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The Boys of Summer. How Life Imitates the World Series. Let's Play Two. Why Time Begins on Opening Day. The elysian fields of the national pastime are strewn with sunny, windblown prose that pay timeless tribute to the almost metaphysical purity of the game while gently lulling us into a dream-like state.
Occasionally, a screed -- Ball Four comes to mind -- summons us to the dark side of the dugout, where our wholesome heroes of the broad green expanse are seen trading in coarse language and behaving like louts. Into this unsavory literary stewpot comes Umpire's Incident Report by National League arbiter Rob Drake.
Not an actual book, but this official major league document that drifted under my wrinkled nose is a vivid and often unsettling account of an incident that occurred during the Phillies and Braves game on July 11. (Umpires are required to file reports to MLB after game incidents.) Not since Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness have I had occasion to plow through such a harrowing evocation of human madness.
With stark, efficient prose, Drake wastes no time shoving the reader into the belly of the beast: "In the top of the ninth inning, Atlanta batter Andruw Jones was batting. I called ball two on Jones. As the next pitch is coming in, Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa yells out of the dugout, 'That pitch is a f--- strike.'"
After officiously informing Bowa that he shall countenance no commentary from the peanut gallery, Drake calls a ball on a 1-2 pitch by Billy Wagner. The manager briskly advances to the mound where he waits for Drake before greeting him with, "I want to ask you one f--- question." Reasonable enough. But Drake's narrative deftly ratchets up the tension. He tells Bowa if he utters even one comment about a call, he will be ejected from the game.
True literary genius is found in Drake's employment of a mere 836 words to convince the reader that Mr. Bowa is the Travis Bickle of the Senior Circuit. Bickle, you may recall, is the tormented Vietnam veteran played by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. The Philly skipper's repeated query ("How come every time you call a f--- strike you are f--- staring at me?") compels the reader to envision him standing in front of a mirror, pistol in hand, taunting his own image in cocky Bickle-ese: "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. Who do you think you're talking to? Oh yeah? Huh? Okay."
When Drake declares, "Larry, I have no idea what you are talking about. Now, no more! Go back to the dugout," it's not quite "Get thee behind me, Satan," but a match is struck nonetheless.
"What are you gonna do?" Bowa replies. At this point, he is ejected. Drake's report goes on to say:
"Larry then comes charging at me screaming, 'What did I f--- do?' ... Larry then gets in my face and says, 'Do you know what you f--- are? ...'"
If one holds one's nose and closes one's eyes, there is a certain rebellious charm to Bowa's outburst. After all, who can not root for the little guy who stands up to the scowling, blue-suited authority? But Drake, who has found himself face-to-red face with a fellow who has a clear and present fondness for likening his adversaries to a certain part of a woman's anatomy, wins the day with his plaintive tone:
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"I then told Larry that he hadn't said anything for eight innings and now all of a sudden in the ninth inning he wants to blame me. I then told him he was wrong and the pitches were not strikes. At this point I try to walk away from Larry as Crew Chief, Gerry Davis, steps in. Bowa runs around Gerry and wants to continue arguing with me."
An avalanche of colloquial horse manure descends as Davis repeatedly tries to step between the aggrieved parties. He finally manages to escort the Philadelphia field general to the dugout where he exits. But the plot thickens when Philly coach Gary Varsho unleashes a torrent of invective at the beleaguered Davis at the end of the inning: "That is f--- horse s---."
Varsho, too, is ejected but not before he gives Davis a haunting farewell: "F--- you, you were f--- staring at Wagner when he came off the mound."
Davis can only respond with,"What is it with you guys?"
What is it, indeed? The reader of this dispiriting report finds solace in the bad guys getting their just desserts (Atlanta wins 6-4), but the deeper issue of paranoia's contagion in postmodern America will tinkle in the brainpan long after one has placed this landmark work on the nightstand, turned out the light and buried one's head under the covers.
This is a truly impressive work. The lone shortcoming of Umpire's Incident Report is that Mr. Drake leaves much background for the reader to fill in, particularly the fact that the floundering first-place Phillies were clinging to a precarious two-game lead over the Braves, who were achieving their 12th victory in their last 15 games. The Philadelphia squad and their fiery skipper were clearly cracking under the strain of lofty preseason expectations that would ultimately be deflated by injury and inconsistent pitching. Without such intimate details in the front row box seat of one's mind, the reader is left with a skeletal portrait of modern man unhinged by seemingly trivial matters, but one that nevertheless illuminates the reality of life in the elysian fields of the 21st century. And with Mr. Bowa's job presently on the line, one is left hoping he does not end up driving a taxi.