Posts Tagged ‘MTSU Baseball Conference’

Glory days

April 6, 2013

The baseball conference was great fun, as always. Older Daughter was free to join me this time, and she brought along the faded Yankees cap signed a few years ago by the late Tom Tresh, whose teammate Jim Bouton regaled us at lunch with stories of the glory days.


Stories like the one about a badly hung-over Mickey Mantle stumbling to the plate to blast a tremendous pinch-hit homer, to the awed delight of a stadium crowd just misinformed he was out of the lineup that day with a euphemistic “strained rib muscle.” Seattle expansion manager Joe Schultz mauling “Dostoevsky” and verbally abusing the shaved-headed ballplayer (“Tennis-ball head”) reading The Possessed in the clubhouse. Alabamian Fred Talbot and another teammate from Virginia arguing about which part of the south was dumber.

Bouton added his signature to our cap. Nice keepsake, nice stories. But how sad, for a guy with such ability and intelligence to have come along just a few years too soon. He was a 20-game winner and a World Series hero, and yet his highest salary in the big leagues, he told us, had been just $19.5K. Players of his era, pre-Curt Flood, were chattel. The owners treated them despicably. They’re still hustling for a living, these old athletes, even the few like Bouton who’ve penned bestsellers.

We’re probably going to run out of celebrity guests willing to travel to Murfreesboro TN for our baseball conference because they need the honorarium, one of these years. On the other hand, we’ll probably never run out of old guys eager to reminisce about the bad good old days… on either side of the lectern.

more than good enough

March 31, 2012

Yesterday’s baseball conference was a hit. My own humble presentation on “the meaning of life,” featuring lines from the eponymous baseball poetry and prose of Donald Hall and William Carlos Williams, was serendipitously followed by a last-minute program change.

Former ad-man and Mizzou grad school dropout Mark Sickman spoke of the “emergence of baseball poetry in hip hop and the blogosphere,” pointed us to his slick new baseball poetry website, and gave us all this pretty picture & poem.

The early session on Art of Fielding was terrific, but I had to ask Shawn O’Hare of Carson-Newman College (“Baseball as Narrative Metaphor”) how he could possibly have been “born a Mets’ fan” as he insisted. I have no doubt he was indoctrinated as one, like David Brooks, just as I was indoctrinated to love and not question my team in St. Louis (See slide #12).

I don’t think Shawn quite grasped the distinction.

But he did offer real insight into Chad Harbach’s rookie novel, as did Steve Andrews of Grinnell. Art of Fielding is all about striving for perfection and inevitably falling short, learning to accept mortality and failure as inescapable in every human life including the most artful.

It’s about discovering the Aristotelian “auto-telic” dimension of life, about doing things for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing them and not for their instrumental rewards. It’s about persevering, practicing, not over-thinking:  something all academics need to remember, especially at an academic conference about overpaid twenty-somethings who have little life-wisdom to share.

As Roger Angell said to James Earl Jones’s pontifical recluse writer in Field of Dreams who implied that baseball might very well be the meaning of life: “Get a grip.”

No, if you want meaning from baseball you’re well-advised not to try squeezing it from the empty gourds of athletes like Pete Rose, who (as Steve told us) admitted that he didn’t read and so hadn’t considered the life-lessons he might have taken from others’ ethical lapses before committing his own and landing in “my prison without bars.”

I love what legendary (though fictional) Card shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez said: “It always saddens me to leave the field.” It felt to him like death.

It always saddens me to leave the last session of the Baseball Conference. But it doesn’t feel like death to me, it feels like the beginning of another season in the sun. Play ball! It ain’t over ’til it’s over, etc.  It’s not a perfect game, but as John Lachs and Roger Kahn have said, it just might be good enough. And as always, I already can’t wait for next year.

Pitchers & catchers report in 15 days

February 4, 2012

We’ve sorta skipped winter so far, and that’s ok with me. Get football behind us in Indy tomorrow and start the joyful & serious countdown: “pitchers and catchers report” in just 15 days, in some places. Others will show up a bit later. Pujols says he’ll be there a week early. (“There” being nowhere this year, if you’re a spurned St. Louisan, but just a little more heavenly if you wear a halo.)

It’s also time to count down to the annual “Baseball in Literature and Culture” conference in my building,  coming in March. What’ll I contribute this time?

Think I’ll start with Albert. I’d often wondered how it’d feel if he ever left the nest, and I can report that it feels ok so far. I find, to my surprise, that I have no problem contemplating the post-Pujols era in St. Louis. Unlike some, I don’t resent a great player’s wish to be paid the premium his old employer thought to meet with fan appreciation. I’m grateful for his service, and wish him well in Anaheim. Say hello to Mickey and Goofy.

And that will probably prompt me to revisit my previous topic of a couple years ago, when I was worrying that I’d have a hard time pulling for my team with its new performance-enhanced hitting coach (Mark McGwire) sitting in the dugout. Turns out I had no problem at all overlooking Big Mac, all through the Cards’ incredible late and post-season run to another World Series championship last October.

So, I’ll plan to share with the baseball literati some reflections on how much bigger the game is than any “star” performer (enhanced or merely “blessed”).

Also, some thoughts on the best baseball fiction I’ve seen in years, The Art of Fielding. It’s about baseball the same way Moby Dick‘s about a fish. Actually it is about that, too.  And the best baseball prose by a former poet laureate, Donald Hall. The wonderful Armchair Book of Baseball arrived yesterday, bearing with it the full text of his “Baseball and the Meaning of Life.” There’s this year’s working title. Not too pretentious for the James Union Building, I hope.

And, this having been the year I recreated my own father-son outing to Wrigley Field in the summer of ’72 with our girls, I’ll have to throw in something about Younger Daughter’s weirdly beautiful devotion to the Cubbies and their fans’ almost religious faith. “Go Cubs Go…”

What Super Bowl? If the Giants can’t win or lose a pennant I’m just not that interested. Oh, I’ll go to the party. But my head will be elsewhere. The countdown’s begun.

“Life’s an odd transit”

April 2, 2011

My favorite presentation at yesterday’s day-long “Baseball in Literature and Culture” confab in my building– did you decode the boldface clue in yesterday’s post, btw? (Neither did George Plimpton’s original hoaxees)– was a paper by East Tennessee State English prof Don Johnson on my favorite contemporary novelist, Richard Ford.

It was called “Richard Ford’s Knuckler: Conflicting Attitudes Toward Baseball in the Frank Bascomb Trilogy.” (The session was in the Faculty Senate chambers. No disrespect to my fellow Senators, but this was the best use of that space I’ve yet been party to.)

Dr. Johnson spoke of the “autotelic” moment, which some psychologists (like Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi) call “flow,” when time seems to stop, thinking takes a seat in the grandstand, and (if you’re in the batter’s box… or perhaps if you’re Ted Williams or Stan Musial in the batter’s box) the ball’s “as big as the moon.”

This is a prominent theme is Ford’s Frank Bascomb novels, the elusive instinctive quality of immediacy and satisfaction experienced by athletes when they’re on their game, and coveted by us all when our ruminating thoughts block our path to home.

In Lay of the Land there’s a scene in which Frank’s ex-wife is recalling, in a voice message left on his machine, a charmed moment when he and his little boy Paul were sitting in the stands in Philadelphia and a foul line drive came hard at them.

And Paul said you just reached up with one hand and caught it. He said everybody around you stood up and applauded you, and your hand swelled up huge. But he said you were so happy. You smiled and smiled, he said.

That’s what William James meant by “the sufficiency of the present moment,” that’s the bluebird of happiness, and it comes and nestles precisely when you’re not thinking of it. Frank’s ex was attracted to the man who caught the line drive because he seemed like someone who could be happy and wanted to be. But as she concludes the phone message: “Life’s an odd transit.” It’s very hard for most of us to appreciate fully the primal happiness of “thinking of nothing and doing nothing,” just bein’. Those are terrific moments to think about, and more terrific to live.

But Frank now thinks such moments are overrated. Of course he does. Thinking doesn’t think much of moments.

The kind of happy I was that day at the Vet when “Hawk” Dawson actually doffed his red “C” cap to me, and everyone cheered and I practically convulsed into tears– you can’t patent that. It was one shining moment that was instantly gone. Whereas life, real life, is different and can’t even be appraised as simply “happy,” but only in terms of “Yes, I’ll take it all, thanks,” or “No, I believe I won’t.” Happy, as my poor father used to say, is a lot of hooey. Happy is a circus clown, a sitcom, a greeting card. Life, though, life’s about something sterner. But also something better. A lot better. Believe me.

This sounds a bit like the upshot of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence thought experiment, and a bit like Buddhist renunciation. Just a bit. Maybe it’s wisdom. The happiness class is coming ’round again in the Fall, we’ll explore it some more then. (But not just “think” about it.)

Meanwhile, I intend to be as ready as I can for those serendipitous line drives.

“We are not a part of nature, we are all of nature”

March 12, 2011

My head’s back, sorta.

Thinking this morning about my impending presentation at the 16th annual Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture, about the great Sidd Finch, and about the Buddha on nature.

“He specifically said it was a sin against right living for anyone to claim to have supernatural powers,” Jennifer Hecht reminds us. But,

Once Buddhism was out of the Buddha’s hands, the ideas of prayer and worship, a universal mind, magic, gods, and, of course, karma began to creep into many of the Buddhist sects that arose across the centuries…

Including Finch’s, evidently. Even “The Natural” couldn’t hurl a ball faster than a speeding bullet. What Sidd did in 1985 (in George Plimpton‘s fervid imagination) literally defied nature, not to mention credulity.

But there’s a larger point here:

The Buddha invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. It was a transcendent secularism, an empirical guide out of the limitations of the human mind… Buddhism is a nontheistic graceful-life philosophy and a nontheistic transcendent program. JMH

“We are all of nature” means we already possess the tools (as big league scouts like to say) to free ourselves from self-centered worries and fears.

This situation of ours is bliss… you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted with that surprising truth, and with the whole range of experience, without preference, without hurry, without dread. Every moment is a marvel of being.

“Nothing to do” is a stretch. Nothing but grade those papers, prep those classes, finish that conference talk (last year‘s & the year before)… Being “all of nature” is a full-time job. But Spring Training was awesome. Wish I was there.


December 11, 2010

Smack in the middle of grading, with final exam week about to crank up… it’s an odd time to be thinking about the 1st of April and the national pastime. But that’s never stopped me before.

My friends & colleagues who run the annual Baseball in Literature and Culture conference, slotted this year for All Fool’s Day [CFP], have designated this very Wednesday as the (optimally inconvenient) submission deadline,* so I’d better take a moment.

Actually it will take less than a moment. I knew the instant I realized this year’s conference fell on that Friday that it had given me the pretext I’ve been waiting for: to write about the greatest April Fool’s hoax of all time.

“I never dreamed a baseball could be thrown that fast. The wrist must have a lot to do with it, and all that leverage. You can hardly see the blur of it as it goes by. As for hitting the thing, frankly, I just don’t think it’s humanly possible. You could send a blind man up there, and maybe he’d do better hitting at the soundof the thing.”

That was Mets’ outfielder John Christensen, talking about pitching phenom and erstwhile teammate Sidd (diminitive of Siddhartha, of course) Finch in SI on April 1, 1985.

I met his amazing agent/amanuensis George Plimpton in Cooperstown in 2001, not long before his death. He signed his book, we talked about the illusory and insubstantial dimensions of the game, and he filled me in on Finch.

Where is the prodigy now? What does his literally incredible career on the mound tell us about the zen of baseball? What can a mindful approach to the game do for a player, or for a fan? What do real baseball Buddhists (like Sadaharu Oh, the “Japanese Babe Ruth”) think of all this? Are there any real Buddhists in American baseball today?

That’s what I hope to be talking about on April 1, 2011.

There, that didn’t take long. Back to the grade pile.


*Post-script. Ha! I now discover that I was mistaken, the deadline’s not ’til January. It’s a philosophy conference in Boston whose deadline is Wednesday. That’s funny, and it’s no April fool.