In Defense of Baseball: Adam Gopnik Replies

May 11, 2010

As a book critic, I make it a policy never to reply publicly to letters or comments about my columns and essays. As it turns out, my friend and colleague Adam Gopnik has always held strictly to the same rule. Now, however, because, he says, “baseball is different,” Adam has kindly elected to continue our simultaneously private and public dialogue. I hope you enjoy his piece, and I will be continuing the conversation in the coming days.

In Defense of Baseball: Adam Gopnik Replies

One of the risks of blogging for the non-blogger – and for the veteran blogger too, I imagine – is that it freezes in place as set ideas and arguments feelings and intuitions that are, in their origin, much vaguer and more nebulous than that.   In that little “End of Baseball?” blog post I wrote,  and you responded to, I wasn’t trying to construct a Case Against Baseball. I was trying to do something much more modest but, maybe, more useful: I was taking note of something interior to me that I had never thought would happen.  I don’t follow baseball much, or even at all, anymore, and once I did so much.

Perhaps I should have emphasized more how much I was attached to the game and to all the interior rhythms that you describe so well: all the micro-dramatics of each inning and each pitch. I recall, in my remote youth, going out to Jarry Park and then Olympic Stadium in Montreal thirty or forty times a year – truly that many – and becoming lost in the tiny significant actions between actions, and the way that one lay on top of the next to create an intricate construction, like a Rube Goldberg mouse-trap, in which the action eventually  got caught, resolved.    In those days, as no one now recalls, the Expos had a track team leading off — Rodney Scott, Ron Leflore, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines  (who came a little later) – and it was a delight just to realize, once man was on base, how many options had been opened for the offense, and how many foreclosed for the pitcher, just by the presence of a single runner taking an audacious lead.    The very first piece I wrote for The New Yorker was about baseball and time, baseball and the slow accretion of meaning over time – the very thing you love and think that I’m neglecting. ( And I’d written it , originally, as a wedding present for a sister and brother-in-law who had shared many of those Montreal games.) And it wasn’t just the action – it was the lore, too, as much, if not more. You recall the piece in “ Paris To The Moon” where I told Luke, your future protégé to be, about an imaginary three-year-old fastball pitcher for the 1908 New York Giants nicknamed “The Rookie”?  Well, that really happened, night after night, for years: if I ever assembled all the Rookie stories in a single book – maybe I should – they’d be as long as the Iliad, which in certain ways they resembled.

So, whatever the source of my disenchantment is, it isn’t an indifference to all of that intricate intimacy that, again, you describe so well. And though I have other passions in sports – hockey is my Canadian leftover passion, and even football I’ll have to try and convert you to someday – baseball was first. And it was the one – not to be sentimental here, but there is a difference between sentiment, which rises from the heart,  and sentimentality , which is forced out by the will ,and this defines it as well as anything – that I shared utterly with my own father, who started taking me to ball games when I was five or six,”twi-night doubleheaders” at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia , which he still called Shibe Park, year after year.  He taught me to watch the pitcher, mark the catcher – and my grandfather, who came to “this country” at the age of twelve, was there too, and, like a million other immigrants, baseball was America to him. No, I get it – I really do, beginning to end.

So: the question I wanted to put was not why didn’t I get it, but why, getting it as much as I do, or did, why did I no longer care?   I don’t – we don’t, as people, as a rule – lose our passions as we age, whatever anyone may say. We may have less time for them – I’ll avoid the obvious one here – but we don’t lose them.  They temper, alter, mutate a little – but, really, not that much. Hockey, which has been as mismanaged as any sport can be, still sweeps me up in its elemental drama and turn-on-a-dime emotion (We’re losing…we’re tied! We’re winning!)  and I follow football closely enough, still.

One simple theory is that my team, the Expos, are gone…but I once rooted for the Phillies, I could find a new team. Another is that my son, your student, Luke Auden, isn’t turned on much by baseball, and, lacking that connection, my own interest fades.  Nothing wrong at all with the game, but just a missed link and a loss of love.

But if I ask – and here I think we come to the center of our quarrel – why Luke doesn’t care for the game as you do and I once did, we come to some real troubles, actual problems.   He can speak for himself, of course, but if I had to deduce, it’s because, first, it’s not a game he really plays much, except occasionally in its softball form…but then it’s not a game he really watches much, because it’s …slow. And though the slowness is, as you say, part of the glory, I do think, truly, that there’s a new slowness out there that’s real, problematic and hard to wish away.  There was a piece in the POST this morning about how long the Yankee-Red Sox games are going now – three shading into four hours each time – and though I know that cricket matches go on for days, there is a limit to how many times you want to see a pitcher approach the catcher, a batter call time out, one more pitching change get made.  These things, as Bill James has written – even Bill James! — are not part of the game, part of its changeless rhythm , but are instead intrusions on the game, part of the many attempts made over the years not to play the game, but to keep the other team from playing it by creating distractions. Changing pitchers four times an inning to get the platoon advantage is not the way baseball was ever meant to be played.  Nor was baseball meant to be played in frigid autumn evenings after midnight – and yet, since those are the hours in which Luke has seen the game played at its best – is it any surprise that he’s indifferent to the game in its cozy mid-season form?

And then the issue of changing affiliations…. Jerry Seinfeld has a funny thing about “rooting for laundry” – that since the players change allegiances every year or so, we can only be cheering for a uniform, not a player – rooting for laundry.  This is part of the condition of fandom, of course, and always has been, and as I think I said in that original piece, I accept that the old condition, where players were bound to teams not by any kind of actual “loyalty” but by brutally unfair contracts and conditions, was ridiculous.  But ….the constant churning of the talent, Matsui in, Matsui out – doesn’t it bug you more than the shrug you give it?  Doesn’t it make rooting for your beloved Yankees somehow abstract, unanchored in anything continuous and rewarding?  Doesn’t it ever take the edge off your passion? Maybe it doesn’t—maybe it shouldn’t – but it does mine.  And then while I entirely agree with you that the real villain in the steroids story is Selig – and isn’t it sickening that the villains in our national nightmares, in the banks or on the ball fields – get right off, with their millions, and no complaints? – still, there’s something about the inexpugnable presence of the steroid problem right there in the middle of the century’s record book that I don’t think can be wished away. My friend Ben McGrath points out that there are many ups and downs in the record books – sixties pitching is about as crazy and anomalous as nineties home run hitting – but the other anomalies come from odd and easily-altered conditions, not from clandestine and ugly cheating. The steroids scandal, as I say, is much more like the gambling scandals of the teens — only without a Landis coming in to clean it up.  It’s as though the Black Sox were mostly still playing, and people were arguing about the rights and wrongs of gambling, what cheating really means, whether it’s really fair to blame the players, etc.  (I’m surprised by my own vehemence here, since I don’t really blame the players for being driven to adjust their abilities unnaturally – if someone made a pill that would enable me to write for twice the hours, twice as well, would I really refuse it? If someone made a pill that would enable a card-man to work his hands twice as fast, would he refuse it? But the problem is that every other card-man would have to take the pill, too, and that would be wrong.)

So: as I said – and maybe I’m merely repeating myself here, but sometimes repetition is the path to truth – I don’t doubt the truth of every word you write about baseball’s inner beauty. I used to write ‘em, too. I don’t doubt for a moment that the alteration is interior, and my own. Yet there it is – and it isn’t entirely my own, either. A lot of people have written to me to offer their sad concord with my own feelings. It’s pretty rare for any emotion that washes over one of us not to wash over many: you decide to stop wearing a hat in 1960, and soon the world was hatless. I don’t think that a hatless – or, in this case, a capless – world is a better one. But it is the world I see right now.

What we really ought to do is … go to that Yankees game together.  Ever,

Adam G.

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