Baseball and Providence

It all starts far, far from any stadium. There are no diamonds and no throngs of adoring fans—just a crackling radio hissing through a stale summer garage into air as golden-tinged as the dead, yellow lawn.

There’s a man’s voice: “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched it go by…and Thomas is OUT, for excessive window shopping!”

The voice is as thick as the greasy garage air, syrupy and mellifluous from decades of polishing. Ernie Harwell didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. Unlike so many of the game’s grand old men, he never gave any indication that his eyes were jaded by the game’s seedy underbelly. No illicit gambling or groupies or clubhouse brawls for him. Harwell is well into his seventies at this point, but he still sounds as smooth as the children’s yelps from the yard.

Speaking of which…four boys are chattering—negotiating, really—about the hypothetical speed of ghost runners named “Chet” and “Skeeter” and “Mookie.” One (boy, not a ghost) stands in the middle, peering at an invisible catcher flashing signs. He bends at the waist, lost in the grim act of aping adult seriousness under pressure.

The others are free. As the pitcher turns the Wiffle Ball thoughtfully in his hand, the boy at the plate wriggles in and out of a recognizable batting stance. With a squeaky grunt, he shakes his legs and slams the plate with the plastic yellow bat. His bouncing, twirling dance traces jerky shadows on soil still baking in the waning afterfumes of a brutally hot July day.

The radio trills, “Honey Baked hams are fully cooked, spiral sliced, and covered with a crusty glaze…”

The two boys in the outfield sing pitching advice that vibrates in on the heavy/dense air. They wipe sweat from around the bands of dirty hats long since grubbed and frayed out of fashion. These two dart between positions (and the relative relief of disparate shade), imagining themselves split amongst three or four assigned roles. One is third baseman, shortstop, and left fielder. The other takes the rest—though the pitcher’s responsible for covering first.

“…ground ball to Trammell, who flips it to Whitaker, and it’s two for the price of one as the relay beats Wilson to first…”

There are many slow moments, since the backyard pitching is no better than the hitting. The ball goes nigh on everywhere but the strike zone—into the house’s white metal siding, through the rosebush and into the window well, behind the batter’s head, and so on and so forth. Childish distractions aside, their focus is willfully Sisyphean. Without a catcher, each pitch stretches seconds into minutes. God forbid they lose the ball.

But though the four boys never get much good at baseball, their heroes are little better. Harwell is, as their father often put it, the best thing about the Detroit Tigers.

He is right, though they cannot possibly see this without leaving childhood innocence behind forever. 

This part is more complicated than it seems. These children are not plagued by irrational or unbidden hopes—since few living humans are more familiar with the Tigers’ statistical record. They know the team’s (very narrow) limits.

But they choose to believe anyway. They hold fast to a team that flays their hopes by May every year. They will their loyalties to a perpetually sinking ship, a ship which doesn’t even have the decency to stay beneath the waves. Each spring, like the Mary Ellen Carter, the damned thing rises again.

This is why baseball roots go deep. The young are the only humans earnest enough to risk investing their emotions in an obvious loser—even when they know better. Adults too frequently notice their children’s frailty and lose sight of their abundant resilience. If kids feel every failure as a catastrophe, their recovery resources are (almost always) equally formidable.

This is beautifully, wonderfully true. Witness a baby learning to walk. She fails more times in one week than most adults fail in a year—but she rarely dwells beyond a few tearful minutes. Witness a toddler’s stubbornness. Witness a kindergartner’s playground doggedness.

So it takes years before despair sets in. The boys gamely stick with the Tigers—but youth is every bit as fleeting as its reputation. Like most adults, they lose their taste for self-inflicted emotional punishment.

Do they still care? Yes, but…

They start imposing conditions. The radio crackles to life less often. By the last months of each season, they’ve found other things better worth their attention. They’ve got other allegiances—jobs, girls, etc—that warrant the investment.

And for these boys, who were born too late to see much more than the dregs of the great Tigers teams of the 1980s, things just get worse. The team dips below .500 just in time for the dawning of their baseball consciousness—and it stays there for a solid 15 years. At no point does any analyst mistake Detroit for a franchise with a future. Harold Reynolds goes so far as to suggest that the team ought to be contracted.

Despite all this, there are still furtive, shameful emails between the scattered (now) men. They dare to imagine improvement where none is evident. They bother to speculate about meaningless things—e.g. Bobby Higginson’s outfield putout numbers—even as the team flirts with all-time, world-historical futility.

Why do they persist? Perhaps their Midwestern naïveté doomed them to an extended childhood. Perhaps they are that small bit more open about the lurking nostalgia that all adults feel—but few care to articulate.

Why do they persist? Whatever the reason, it must partake in the divine, since the Tigers burst past average and win the American League pennant in 2006. This is incomprehensible to fans that treat baseball as a form of self-flagellation. WHAT, they wonder, THE $%&* IS HAPPENING HERE? WHERE, they ask, IS OUR COMFORTABLE SPOT IN THE AL CENTRAL’S CELLAR?

Then it all goes horribly wrong.

Friends try to console them after the Tigers unceremoniously crash out of the World Series, only to find pathologically weird ambivalence. There’s little complaining and even less wallowing in the loss.

The men explain: How do you mourn the first winning season in 13 years? How do you reject a season that can only be understood as evidence of heavenly grace? What sort of person turns their back on a season that redemptive?

This one’s actually pretty easy: these are the ungrateful folks who have no sense of fatalism. People who enjoy such extravagant favor that they view success as their default, as a birthright. Yankees fans.

But for those of us who still periodically feel the aching, echoing memories of lost July afternoons, glory-hungry expectancy isn’t an option. To coin a phrase, there is an abundance of grace to be found in second place. And third, and fourth, and so on and so forth. Though it be found in nothing more than Bobby Higginson’s defense, grace is slyly, subtly present in so many moments.

A note: this is—of course—an analogue for staying sane and alive beyond baseball fields and crackling radio broadcasts.

Yet appreciation of grace doesn’t prevent patient sufferers from awaiting providential fulfillment. For the culmination of innocent hopes is coming. It may not be this year. It may not be within this decade. It may not be within a reasonable span of time—let alone any particular lifetime.

But it’s coming someday, on a fine day somewhere out there beyond the foreseeably certain. Otherwise, those sunny childhood moments would fade away, gradually becoming meaningless with each impotent October. Time is just time, after all, unless we can reasonably connect our hopes for the future to some roots in the past.

So I decide to believe that they’ll win the damned thing someday. I will to believe in the Tigers. I gladly choose to wait for fulfillment of my youthful dreams, since so choosing paradoxically opens me to awareness of the very real grace extant in today’s struggles. It has none of the self-assured bravado of those who expect success served at each at-bat, nor is it as secure from tragedy as the bitter lifelessness of those who choose not to care—but tempered, passionate, and patient adherence knits together a golden-hued childhood with the dents and bruises that come with maturity.

Just ask Ernie Harwell.


Conor P. Williams is raising his son to root, root, root for the home team—which happens to be the Washington Nationals. More on Facebook, Twitter, and his (Conor’s, not his son’s) website

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6 thoughts on “Baseball and Providence

  1. Like the scent of horse-hide, not unlike the dallying sprinkle-whiffers, no can-of-corn, this one, so full of grandiosity and Wagnerian majesty, Honus, that is, and, thus, October winds its pitch like a cobra and whiff, like that, such a marvelous pinch of snuff.

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  2. Another wonderful thing about the hot July days, when August thunderstorms turn the yard into a mud pit, there’s no ump to call the game off. Somebody’s got to get those rainproof ghosties out. I’m pretty sure that Trammell isn’t going to drive up and do it for you.

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