Saturday, November 7, 2009

I am fond of baseball and of ratty old baseball parks, so when I was looking for something to read during my son's piano lesson (somehow, Henry James didn't seem to fit the ticket), I settled on Michael Kimmelman's "At the Bad New Ballparks," his review of Dana Brand's The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair, which appears in the New York Review of Books that's been kicking around on my coffee table for the past week. I frequently forget to read periodicals, so I was lucky to stumble over this piece.

And I should say, as a disclaimer, that I have never been to Shea Stadium. Merely I have driven past it on the expressway, but I've admired its squatty toadlike construction, pointed it out to my fractious sons as a sign that the car trip is almost over, and pondered what it would be like to get off at this mysterious exit and wander around Queens, that unknown land. In a way, just driving past old Shea Stadium has fulfilled a certain baseball satisfaction: the slow, mysterious mind-wandering that makes up 90 percent of every baseball game.

My favorite way to experience baseball is during a Sunday afternoon day game in late summer, when I'm canning or pickling. I turn on the kitchen radio and spend several hours in the company of bushels of vegetables and Red Sox radio announcers Joe and Dave, who in between play-by-plays discuss the fielding prowess of the fans at various parks, recall taxi rides they have taken, reveal that the Dominican players are usually victorious at dugout dominoes tournaments, and so on. I find all this to be vital information and frequently forget to pay attention to the score. 

According to the Kimmelman article, Dana Brand is the "Proust of Mets bloggers," which is an exciting title to be sure. I, too, would like to be the Proust of something. The title evokes a pleasant wordy sadness, which is probably exactly the right state of mind for a Mets blogger, seeing as the Mets are so often dreadful. But also Proust allows his attention to wander in and around his subject, and that is a fitting attitude for a watcher of baseball. Kimmelman says:

Baseball doesn't take up all of your mental space as you watch it. It takes up a degree of it, and you're free, the rest of the time, to experiment with thoughts you might not ordinarily have. Brand writes well about this. He mentions in an earlier book called Mets Fans the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who described how he decided to become a novelist while sitting in the stands of a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Someone hit a double and Murakami thought, I should be a writer. The non sequitur of that decision conveys the state of associative openness--akin, as Brand notes, to what we may experience while traveling--that baseball inspires.

A major problem with these "Bad New Ballparks," however, is that they apply a facade of quaintness over what is really the goal of time-killing consumption: buy this, eat this, buy this, eat this, react to this loud preprogrammed crowd noise, buy this, eat this. . . . There is precious little chance to decide to become a writer.

But I wish I could watch a slow game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Something good would be bound to happen.


Thom said...

Minor league games are great because there's much less of consumption-related programming to deal with. And the stadiums tend to be agreeably crappy, if that makes sense. So who knows what you might realize during a Sea Dogs game?

Dawn Potter said...

And I love McCoy Stadium. Last time I went we watched a one-hitter that bored so many fans that eventually we got to move to empty seats behind the plate. There we sat, watching closer Daniel Bard pitch 100 mph pitches to inept Ironpig second stringers. It was lovely, like watching a falcon among chickadees, and so accidental.

Dana Brand said...


I discovered your blog when googling myself this morning (google provides opportunities for self-absorption of which Proust could never have dreamed). I really like your appreciation of the Kimmelman piece, which I hope will have some impact on the ways in which the stadiums and baseball are understood. I will always cherish being referred to as the Proust of Mets bloggers. I have always loved Proust and I have always loved the Mets and I am so happy to be associated with both of them simultaneously. You're right about baseball being the sport best suited for contemplation. Here, in the next post (there are length limits) is the text of the essay that Kimmelman refers to, from my book, Mets Fan:

Dana Brand said...



When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on the English Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser. The seminar was taught by A. Bartlett Giamatti. Giamatti was a terrific teacher, animated, funny, and smart. As everyone at Yale knew, he loved baseball passionately, and every once in a while he would write a piece for a magazine about how something in baseball reminded him of something in Renaissance literature. In our oral presentations, those of us in the seminar who were baseball fans would often try to make some baseball analogy. Giamatti always appreciated this and he would commend us with a kind of “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” look on his face.

One time, I saw Giamatti speak at a forum at Yale on baseball, with Roger Kahn and Ray Kroc. After the forum, he stood outside and talked with a few of us. It was baseball talk, the kind everybody does. We weren’t trying to think of how you could compare baseball players to shepherds in pastoral poetry. After that, whenever I ran into Bart Giamatti on the Yale campus, which was actually quite often, he would stop and talk with me about baseball. He wanted to do it. I wouldn’t have stopped him. Who knows how many people he did this with? I loved these talks on windy New Haven street corners. They weren’t particularly necessary or deep. But they established a connection between us. On the day it was announced that Bart Giamatti was going to become the new president of Yale, I was so happy for him. I told a lunch table full of graduate students that I was sure that someday he would be the commissioner of baseball. I’m glad I did that. I have witnesses.

When I tell this story to people in the world outside of academics, they always want to turn it into something like “See, his real love was baseball.” No, his “real” love wasn’t baseball. He loved baseball and he loved Renaissance literature. Not only is there no contradiction here, there’s a real connection. Both baseball and Renaissance literature are particularly appealing to people who have a lot of imagination.

Why is this? I have no idea. But what I am saying is true. Look at baseball blogs and compare them to football or hockey or basketball blogs. Even when they are focusing on the most arcane issue of strategy or statistical analysis, baseball fans are always looking for any excuse to break into their lyrical voice. They are all rank sentimentalists. They see a story in everything. Baseball, I actually believe, is less demanding intellectually, to follow or to play, than football, basketball, or hockey. But it is somehow friendlier to the fan’s experience of contemplation. You can sit in the stands of a baseball stadium and realize things about your life, like what you want to do with yourself, or whether or not you want to have a kid, or whether to ask somebody to marry you. One of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami, says that he decided to become a writer because one day, when he was 29, absorbed in his job and all of the details of ordinary life, he was sitting in the stands, drinking a beer, watching the Yakult Swallows playing the Hiroshima Carp. A player on the Swallows hit a double and Murakami decided that now it was time for him to write a novel. This is exactly right. This is why baseball is one of the greatest things there is. It is riveting, but it has pockets of time built into it, air bubbles that allow your emotions and your imagination to breathe.

Dana Brand said...



I wish I could tell you something deep or revealing that Bart Giamatti told me about baseball. I can’t. He loved the Red Sox. He wasn’t crazy about George Steinbrenner and he was very unhappy when the Yankees signed Goose Gossage. I remember a few other things but none of them are anything other than what any Red Sox fan would have felt or said in the late 1970’s. Giamatti was a fan. Which meant that he had his own personal relationship with baseball and yet what he thought and felt was pretty much the same as what everyone in the orbit of his team also felt and thought. This is why it was so great that he did become the commissioner of baseball. The commissioner should be a fan, someone who will fight for the fan. I was heartbroken when Bart Giamatti died after only five months as the commissioner. There was never going to be a fan’s commissioner again. Giamatti was a fluke, a very lucky break. But he died of a heart attack when he was a year younger than I am now, died as I was driving down from Connecticut to New Jersey, listening to Mike and the Mad Dog who turned their whole show over to this horrible, unhappy event that ended this terrific story.

I have one more memory of Bart Giamatti. I was having an independent study session with J. Hillis Miller, the distinguished professor of Victorian literature who became my dissertation advisor. Giamatti came into Miller’s office at the end of the session because they were going someplace together. “Oh, it’s the Mets fan,” Giamatti said and so we spent some time talking baseball with Hillis Miller, who was a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. They were telling me about their colleague Harold Bloom and his passionate and tragic devotion to his Yankees. Only Bloom, they observed, could find and know the tragedy of being a Yankees fan. Anyway, the next day I was walking out of the Yale Library and I saw Miller approaching, with a friendly smile on his face. Beside him was a handsome white-haired man with pointy features, whom I recognized with a thrill of intense nervousness. J. Hillis Miller was about to introduce me to Jacques Derrida. If you know who Jacques Derrida is, you are wondering what the hell is going to happen. If you don’t know who Jacques Derrida is, let me just say that he was one of the most influential intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, the central figure in something called deconstruction which ignorant journalists would ordinarily explain as a philosophical movement to drain the meaning and pleasure out of everything. It wasn’t that, but now is not the time to explain what I think it was. Suffice it to say that Jacques Derrida had no interest at all in draining the meaning or pleasure out of anything.

So there we are, on a winter afternoon in New Haven, two extraordinarily important intellectuals and me. Miller is explaining to Derrida that I am, like Miller, and Giamatti, and Bloom, a big baseball fan. And so for the next five or six minutes, Miller and Derrida are both engaged in a strenuous effort (linguistically strenuous, as Derrida’s spoken English wasn’t very good) to explain to me what a big fan Derrida was of what Americans call soccer and the rest of the world calls football. I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you down here, too. I wish I could report to the world that we had, with our big minds, or at least with their big minds, expressed some insight into the pleasures of sports fandom that no one has ever had before. But we didn’t. We were just, for that moment, some people talking about things we loved deeply. We knew that we didn’t understand our love of sports any more than anyone else. But we were happy to stand out in the cold and enjoy and share the fact that we loved it.

Dawn Potter said...

Dana, I am so happy you left those long quotations from your book because I have thought a great deal about the way in which baseball infiltrates itself into the creativity of thought. And I've come to this by being the mother of a child, who since the age of 8 (he is now 12), has immersed himself in the minutiae of baseball adoration. Clearly, pondering statistics can be a way of worshipping gods; and he loves the Red Sox as he also loves Huck Finn and Thor and King Arthur. I wrote a long poem in which (among other things) a Red Sox-Rays match-up becomes conflated with "Beowulf." So I love, love, love to see your writing and your thoughts, and I am so pleased that you are getting recognition in a place like the NYRB as well as on the local sports talk shows.

Dana Brand said...

Dawn, Your son's baseball fandom sounds very much like my own at his age. Mythology is mythology, epic is epic, we find it everywhere and it stays with us forever. I'd love to see your Red Sox - Beowulf poem. Is it published somewhere? My wife is a medievalist and she was a devoted Red Sox fan, as I relate in my essay, from Mets Fan, entitled "Marrying the Red Sox," which is about us watching the 1986 World Series together.

Ruth said...

My opera professor says baseball and opera are akin too. In both you wait and wait for the epiphany. In baseball it is the homerun and in opera it is the aria.

Dawn Potter said...

Dana, I love the the Red Sox-Mets story. I was 11 in 75, with a giant crush on Jim Rice. My sister preferred Fred Lynn. My parents had no patience for movie-idol crushes but baseball idols were fine. Yet by the time the Sox reached the Mets series, I had lost interest in baseball . . . primarily because I was too interested in my own romances. So coming back to it as an adult feels both strangely connected and disconnected. There is a dour fatalism in being a Sox fan that even the team's subsequent victories cannot erase. Yet at the same time we can only be smug that we're not Pirates fans. It's an ugly character flaw, a certain lack of generosity. Maybe you're right about the Puritan connection.