Last weekend, I played in my now-annual baseball game. In reality it was a tournament, and I played fourteen innings in all, which is about six innings more than my body can now handle. But I did it, and I wasn’t bad, either, even though I can’t really play defense because my body isn’t very cooperative when I ask it to do the sorts of things I did thirty years ago from a cold start, like fielding a slow roller inside third base by picking up the ball and throwing to first in a single motion. The pickup-and-throw-in-a-single-motion part of it still works fine, but my balance and braking skills have disintegrated, and so I spill head over heels in the dirt after I release the ball. I pick myself off the ground afterward, laughing. I’m unhurt except for a few gravel scrapes on my leg even though the fall I just took would put most men ten years my junior out of the game in a hurry. I’ll pay the price for this over the following days, but pain is part of getting older, and those who get obsessed with avoiding it end up avoiding life itself. My version of adult wisdom, ergo, doesn’t involved learning not to do the things I’ve enjoyed doing all my life. It involves learning how to fall down without injuring myself.
I keep playing baseball because I get intense pleasure from it, and the pleasure is still more intense than the pain I inflict on myself during the game and have to live with after the game is over. Nearly all of those pleasures are now cerebral. For example, a few minutes after I fall down fielding the slow roller, I am standing at the plate waiting for the first pitch of my at-bat to arrive. As I stand there I remind myself, as I have done each time I’m at bat for at least 20 years, what to do: watch the bat hit the ball. I know what will happen if I don’t do this. My eyes will look to where the ball ought to go after I hit it, and my swing will either not meet the ball squarely or more likely, I’ll miss altogether, spiral around and fall on my face.
This time, I get it right. I see the bat meet the ball, and I get to watch as the ball rockets over the second baseman’s head into right field, and then well over the right fielder’s head. I run toward first base as the right fielder turns and begins to shamble after the ball, hopelessly beaten as it lands 15 metres beyond him and bounces further away on the sparse grass of the outfield. Running around the bases is fun, and receiving the respectful high-fives from my teammates is a pleasure too. But the joy lies in that moment where I am standing at the plate just before the first pitch, thinking about what to do next. This is because it is among the rare moments in my life where I know what it means to be an adult.
I’ve been playing organized baseball for 50 years. That means I’ve been at the plate literally thousands of times. I can’t recall every at bat, of course, but when I stand at the plate I can always remember exactly what it felt like to be a ten-year-old boy experiencing the intense fear of opposing pitchers, and of the ball that is to pass very close to my body in the next few seconds. Part of what I’m re-experiencing is the terror of imminent physical pain. But what I recall most vividly is, well, the terror of imminent failure.
My first years as a baseball player were pretty much focused on that terror. Most of the terror was of failing to hit the ball, but when I was 11, an opposing pitcher did bounce a ball off the side of my head. It was a glancing blow, and even though batting helmets didn’t yet exist, no damage was done. But it made me still more frightened of hitting, and this time the terror was of being hit again, and of the pain it might cause.
There were respites, of course. I loved fielding ground balls and I was good at it. That made me a decent shortstop, which was the most prestigious position to play after pitcher. And when I was 10, I did hit a fly ball that only bounced once before it hit the fence. For a skinny kidlike me, it was a prodigious feat, and I soaked up the congratulations from my team-mates when I reached home base—and didn’t admit that I had swung with my eyes closed. But most days baseball was about terror-at-the-plate, and I remained one of those kids couldn’t stop himself from putting his foot in the bucket at every pitch, and I dreaded every at-bat until I dropped out of organized ball in my mid-teens.
I played only a few games a year until my mid-20s, and when I got serious about the game again, I was a different player. I was slightly larger than my team-mates, slower and more aggressive than I’d been as a boy, and all the fear had vanished. I swung at everything, connected more often than not, and when I hit the ball on the nose, it generally went over the appropriate fence—or if there were no fences, the poor outfielders had to run an unreasonably long distance to retrieve it. Oh yeah. When I missed a pitch, I usually fell down from the sheer excess momentum of my swing.
I played that way for fifteen years before I smartened up, and only then because my body started sending me messages that grew more intense and compelling each year. “Falling down hurts,” it yelled. “Swinging at balls over your head is stupid,” it literally screeched. But it didn’t really get my attention until it began to whisper this to me: “Seeing what you do is more fun that merely doing it.”
That’s when I began to develop what, for lack of a better term, is my own private baseball Zen. The main part of it comprises that moment at the beginning of an at-bat I described above. Within it, the previous universe collapses, rests for a brief but appreciable moment within that joyful consideration of what must be remembered and done, and then unfolds to its previous breadth, height and depth—with a baseball moving through it, either on a rocket trajectory over the outfield (if I’ve recommenced the universe precisely) or (if I haven’t) with a ball floating lazily toward an infielder’s open glove or bouncing harmlessly across the grass toward one.
After that, because Zen cannot meaningfully exist without slapstick and lesser forms of indeterminacy, I become normally human again. I may, for instance, lose my balance rounding second or third, or become the temporary and probably comedic victim of the baseball skills of others on the field, or I may decide not to make the turn at second base and instead head straight outward across the outfield and beyond, in search of a monastery inside the walls of which I might end my silly ego-stained life in contemplation. The latter remains strictly within the realm of absurd possibility, at least so far.
But in the deepest possible sense, at the moment the ball meets my bat, my old life is over, and I am embarked on my own secret-until-this-confession Vita Nuova, renewable until the day I quit playing baseball forever.
And that’s what it means to be an adult—for me if for no one else. There are just three rules to adulthood: 1.) learn to fall down; 2.) Don’t whine about life’s pain because it doesn’t help; 3.) Find a way to embark on La Vita Nuova however bizarre or unremarkable your new life may seem to others.
1329 words July 21st, 2004