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Preface to The Diamond Mirror: Life Lessons Gleaned from Baseball's Reflective History

Tuesday 11/21/23

Preface: The Game I See

One of the great things about a love of anything is that we’re so caught up in our love, that we don’t allow ourselves to be held back by preconceptions of how something ought to go. We’ve given ourselves over to that which we’re passionate about, without curtailing our enthusiasm by worrying about appearances, expectations, parameters.

I know a man approaching eighty, who will repair to his basement and spend a couple of hours with his most intricate of model train set-ups. He’s a man of the world, of interests, and I’ve wondered if he would be were it not for his willingness to embrace that which fires his imagination, as it would seem that his railway system does.

I’ve often been this way, too. As the most ardent of fourth grade baseball fans, my love for the sport was matched only by my love for its history. At the time, I didn’t think it was normal or not normal to read some volume on the outfielding prowess of Tris Speaker and how he lined up in center field just thirty feet beyond second base, or Rogers Hornsby’s My War with Baseball, in which the man I believed was the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time—for I was having these sorts of debates with myself from the start—ripped into the game he may have loved but in a much different way than I.

I consumed books about baseball’s history in the same manner that I did the box scores in the morning to see how my favorite players like Dave Kingman—yes, the infamous Kingman—Lance Parrish, Ryne Sandberg, and, above all, Carlton Fisk, fared the night before.

Had Fisk only gone 1-for-5, I desperately scanned further down to see if the one hit had been a home run, or at least a double. How these players performed would impact how I felt as I began my day and took either my weary or uplifted self as a result to the bus stop down the street. If Fisk went 3-for-4, with 4 RBI, I felt like I could give the sun itself a fist bump.

I played organized baseball and daily, rather disorganized games, when seasonally possible, with the kids of the neighborhood, and you might be surprised how easily a child of New England can look upon a frozen lawn in February and conclude it’s time to bust out the mitt. We’d give our yards names like Star Stadium, and if you were a window belonging to the next house over, you had best be on your guard, because someone was bound to put a charge into a ball eventually.

It was an era when my love of catchers led me on a quest—regarding which, alas, I didn’t progress as far as initially intended—to become that rarest of baseball birds, a left-handed backstop. I played hockey, too, and had read that the Edmonton Oilers’ all-world goalie, Grant Fuhr, was once a lefty catcher himself, and then there was Mike Squires of the Chicago White Sox, who’d also played a time or two behind the dish despite his port-side status. Never say something isn’t possible to someone who’s seen it done in baseball, I began to think, a conceit that has served me well.

I was so enamored of baseball’s history—the stats, the narratives, the characters, the feats, the joys, and even the defeats, which resonated with me as more than the mere losses of sporting contests—that I never had so much as a passing thought as to whether it was unusual for a child my age to sit in the basement of his local library for hours on end, reading about the 1939 Yankees and how they surged and became possibly the best baseball team ever, despite the tragic loss of Lou Gehrig, or the magisterial wonders of Satchel Paige, who I remember being informed could make a baseball dance as if it were Nijinsky, about whom I quickly learned as well.

Stats were committed to memory, be they from that point in the current season, or 1884. Having read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a compulsion—this prevailing feeling of go here next—took me to Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the sport’s early days, told by the men who played it, and I thought, “Come on now! This has to be one of the best books of any kind there is!” and was both crestfallen and peeved that I already knew not to expect any future teacher to ever suggest as much.

The reason I viewed The Glory of Their Times as I did wasn’t “only” about baseball, or because the book was so indelibly about baseball. There’s a different reason why baseball means so much to me, and why baseball means so much in and of itself, especially if we’re open to what it offers.

Baseball’s greatest value is that it’s about more than baseball. You can call that a paradox, but I feel like you could say the same about an intentional pass, if you wish.

When baseball pulls you in and you wish to explore its assorted compartments and corridors for the rest of your days, it’s because there’s not just a sport happening here. You’re getting overlap with life. Understand baseball as well as you can, and you get a little bit better at understanding everything else, too.

I didn’t consciously note this as a kid. It was only later, as I became smarter and wiser and I went along as we all do. I’d find myself thinking about baseball anecdotes in a pinch—to borrow a concept from Christy Mathewson, who wrote a book about pitching in one—when the official subject of discussion or concern was ostensibly far removed from the realm of the 6-4-3 double play, and hitting behind that runner on second with less than two outs.

The more I learn about everything—including myself—the more I’m invested in value. The more I care about it. How much life does something contain? What does it offer? What is the point? What are the stakes? What’s the value of what you’re doing? What is the value of your words? Would that be a valuable book to write?

These seem like simple questions, but I’m routinely amazed how infrequently people appear to ask them, especially in this age when value has largely been replaced by impulse, vanity, or this cockamamie notion that something is worth saying—or posting, or Tweeting—just because it happened to occur to us, and that makes it not only valid, but vital.

Except that it doesn’t. We can fiddle with the wires all we wish, but that isn’t how reality works and it never will be. It’s not how baseball works either.

You know who I think would dig baseball who didn’t get the chance to? Socrates.

People thought Socrates knew a lot, and one day Socrates said that he didn’t really know anything, don’t be fooled. But it was because he viewed the world in terms of what he could learn, rather than what he already had, that Socrates himself became this living, breathing form of knowledge. I picture him as this guy sitting in a box seat—no, the bleachers, as a man of the people—knowing full well that that day at the ballpark may result in him seeing something he’s never seen before.

Baseball itself is Socratic. And those who approach it Socratically get the most from baseball, as I suspect they also get from life, both in terms of what happens outside of them, in their relationships, their relationship with the world, and within, where we are tasked with truly knowing ourselves, which might be the hardest thing any of us ever do, a requirement if we’re to partake as richly as we can of the value to be had in so much else.

Any lover of baseball will tell you that this a game of facts, though we call them stats here. Rickey Henderson once swiped 130 bases in a season: Fact! And stat. Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks tallied 512 home runs. Ditto. Baseball numbers are digits that contain stories. They’re symbols, the way an image may be in a T.S. Eliot poem.

The concept of fact, though, has become bowdlerized. We’ll encounter remarks like, “Shohei Ohtani is the best baseball player ever: FACT!”

Well, no. That’s not how it goes. Facts tend to be numerically based, which make them perfect for baseball, these numbers that we pull out in order to trigger or further a conversation. It’s a fact that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, though that was a fact that chagrined the grumpy Rogers Hornsby at the time—and perhaps in whatever world he occupies now. We can discuss.

But as oriented as baseball is to the fact and the stat, it’s underpinned and given its amplest life by a force, a presence, a power, that numbers, for all that they can do, can’t quantify. And that’s truth.

I feel and fear that we often hate truth—again, now more than ever. And the truth about ourselves? That’s anathema to many people. We often, for example, seek out relationships in which people will tell us what we wish to hear, rather than what it might be better for us to try and learn. And what are “socials,” but a means for people to harvest plaudits—if that’s how one even wishes to categorize someone else’s hitting of the “like” button—that are almost always divorced from sincerity?

I recall encountering some quote to the effect that if you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh at the same time. I don’t think it’s that simple—there are all kinds of ways to break the soul’s fall. Laughter is one of them. Love is another. Let us not discount selflessness and an honest concern for someone else’s well-being. The greater good of everyone’s well-being.

And there is also baseball, on the sports side of the ledger in these life matters.

Baseball and baseball history is like this diamond-shaped mirror that brings both the game home to you, and you home to you. It’s that daring theft of home impeccably executed. The feat need not be realized in bottom of the ninth, the score deadlocked; for the hook slide around the catcher’s mitt may have equal viability in the fifth inning when we’ve caught the pitcher napping.

This is a book of essays about those truths, as seen through the lens of baseball history. The latter has helped me live better than I would have otherwise. There are other things I can say that about. Nature. The stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The music of Nick Drake. My parents. The sea.

But I’d be leaving my line-up one very valuable player short if I didn’t include baseball’s history. I wouldn’t even understand what I see in a game now without all that has been reflected back to me, and how I’ve also come to see myself.

Ground will be covered—think of it as going off on a long road trip but instead of only pulling into cities, we’ll pull into eras, ideas, legends, tales of woe, upliftings of the human spirit.

Moving from catchers to Kingman to the ultimate walk-off to Hartland statues to the cruelly used Harold Baines to Peanuts and Charlie Brown’s woes on the bump to the Socratic Babe Ruth to Homeric starting pitchers, and more, we’ll gaze into the mirror of baseball’s history and see what we can see so that we might put it to use with our next at-bat in something bigger than baseball.

So pull on those batting gloves, and step into the box. No game of value is going to win itself.


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