THAT SHOULD READ “ANGELLS”

BASEBALL AND RUMORS OF ANGELS (George Weigel, 4 . 3 . 24, First Things)

Baseball is played on a field that is theoretically infinite. While the inner diamond is carefully calibrated in precise (some might say, divinely inspired) measurements—90 feet between bases, 60 feet 6 inches between pitching rubber and home plate—the foul lines and the outfield could, in principle, be extended forever: a possibility that came closest to realization in the vast center field of New York’s old Polo Grounds (which in turn gave birth to Hadley Arkes’s great historical mnemonic: “I can always remember when St. Augustine was born—it was 1,600 years before Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds”). Unlike a football gridiron, basketball court, or ice hockey rink, baseball is played in an environment that hints at infinity.

Then there is time. Before the advent of Manfred Man—the ghost runner who now mysteriously appears at second base in the tenth inning of a regular-season game—a baseball game was potentially endless: another signal of eternity embedded in empirical reality. Still, even with the aberration of Manfred Man and the new (and, I confess, welcome) pitch clock, the fact that a baseball game unfolds without a temporal countdown, unlike sports played within a fixed period of time, is another of Peter Berger’s rumors of angels: a quotidian experience that lifts us out of the humdrum of the here-and-now into a different, transcendent realm—a realm akin to the timelessness of heaven.

JUST DON’T CALL IT SYSTEMIC:

From the Warp and the Woof, We Rise: Reflecting on a lifelong relationship with something more than a game. (Jonathan Coleman, 3/21/24, Hedgehog Review)

And yet when I return to 1964, I return to Dick Allen, who became the National League’s Rookie of the Year for Philadelphia and yet was treated horribly by Phillies fans (and by one white teammate in particular, Frank Thomas, who provoked a fight with Allen, and whose trade from the team both the press and the fans blamed and castigated Allen for). He became the target of things thrown at him: fruit, ice, garbage, batteries. He faced racist taunts and boos so numerous and unrelenting that he became the first player in baseball to wear his batting helmet out in the field. At one point, he silently traced the word “BOO” in the dirt around his area of third base. It must never be forgotten that the Phillies were the last team in baseball to integrate.

Allen, who grew up in tiny Wampum, Pennsylvania, fascinated me. I read and heard he had been given a hard time in the fall of 1963 when he began in Little Rock. Once his rookie season started in Philadelphia, he said little—other than making it clear he did not want to be called “Richie,” which he considered patronizing. His given name was Richard, he pointed out, and he wanted to be viewed and treated like a man, not a little boy. About this he was not quiet, taking a public stand in what was becoming King’s America, one that rankled many and impressed itself on me.

PRINCIPLED UNCERTAINTY:

What Baseball Teaches Us: America’s pastime offers many lessons on the importance of truly understanding information—and adapting to evolutions in knowledge (CHARLES BLAHOUS, MAR 28, 2024, Discourse)

Baseball is often derided for its slower pace and sporadic activity by those who prefer that sports deliver more continuous action (like basketball), or that they more closely replicate physical combat (like American football).

The pleasures of baseball, by contrast, reside as much in the thinking that occurs between pitches as in observing the graceful physical action. It’s a sport for people who share Socrates’ distaste for the “unexamined life”—those who aspire to be fully aware of what is going on even as it’s going on. This requires sufficient pauses in the action for the mind to notice, to wander and to analyze. To those who would disdain these contemplative aspects, Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber had his answer: “Baseball is dull only to dull minds.” […]

What we can learn from the mathematics of baseball goes much deeper than what we can calculate. Baseball also teaches early lessons in uncertainty—that one lives in a world of unpredictable events, that good decisions can still lead to bad outcomes, and that one should not assign much importance to any single data point. The lessons are stamped all over the sport. The best team typically loses more than one-third of its games; the worst team typically wins more than one-third of its games. Even if a manager makes the absolute right decision, it might not work out. On any given swing, the worst hitter might hit the ball on the nose, whereas the best hitter might foul a ball straight back into the stands or miss entirely. On any given day you don’t know who on your team will get the most hits, but more often than not it won’t be the team’s biggest star.

Anyone whose suppositions about life are that we can control events, that bad outcomes prove bad decisions, and that past results govern future performance will be utterly unable to understand baseball. Even relative to other sports, baseball is relentless in teaching these lessons. Alabama’s college football team may crush one opponent after another, but no baseball team is ever so certain to win—not a game, not a series, not even a pennant race. Tendencies are proved over the long run, but any given day might produce a great surprise.

Appreciating life’s unpredictability can’t help but carry forward into one’s professional decision-making, relationships, investments and attitudes about public policy. It certainly has for me. Baseball teaches that while there are ways to maximize your chances of success, there will also always be factors outside your control, and you are better off thinking in terms of probabilities than predetermined outcomes.

THE MOMENTS ARE ETERNAL:


WHEN THE DODGERS MOVED TO LOS ANGELES (John Wilson, 3 . 22 . 24, First Things)

I was just about to turn ten at the start of the 1958 baseball season; my brother, Rick, was seven-and-a-half. We were baseball fans, excited that the fabled Dodgers were moving from storied Brooklyn to Los Angeles, about twenty-five miles east from Pomona, where we lived with our mother and grandmother. Little did we know that our primary connection to the Dodgers would be Vin Scully, one of the best broadcasters ever.

Soon I had a “transistor radio” in the shape of a baseball—a birthday gift, one of my most treasured possessions. Rick and I had bunk beds, and we would often listen to the Dodgers there. I began to think that when I grew up, I wanted to be like Vin Scully, calling baseball games. In fact, of course, I was in most respects utterly unsuited for the job (just as, several years later, when I read Len Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File and decided that I wanted to be a spy, I was ludicrously deluded). But my delight in and admiration for Scully never waned.

When I was older, I would sometimes jot down scraps of Vinnie’s commentary on a 3 x 5 notecard. While calling a home-game between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres on April 26, 1980, he was reminded of his boyhood in New York, which prompted him to recall the idiom “rush the growler”: to hustle with a tin bucket to a nearby saloon for beer.

During a May 18 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he described the formidable hitter Bill Madlock making “small circles with the bat from the right side.” Noting the Pirates’ lack of a rarely varying set lineup (such as was then usual for championship teams), Vinnie quoted manager Chuck Tanner, “smiling and waving his hands,” who said “I play ’em all.” In the same game, speaking of the Pirates’ pitcher Jim Bibby: “Bibby looks in to Ed Ott, shuffling his cards behind the plate.” A game against the Cincinnati Reds, in Cincy, on August 8, 1980, was being played in “fire-escape weather,” Vinnie said; “you can wring this night out.” Every game elicited such commentary, wonderfully fresh, never pretentious or self-important, never straining for effect, always giving the listener a vivid sense of the moment.

You can listen to a number of Vin Scully game calls on Librivox.

DEM BUMS:

The Last Of The Brooklyn Dodgers (Richard Staff, 2/19/24, Defector)

The team moved west 40 years before I was born, but I’m familiar with Brooklyn fan dedication through my grandfather, Duke. He’s 88 and still has a bedroom drawer full of Dodger cards; they have pinholes through them, from when he’d put the team’s depth chart on his cork board. To distract from the agony of the subpar Mets seasons he subjected me to—no reason to be more specific, here—he’d tell the story of listening to Bobby Thomson’s pennant-clinching home run from the Polo Grounds on his radio. Used to the sound of cheers being a good thing on the home Dodger broadcasts, his mother came into the room celebrating what she thought was another trip to the World Series for the Bums. Seven decades later, he remembers wanting to throw the radio to make that cheering stop.

“Our fans got attached to us players in a different way,” said Carl Erskine, the only surviving Dodger to take the field during the team’s 1955 World Series win. “Of course the players who perform well always have a good following. I wasn’t exactly a superstar, but I had people who identified with me. I had a fan club, a bunch of teenage girls who all wore number 17 with a president, a vice president, and so on.” The world has changed in many ways since then, but a mid-rotation starter having a fan club of his own has never been normal.

“Many years later,” Erskine continued, “I went back to a function in New York and all these grandmothers showed up to meet me at the card show. They were all the teenage fans from the club, just a little bit older now.” He laughed when he told the story. “I didn’t have any of them tell me they named their kids after me. But it could’ve happened.”

Legen has it that one of the few times in his life the Grandfather Judd from the (Sunday) sabbath was to go to a 1955 Dodgers World Series game.

PAYING IT FORWARD:

THE BILL YANCEY EXPERIENCE (Dave Kaplan, February 28, 2024, Ball9)

At 76, Larry Hisle is one of baseball’s revered elders, a soft-spoken sage who has empowered at-risk children and troubled teens in the Milwaukee area over the last three decades.

Mentoring young people, helping them conquer personal hardship and self-doubt remains his inner passion. Actually, Hisle’s well-known strength in kindness recalls his own long-ago mentor.

“I can’t help but smile whenever I think of Bill Yancey,” said Hisle, who played 14 productive seasons with the Phillies, Twins and Brewers before retiring in 1982. “The man could not have been more encouraging, more motivating, more inspiring to me.”

Hisle, who grew up an orphan in southern Ohio, was once an insecure rookie with the Phillies, a team flaring with racial tensions. He lived alone and suffered acute anxiety and hepatitis.

Enter Bill Yancey, a genial veteran of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and ‘30s, and later a pioneering Black major-league scout in the 1950s. He had just returned to his native Philadelphia in spring 1969 for his second stint as a Phillies area scout.

Yancey, who navigated racism and structural unfairness his entire life, saw in Hisle a fragile young man who’d been the target of a Ku Klux Klan rally in the minors. He saw a potential casualty to the racism that ultimately victimized Dick Allen, the franchise’s first Black star.

So he invited Hisle to live with him and his wife in their Moorestown, NJ house that season. Hisle savored Louise Yancey’s home cooking, and her husband’s unshakable lessons in resilience. Yancey’s guidance, he said, probably saved his career.

TAXES DICTATE BEHAVIORS:

Baseball Star Shohei Ohtani’s New Contract Is a Massive Tax Avoidance Scheme. Nice! (ERIC BOEHM, 12.15.202, reason)

But unlike most sports contracts, that $700 million won’t be doled out over the 10-year term of the deal—and, as a result, both Ohtani and the Dodgers are poised to dodge (sorry) some of the taxes they might be otherwise obligated to pay on the record-breaking deal.

The 29-year-old Ohtani will collect $2 million in each of the next 10 years. The rest of Ohtani’s $68 million salary will be deferred for a decade, and the Dodgers will owe it to him in annual installments starting in 2034. By the time Ohtani collects the last of those payments in 2043, he’ll be 49 years old (and almost certainly well into retirement).

Because he’ll be playing most of his games in high-tax California, taking most of his pay via what’s effectively a fixed annuity gives Ohtani the possibility of avoiding some massive tax payments. “By the time he starts receiving the $68 million payments, he may be able to avoid state income taxes by living someplace like Florida without an income tax, or by moving back to Japan,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Disincentives work.

INFINITUDE:

A PERFECT GAME: THE METAPHYSICAL MEANING OF BASEBALL (David Bentley Hart, August 2010, First Things)

My hope, when all is said and done, is that we will be remembered chiefly as the people who invented—who devised and thereby also, for the first time, discovered—the perfect game, the very Platonic ideal of organized sport, the “moving image of eternity” in athleticis. I think that would be a grand posterity.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.

The coarsest and most common of these sketches—which has gone through numerous variations down the centuries without conspicuous improvement—is what I think of as “the oblong game,” a contest played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other’s territory to deposit some small object in the other’s goal or end zone. All the sports built on this paradigm require considerable athletic prowess, admittedly, and each has its special tactics, of a limited and martial kind; but all of them are no more than crude, faltering lurches toward the archetype; entertaining, perhaps, but appealing more to the beast within us than to the angel.

In a few, peculiarly favored lands, more refined and inspired adumbrations of the ideal appeared. The Berbers of Libya produced Ta Kurt om el mahag, and the British blessed the world with cricket, but, because the running game in both is played between just two poles, neither can properly mirror the eternal game’s exquisite geometries, flowing grace, and sidereal beauties. And then there is that extended British family of children’s games from which baseball drew its basic morphology (stoolball, tut-ball, and, of course, rounders); but these are only charming finger-paint renderings of the ideal, vague, and glittering dreams that the infant soul brings with it in its descent from the world above before the oblivion of adulthood purges them from memory; they are as inchoately remote from the real thing as a child’s first steps are from ballet. In the end, only America succeeded in plucking the flower from the fields of eternity and making a garden for it here on earth. What greater glory could we possibly crave?

Beauty is objective.