SI Vault
 
A DIAMOND-BRIGHT ART FORM
Jay Wright
June 23, 1969
The author, a poet and playwright, came to the arts by way of an unusual finishing school—professional baseball. Now, some 15 years after he served with slight distinction as a light-hitting catcher for Mexicali in the Arizona-Texas League, he reflects on his sport and concludes it has a surprising esthetic of its own
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 23, 1969

A Diamond-bright Art Form

The author, a poet and playwright, came to the arts by way of an unusual finishing school—professional baseball. Now, some 15 years after he served with slight distinction as a light-hitting catcher for Mexicali in the Arizona-Texas League, he reflects on his sport and concludes it has a surprising esthetic of its own

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

In towns such as these, when some bushy-tongued fan confused my name, calling me something bawdily capsuled or George Washington Lincoln Jefferson Brown, I could see my teammates gesticulating up into the stands. Moreland did his own gesticulating. In El Paso he told some bloated, cowboy-thatched fan that if he, Moreland, had 19 more like the fan, he'd have a 20-mule team, and then he threatened to jump into the stands to capture the one mule he had. These incidents were all put down as part of the game. I didn't see it that way. Moreland didn't either, and he was determined not to separate his professional life and his private one and thus weaken both. When we got to Bisbee, Ariz., Earl Wilson, who now pitches for Detroit and who then was pitching, catching and playing the outfield for Bisbee-Douglas, used to come whistling across the tracks to sit with us among the crabby old townsmen in the lobby of our hotel, and at those times Moreland was poetic about our duties. "You're major league," he would say, "but you've got to carry that gun inside you for these bushes. When you lace up those spikes, you're more than these animals." I could see then why Moreland, past any dream of the big tent, came to the ball park to pitch.

David and Moi were hitting everything in sight, and I envied their ability to shut out the ugliness of what I knew they were going through. Certainly, they were no more hungry than I. I thought, assuredly, that I had no more deficiencies than they. What was it? Though I thought of the game as surpassing any pleasure I knew, I really had not defined exactly what that pleasure was. What held me is something that I can see now, intellectually.

Baseball, unlike the other gang rituals, is a game of loneliness and individual aspiration. Each play begins with a confrontation between two egos. You are there alone for a moment, and whatever is possible within that moment depends on your physical skill and judgment. Everything is directed toward winning, giving life to those who wear your colors, and you are, for that moment, like a god. What you want is within that moment, and that is simply: to perform.

I was beginning to learn in Arizona and Texas that you could not perform unless—and my father would not have had it so—you were essentially for yourself. The Yankee scout knew, in his maudlin inarticulateness, that truth. His mistake was in seeing the ballplayer as ultimately essential to the ball club and the game.

When managers and executives are good, they see beyond the material hunger into a metaphysical hunger. I think of Ronnie Camacho, still jousting the sad nights on hiccuping buses, hoarding his Lilliputian meal money, tackling the upper half of a baseball under lights that resembled Chinese lanterns at some elegant lawn party. He is 31 now and certainly won't get another shot because, as he says, "I can't hit the American curveball." When I see him now, he talks about his house in Empalme, his new car, his wife and healthy children. I can't say how well off he'd be if he didn't have those quick wrists. I can't say that money and recognition as he swaggers through the streets aren't important to him. But I'm sure that they are not all that is important to him.

One night last season I saw him in a ball game against Jalisco's Charros. Andres Ayon, an arrogant young peashooter, was throwing for Jalisco. Ronnie, after a 12- or 13-hour ride in his new car over Mexico's perpetually-in-repair roads, was having trouble getting around on the ball. Late in the game Ayon went to 3 and 2 on Ronnie, and Ronnie, going after everything, was hitting foul balls off to the right. On one such Ayon ran toward the line as Ronnie took several steps toward first. I looked toward the ball and then back toward the plate where Ronnie seemed to be asking Ayon just how hard he thought he had to fire to dispose of Ronnie. This, after all, over 13 seasons, was the home-run champion of the Mexican League. Ayon signaled to his catcher that he wanted the hard one and he did dispose of Ronnie, who took a pitch on the outside corner.

I'd never say that Ronnie's anger, and the frustration that followed, were a result of going down taking. That's happened before. But the twilight lights seem now to bother Ronnie Camacho more than ever before.

That pitch, more than any other, bothered me. It was such a blatant challenge, such a perverse reward for 15 years. It was a brief questioning of what I'd turned up at the Padre camp and in Mexicali, uncomprehendingly looking for. I felt like an aficionado who, having a bull dedicated to him, sees his torero fail with the sword. At that moment, as in the corrida, the business had turned again to art and, beyond it, into life.

And at that moment I could think of baseball as the realization, the summit of a masculine esthetic—an esthetic, which, as in the highest art, summarizes a man's life, sets him in a historical context where he measures himself against the highest achievement and where he feels that he is perpetuating the spirit of the best of his chosen work. Aggressive, at times mean, at times petty and foolish, the ballplayer still tries to transcend, by the perfection of his craft, the limitations that are inherent in it, and in himself. Here, really, is his opportunity: to play beyond the crassness, the artificiality and the grubbiness that are part of this "American" game.

Where we end is in the seemingly absurd realization that, for a good many, the game looks like life, where a man goes into it challenged, exhilarated, proud and all alone. The big money, the businessmen, the luxuries, certainly are important, important in that they are there as proofs that the ballplayer is becoming the man he aspires to be. Our Yankee scout would say that is the American way. I would say it is something more, that baseball offers the ballplayer what any man can learn of art, and of his life as art.

1 2 3