The Intimacy of Baseball and Writing

Posted: September 19, 2011 by ajbrown in Uncategorized

Yesterday morning I woke up a lot earlier than I wanted. The sun hid behind the low lying gray clouds and the light that shone through the cracks in the blinds made it look more like dusk instead of dawn. I crawled out of bed and listened to the bones creak and pop as I shuffled across the floor, my eyes fighting opening every step of the way, but my mind telling them if they didn’t I would bump into something and then that body part would be somewhat angry.

After getting a cup of coffee flowing through my veins, I got dressed and went outside. A cool breeze ruffled through the leaves of the trees across the street. I stood there in my shorts, sneakers and t-shirt and inhaled deeply. I love the crispness of early fall mornings.

I got in the car and drove around, not going anywhere at all, though, deep in the back of my mind, I think I knew where I headed. Northside Middle School passed by on the left. I rounded the curve and went through the gates to the ballpark. I parked in a lot empty of cars. Sometimes I go walking on the black track that surrounds the ball field, school and playground area. Yesterday was not a walking day.

The ball field called to me and I answered.

Up the concrete walkway I went, passing between two fields and toward the concession/business building. Beyond it sits two more fields generally used for the older boys. I did as I always do: I searched for baseballs left behind. Sometimes I get lucky and find one. Occasionally there will be initials on them or scuffmarks. Some of them are not in the best of shape with the strings broken in places and the hide pulled away slightly. For the most part, the baseballs are still very much useable. I usually take them home and put them in a bucket along with the others.

Unless the ball intrigues me.

That’s only happened once when I found a ball with the initials SH on it. That ball became the basis of a story titled A Run Short of Glory.

While at the ball field yesterday I noticed the flag was at half-staff. It would make a perfect addition to the rewrite of the story, especially considering there are two significant deaths in it.

I guess that’s the real reason I was there. I was searching for something…

A Run Short of Glory clocks in at 9458 words in its original state. Yet, even at that length something is missing. I’ve gone back and reread it and I figured it out. The story lacks vibrancy. It lacks intimacy. And that’s why I was at the ball field. Searching for that vibrant intimacy that only sports have.

Not just any sport either, but baseball. There is something special about the game, about the way little kids play baseball. There is an innocence to it that no other sport has. And that feeling fades as the years pass and the kids grow older.

A Run Short of Glory takes place in that in between stage where there is still a good bit of innocence to the game, but where winning is becoming the driving force behind playing. It’s that moment in life where you realize that it’s no longer just a game, but a competition and losing is not an option. It’s one of the greatest moments of sadness, in my opinion.

That sadness of innocence lost didn’t quite translate to the story. So I searched for it out on the baseball diamond yesterday morning.

Dew clung to freshly cut grass. The white chalk outlines down the first and third base lines were more or less gone, as were the batter’s box and the on deck circles. The benches sat empty. So did the bleachers with the exception of a couple of empty Gatorade bottles here and there. Is there anything sadder in sports than an empty baseball field?

I stood behind second base, scuffed the red clay behind it and the looked toward home plate. I imagined my main character as a twelve year old, tossing pitches to the ghosts of baseball’s past. I watched as the Mick drove one over left center field, the ball bouncing high off the blacktop parking lot and coming to a resting place near the restrooms some four hundred and fifty feet away. I imagined Cobb stealing second, his spikes coming up and shredding the arm of the short stop right in front of me. I saw Gehrig tipping his hat to the Yankee faithful as he left the field for the last time. Yeah, he was the luckiest man alive at that moment in time. I saw the Murph crushing a fastball in old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and Ted Williams hitting for four hundred. I saw Will Clark pointing to the crowd after stepping on home plate in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and man, watching Junior make diving catch after diving catch in Seattle was a treat. I watched as Nolan Ryan threw strike after strike after strike in the midst of another no hitter.

Then I saw my main character pitching again. This time he was in his forties. He no longer played ball, but he was there at night with the lights shining bright onto the field. The scoreboard was lit up and Home Team had none. Visitors had one. At the plate stood a mop headed kid, his cap barely containing the dark hair, his bat on his shoulder, knees bent.

That kid stared at the pitcher—we want a pitcher not a belly itcher—his eyes slits on his face, his mouth just a grim line below his nose. Then one corner of his mouth lifted up and that kid was happy, if only for a few pitches.

Do you see the picture? Do you feel the intimacy of the moment?

Yeah, that’s what baseball is like when starting out. I assume that’s what it’s like at the end as well, when the cleats are put away, the bat zipped up in its bag along with the glove and the uniform hung up for the last time.

In the next few days I will sit down and rewrite A Run Short of Glory, adding a couple things here and there and hoping it comes alive the way I saw it on a cool September morning when gray skies hung over head and a breeze blew in.

I hope to capture that intimacy.

Writing is like that. It starts out as a desire to tell a story. You learn how to pitch and hit and run and catch and put those words in the right places and what passive and active voices are, what tenses are, what character is… You learn as you go.

When you first start writing it’s fun. Honestly, most folks don’t know any better so they just write, rules be damned. For the new writer, hopefully, it’s all about the story and getting that story out.

Like everything good, things often change and with writing (like baseball) it becomes more than just having fun. The stories get submitted and every so often they get published.

Then the goal changes.

Coaches want us to throw harder, hit further, run faster… Editors want the stories to have action, action, action and they want character driven plots and a new twist on old themes and, well, you get it. If you’ve been published once, then you know that if you can do it once you want to do it again. Kind of like getting a hit. If you get one then you want another and another. In order to get published you have to constantly write things editors and publishers like.

Then comes pressure.

Nobody likes rejection. They are like outs and the more outs you get the less fun the process of writing can be. As writers we want to make our editors and readers happy. They’re our fans. No, they don’t cheer from the stands with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other, but they do watch us quite closely. They do drink coffee and sit at a table or in their bed or even on the toilet while they read our words, hopefully enjoying them.

More pressure.

One you sell a story you want to sell another one. And another one.

Again, the goal changes.

That’s where we lose sight of everything. We’re no longer children in the business, but adults and we no longer write with the innocence of someone wanting to tell a story. Where–oh where I ask–did that childhood exuberance go?

I was wrong earlier. Writing isn’t intimate at all. It’s lonely. Its isolation unto one’s self. It’s a solitary endeavor. No, writing is not intimate at all. Story telling is. Somewhere between writing that first story and the business end of it all, we lose our innocence; we lose that intimacy.

As writers, it’s not our job to put out as much as we can and to please every editor and publisher out there. It’s not even our job to please all of the readers out there (wait, don’t throw those stones quite yet). Our job isn’t to just write a story and sell it. It’s to tell it truthfully. After all, it’s called story telling for a reason. And if you tell the story truthfully, it will be as intimate and innocent as a five-year-old playing tee ball.

I found no baseballs yesterday, but I did find the intimacy and innocence A Run Short of Glory sorely lacked. As a storyteller, I can’t ever lose those things. The readers will know… yes, they always know when the writer isn’t truthful about their words, even when they are telling the lies of fiction…

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Comments
  1. Good job, AJ.

    So many things flooded my mind as I read this: The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, even a Twilight Zone episode with a robot pitcher that developed emotion/intimacy for the game. And then there’s my poem I originally submitted to Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature. “Magnus Force” was cleverly written, but lacked the human element, the heart, the intimacy. So I wrote one that had just that. I invested myself in the baseball story–emotionally. And that led to acceptance of “Working the Wood.” This intimacy with the words, characters, etc. didn’t come easy. The scenario had to be repeated many times before I finally I got it.

    But I tell you something interesting. That even though writing is a lonely thing as you indicated, it can transform into something not lonely AND intimate as we engage in our characters’ lives–invest ourselves in every way, just as you have when you took that lonely but not so alone drive to the baseball field.

    Thanks for sharing,
    John

  2. I like the thoughtful way this was written. I was there with you, walked onto the field, felt the clay beneath my feet, felt the words of the writer searching for the feelings behind the story. Thanks for sharing.

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