Rebecca Lerner: The stories of America's Pastime

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 9:07am

I’ve always had an underlying suspicion that I could be incredible at baseball.

Not right away, of course. But maybe if I trained hard for say, three years or so, I could be terrific. I could thrive on the lack of prolonged running, or indulge in the hilarious furtiveness of the steal. It’s completely unfounded in any sense of reality; the game of baseball just has a universality that makes even the most uncoordinated of literature columnists dream of major leagues.

Every game of baseball is a story, with primal, relatable goals and high stakes that will make you stop scarfing down peanuts for a second and watch. Perhaps this is why American literature has paid so much tribute to baseball, even as baseball falls out of favor to more complicated, hurried games.

Baseball in our current cultural landscape means something much different than what it means on the page — today, the average salary for a pro baseball player is four million dollars. When my grandfather was invited to play for the New York Yankees in 1951, he turned it down because he had two kids and could make more money as a truck driver for a beer company. When baseball was becoming synonymous with American ideals, there wasn’t the absurd financial incentive that exists for ball players today. There was only a love of the game. But now even though the players are millionaires, the history of baseball in this country still goes deep enough to make it an integral part of American literature.

Americans have been living out their fantasies of baseball vicariously through the English language since the game’s invention in 1839 in New York. But the stories we hear are rarely basic stories of winning and losing — baseball lends itself as a metaphor for the human experience. It accepts projection of sadness, loss, mirth and triumph. Stories like Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” which my father read to me when I was probably three or so, are incredibly depressing. Casey’s failure has become an unavoidable part of our culture. When he strikes out, we’ve become so invested it feels as though we ourselves have lost a hero. His irreversible mistake changes everything, stripping him of his identity and the people of his town of joy. We’re so willing to allow events to be representative of ourselves and our lives, which is why this story is so devastating — we either are or have been the disappointed citizens of Mudville.

Stories about baseball, like the 2011 novel “The Art of Fielding,” are also often subtly about the way we struggle and become ourselves. In Chad Harbach’s book, we meet Henry Skrimshander as a freshman at the fictional Westish College. For his entire life, Henry has been an almost magical, zero-error shortstop, defining himself through the game of baseball. But like “Casey at the Bat,” standing with the weight of the world on his shoulders, the crux of the story comes when Henry must learn how to deal with failure and disappointment. The rest of the characters’ lives in the novel also revolve around the world of baseball in the extremely small bubble of Westish College. Henry’s cultivated and confident roommate, Owen, has a preternatural understanding of the physicality of the game. However, their gruff mentor, Schwartz, cannot match the ease of movement with which Owen and Henry play. The characters’ relationship to the game is constantly reflected in their relationships and time outside of it. “The Art of Fielding” sees baseball and human existence as relatively analogous, like most literature that finds itself baseball-inclined.

I was at a minor league baseball game in Maine this summer, cheering on the Portland Sea Dogs against the Hartford Yard Goats. Children dressed up as condiments and raced across the field — mustard won. The air smelled of French fries and freshly cut grass and I ate a hot dog wrapped conspicuously in Wonder Bread. Looking at the men nonchalantly rounding the bases, I rudely announced to the group I was with that they weren’t even running that fast and that I could probably do that. I tuned out the announcer describing the local hardware store that had sponsored the game and thought about the poem “Baseball” by Linda Pasten.

“When you tried to tell me / baseball was a metaphor / for life: the long, dusty travail / around the bases, for instance, / to try to go home again...I didn’t believe you. / It’s just a way of passing / the time, I said. / And you said: that’s it. / Yes.”