Though I am no expert "fan" of baseball, I am a lover of the game. My tie to the sport is not one of an athlete or, even, that of a former athlete. It is merely that of having grown up in a family where ballparks were a kind of church and excellence--particularly in pitching--was viewed as a kiss from the gods doubling as a curse that demanded of its object sweat and sacramental perfection. In short, I grew up loving men who had perfected a love of baseball and, now, I love a boy who loves it with fresh eyes.
My father is a south paw and was, in his day, an excellent and locally celebrated pitcher. He made a run for the big leagues and, even, for a time played in the minor leagues--which accounts for my birth in the Sunshine state and the tingling of my olfactory system every time I get within 50 feet of a stadium. Being Catholic, I sometimes get a similar sensation of warmth and memory when I smell incense at Mass, but on a pure sensory
level I must confess that this rates only as a fleeting waft compared to the almost hungry inhaling I can do when anywhere near a leather glove.
But for all my love of the game, I was always pathetic as an athlete and a poor student of the details in the sport. I was more the "sit up high at home plate and watch the whole" sort of fan. If you start plying me with statistics and averages, my eyes will glaze over and I'll get nightmarish visions of algebra class. I don't begrudge these kind of fans their pastime and I sometimes even envy their facility with facts and figures; their amazing capacity for recall. But I do sometimes wonder if an absorption in these things can cloud their heads and keep them from seeing the poetry of a perfect line drive; the power and the vision behind an out-of-the-park home run; the comedy of errors in multiple errors; and the sheer wonder of an in-fielder grabbing, leaping, twisting and throwing in one, perfect ballet-like motion to make an out--and sometimes, even, the double or triple play.
Still, every once in awhile, an amazing thing like a Roy Halladay happens, and I am reminded that there is a precision worth appreciating, even in poetry. The big picture can't happen without the little ones . . . and the facts and the figures matter. When properly appreciated, statistics only add to the beauty of the game. Excellence of this kind
--with its singular and unceasing focus--has a certain charm that appeals, even to the losing team (and even when that losing team is from Ohio!). It becomes something to celebrate, to admire, and to ponder. It is a glimpse, perhaps, at the order of the universe; something so close to perfection that we long to inhale it and to hold our breath forever. But it is something that, alas, is as fleeting as it is rare.
So the thrill must pass. But perhaps the charm can linger? This story
caught my eye, in part, because it is so charming. Some good folks in Italy, recalling the glory days of the sport of cycling (before demon soccer came to conquer Europe or dared set foot in America), now sponsor a "race" where the object is less to conquer or to achieve victory than it is to remember and to revel in the beautiful things of the past. They don the gear of a bygone era and indulge in the sights, the sounds, the smells and the food that transports them to a memory of something they understand to be high. It is beautiful, even if sad . . . and painful! As a man interviewed for the story summed it up, "Cycling was never fun," Mr. Wolbold said. "It is literally painfully beautiful." As a person who only learned how to pedal a bicycle on her 24th birthday (I told you I was a pathetic athlete) I can attest to the pain. The beauty of the sport, I find, is best appreciated in the past tense (i.e., after
the ride is complete!) I am going to have to try to appreciate the beauty of it, next time, as the Italians do . . . with Chianti.
If you will forgive the self-indulgence, these two stories--taken together--remind me of yet another fond memory: the re-dedication of the local stadium in my hometown a year or so before I left for California. To celebrate and remember and re-establish a sense of excellence, charm, and beauty in the newly re-stored park, several of the local baseball legends were assembled into two teams outfitted and equipped in 1890s style baseball regalia. As many of these "once greats" were then well-past their prime, there were also some moments of pain (not to mention comedy) to prevent anyone from getting too caught up in the solemnity or beauty of the occasion. Moreover, all the ball players (including my dear father) looked a little bit ridiculous . . .
I recall these things in order to wonder if true excellence, in order to be fully appreciated, requires us find beauty in things that are both painful and, even, merely charming. Does it not require us to remember what our place in the order of the universe is and to develop a healthy sense of humor about it? If we are too vain we will be too pained by our inadequacies and we will hesitate to give something excellent its due. If we forget the past--our past--our senses (olfactory or otherwise) will be unable to lead us back to the things we have that are worth loving and we may never learn to understand why the charm lingers, even as the thrill fades.