curveball, or did he just have a good one, or what? Why is an excellent pitch described as “filthy” or “nasty”? Why not say that it was “sweet” or “lovely”? Does any term come closer to articulating what a life of heavenly ease might be like than “room service hop”? Does any euphemism better explain the limitations of a batter, and by association, of the folk music revival of the sixties, than “banjo hitter”? And for a sport that contains such joy, what about the multitude of deliciously ominous expressions that it includes: “sacrifice squeeze,” “twin killing,” “dead at home,” “the cut off,” etc.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to unleash a wicked slurve on Mark Texeira and send him back to the dugout cradling his lumber!

Second) The zest of the people who speak baseball, their utter sincerity, keeps the language verdant. It’s in the way that the announcer leans on that first syllable of “carved,” so that there’s a smidge of pirate in it: “carrr-ved foul!” It’s in the way that, as a youth, my friends and I would see Mike Boddicker freeze a hitter with a backdoor breaking ball, and marvel to one another, “Did you see how that thing fell off the table?”

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Jill Bialosky’s new book of poetry, The Players (Knopf, 2015), is that yearned-for crossbreed: a collection of baseball verse. (Actually, only one section of the book, a cycle of thirteen poems, is connected to the pastime – the rest of the collection goes in other directions. Poetry-loving baseball fans will be grateful for what they can get!) Bialosky obviously appreciates the sport’s argot and lets it cast its spell. One poem, “Chatter” is composed entirely of encouragement from the bench:

That’s the way to hop. Let’s go.

Throw the baseball now. Heads up.

Dig, dig, dig. Batter’s safe.

We got him in a pickle. He’s out.

Look at that chug-o-lug.

Another,  “Manhood,” is mostly baseball coach-speak:

We don’t slow down.

We don’t slow down.

Wipe it off your face

and shrug it off.

Win the battle.

Get mean.

If the line the poet draws in “Manhood,” between boyhood play and adult masculine edge, is a little true for your taste, you still enjoy the music she teases out.

Bialosky circles a field that has the buzz of a million semi-rural and suburban ballyards, up and down the amateur levels, Little League and Senior League and Babe Ruth League and high school and Legion, where the soundtrack is provided by parents and insects. The photographed cover of The Players is that rare jacket that bears mentioning, because it captures the milieu perfectly. In the foreground of the photograph stands a weedy shortstop of nine or ten in a white uniform and an oversized cap, and in the background, a husky runner in tomato red stretches off second, while between them runs a base path that is only half legible in the tufty infield grass. The poems fill in the audience for such a game, catching the perspectives of the players’ loyal, uneasy mothers (We sat in a group and drank our coffee/and prayed that they’d get a hit) and their clenched, febrile fathers (When they hit the ball hard,/stole home, executed a double play/ we lived on it for days), and the girls

behind the gated fence

when the air smelled

of manure and rotting grass….

Perhaps the sharpest takeaway is the reminder of how meaningful those soon-forgotten childhood and adolescent games are in the moment, and not just for the competitors. There is nostalgia in that reminder, but Bialosky tethers it to the hard reality of what it was actually like to play: the fields were buggy and the fences were chain-link and a handful of the dads did go nuts.

The Players is by no means an encompassing poetic portrait of the sport and I’ll hasten to add that it lays no claim to being one. It’s a few curated pages of snapshots from a viewpoint that’s entirely different than any you’ll find in the sports pages, and entirely welcome.