The Lessons of Working Up an Honest Sweat

Lately, I have been struggling to put up any new posts or to spend much time polishing what does get up. The reason is that the revision of a book I finished a year ago has sucked me in. Once I begin a project like this one, I can’t juggle very much else at the same time. I acquire a kind of vision of where the work should be going, and I need for my mind to cling closely to that vision as I wade through all the chapters that stray hither and yon from it. I can’t simply give the thing an hour’s attention one day and half an hour’s two days later: I have to maintain focus.

Before I start making myself sound like Michel de Montaigne, I should confess that the work in question is about baseball swings as taken a century ago with very different bats. Most people would find that admission a big let-down… “Oh! I thought maybe you were writing about the possibility of preserving our humanity as Artificial Intelligence absorbs more and more of our mental function.” I would scarcely redeem myself before such a commentator if I added that no book whatever exists on the subject, that casual references to yesteryear’s hitting techniques are ludicrously imprecise and inept, and that my crazy dream is eventually to teach some of what I’ve learned through research and experimentation to young people who’ve been told that they’re too small to play the game.

For, yes, there’s a kind of mission involved in this project. I watched my son get nudged aside and passed over for the better part of two decades as he tried to advance and improve in the game he so loved, all because of his size. It ticked me off. It still does, in retrospect. And so I started learning about hitting, and learning more… all of it too late to do him any good, of course; but one of the morals of my study is indeed that much of this sport depends on technique rather than size, and that it seems otherwise only because the professional gurus no longer know the old techniques.

I will add in this forum, though, that yet further and broader lessons might be gleaned from my work. One is that life generally is a terrain occupied by mutually supporting groups of “specialists” who understand nothing beyond their microscopic sphere of expertise—and who often don’t understand that, either, but unite to conceal their ignorance before a dazed public of “uninitiated outsiders”. I can say this confidently, because I have made myself an expert on the subject of yesteryear’s hitting in the game of baseball—and yet much of what I wrote about year ago in the book’s first version is utter crap. My satisfaction in how much I’ve learned lately is more or less neutralized by my chagrin at how wrong I got it all just a few months ago. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we should always remember that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another lesson is that we forget our culture’s past at our own considerable risk. The assumption has been made in hitting instruction that the oldtimers were comical amateurs who practiced their art about the same way that the Wright brothers practiced flying. You don’t really think that Wilbur and Orville could teach you anything about your Cessna, do you? Probably not, in terms of handling the controls… but maybe they could tell you something about the fear of the unknown or about how to keep a cool head in a crisis.

Finally (just because I need to get on with it today), I have learned that a boy needs to try his hand at something physical, and that a man needs to retain that interest in the active. As politically incorrect as it is to say, boys are in more trouble than girls today because the insulated, safety-net society is more damaging to them. They need to undertake, to initiate… and that means that they must come to know failure well and learn to attack a resistant problem from a different angle. Baseball offers all sorts of opportunity to earn an advanced degree in failure: it breaks you heart. But it can also, for that very reason, teach you how to put a heart back together again.

As for grown men, they—we—need to get out from behind our keyboards once in a while and swing a bat, throw a ball, bail some hay, drive some nails (not with a pneumatic nail-gun, please)… they need to do something other than vegetate with their “ideas”. I’m convinced that quality of thought actually deteriorates as physical contact with the world of hard labor is lost. Indeed, almost all of our political and existential dilemmas in the West are owed somewhat to our losing touch with basic reality. When I was still trying to be a “scholar”, many moons ago, I wrote a little piece about a 2,500-year-old fragment of Sappho’s where she compares a woman getting married rather late in life to an apple that has grown high on the tree, out of reach of the pickers. I pointed out that these are the best fruit because they get so much sun: they grow the largest and taste the sweetest. Any ancient Greek hearing Sappho’s poem would have known that… but the great “scholar” who reviewed my piece could only sniff and turn up his nose because I hadn’t indicated another poet from whom Sappho might have borrowed the image. She borrowed it from life, stupid!

Thank God—and baseball—that my son hasn’t grown up to be a “scholar”!

Baseball: A Tidy Morality Tale of Degradation Through Technology

Baseball season officially begins tomorrow. I love baseball… but not as I used to. Or, rather, I still love the game, but I don’t much care for the way professionals play it now. It used to be so much more tailored to the pastoral motions of a country lad swinging a scythe or an axe, with all the body’s members working in concert and clever hands getting every last bit of possible acceleration out of a handle. Now it belongs to big, muscular men who hurl their equipment around like barbells in the weight room and are carefully insulated from flying debris by special gloves, special pads, special flaps and guards. The finesse is gone. The higher skills are gone. Even the fielders’ mitts are virtual butterfly nets. The whole dance has grown comparatively predictable and boring.

The late Ralph Kiner was the only commentator I ever noticed awarding proper credit to the altered bat for the game’s degeneration. Bats were once a yard long, with little tapering. Hitters (or “strikers”, as the nineteenth century knew them) used their sticks to balance as a tightrope walker does before they actually carried a saber-like swipe straight into the pitch, smacking it with spread hands whose fingers were as cunningly positioned along the handle as a flautist’s on his melodious instrument. Even when I was a boy, Mantle and Mays still had very level strokes and could make split-second adjustments with their feet and hands.

Wooden bats were always cracking and shattering, though—and replacing them cost money. High schools and colleges were only too happy to shift to aluminum models in the Seventies that could be used all year long and were hence much kinder to the budget. As the metal alloys employed were refined, the new-age bat was reshaped to proportions that wood couldn’t possibly have imitated (though big league models would come ever so close by the Nineties). Barrels grew massive and handles toothpick-thin. Length also diminished to allow yet more mass to be packed into the barrel. In turn, this meant that loss in the acceleration of the longer bat’s sweet spot had to be supplemented by placing the hands all the way down on the knob—and also (as soon became apparent) by recruiting taller boys with longer arms. Tall boys seldom have quick, clever feet. Fortunately, fine footwork wasn’t required for the evolving swing: the lower body grew almost stationary, allowing the upper body to wale down on the pitch from high over the rear shoulder and put maximal backspin on the ball in the (ever less likely) event that contact was made. A backspun ball will climb very high; and if a really tall boy hits it really high on a slightly windy day, it will end up sailing over a fence. Otherwise, and especially for shorter boys, it becomes a simple pop-up—a “can of corn”.

So thanks to technology, baseball became a big boy’s game, and then a big man’s game. The steroids scandals of the Nineties might never have happened if bats had not shifted shape so as to reward blunt upper-body strength. Now we spectators have become so used to seeing the home run as the only alternative to the tedious pop-up (or the weak ground ball—the consequence of a steep downward swing that comes too early and meets the ball on its upward follow-through) that nothing else in the game interests us. We prefer the annual Home-Run Derby to the All Star Game that it precedes; and certain “innovators” are seriously suggesting, even, that we cut extra-inning affairs short by staging a home-run shootout the way soccer breaks ties with penalty kicks.

For those who care, this is quite a fascinating morality tale. A massive, across-the-board degradation of skills among players, strategy among coaches, and even patience and taste among spectators was all set in motion by a seemingly benign adjustment in the bat’s building material at lower levels of the game. We practically never see the entire range of consequences that will follow from technological change: the variables are too numerous and human behavior too complex. Yet once we have embarked upon the changes, we can almost never work our way back up the road after rethinking our selection. Indeed, we can almost never rethink it, because the new ways too quickly reprogram our entire outlook. We become trapped in the devastating folly of supposing our lifestyle better and better merely because it’s not that of our grandparents. We have no idea what we’ve lost; and, in our Lilliputian cocksureness, we scoff at the notion that we have lost anything at all.