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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
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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

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Now and then, here in Mexico, I go out to the ball park. The crowd comes in from its variety of paseos. The band is in its best flatulent form. The grass rolls out to the bleachers like a freshly brushed billiard table. The moon hangs under the lights, a golden pendulum swinging imperceptibly in a small wind. The ballplayers ooze through their pregame paces. The inflated umpire scratches his spikes on the dugout steps before moving out to say play ball. All of these simple acts take on a ritual significance that is hard to define, hard to ignore. I sit in the stands, a wise ex-ballplayer, pointing out to friends the cabalistic purity of the diamond's dimensions, the number of players, balls, strikes, outs. I lean back in a huff and lecture on the classical manner, the almost Puritan logic that rules how the game should be played. And what I make of the game, now that I have the leisure and years to see it, is an art, one that is completely enclosed in its own esthetic.

To say that, I have to overcome my own reservations about the way the game has become a big business, one in which the payoffs are physical torture, disillusion, oblivion and a few records, one controlled by businessmen who buy talent cheaply and sell it exorbitantly. Yes, the game, for me, has changed considerably over the years with respect to the pleasure I derive from it and the way I see it, which is certainly not the way I did at 17, a flanneled and thrilled boy.

When I was 17 my father turned up with me at the Ontario, Calif. spring-training camp of the San Diego Padres to realize his ambitions. I was right out of the high school, American Legion, semi-pro hothouses that every California boy—and ambitious father—felt were so necessary at the time. Having been schooled by my father to be essential, I could play any position, though we told San Diego that I was a catcher because they needed them, we thought. That was some 15 years ago.

Now, as I think over what I went through for my father and my own dreams, I ask myself what baseball, as a profession, as a game, as a way of life, has meant to me. I should have asked this luxurious question long ago, for it seems to me now that, considering the brief time that I was in it, the game and its environment shaped all my perceptions that followed.

There should be nothing strange in that assertion. So much of what we take ourselves to be, as a people, gets shifted around into solemn ceremonies—the flag raising, the first ball, the miniskirted usherettes, the hot dogs, the sound of wood on horsehide. I remember that as a high school ballplayer I heard a Yankee scout say any scout could judge a boy's physical potential in a minute, but he, the Yankee scout, had to visit the boy, meet his parents, judge the boy's reactions to them and his attitude toward God, country and flag to see if the boy was really Yankee material. In other words, disregarding the fact that some of the best ballplayers are and have been something less than staunch citizens, this scout was defining the American saint, his own dream. It seemed to him that a boy had to make himself worthy to play this game. The scout was defining the game and its participants in such a way that he was asserting that the game was part of the fabric of American "culture," and that only the pure in American heart could ever hope to go very far in it. Thus does the Protestant ethic come to flesh in flannels. And it isn't such a gigantic leap then to the glossolalia of success, from rags to riches on five ounces of horseflesh, a route open to every mother's—and father's—son. With that in mind it was difficult for me for a long time to explain or understand my fellow players on the professional team to which I was first assigned—Mexicali. But they can be explained, I now see, partly as products of the ethic, partly as products of their sense of themselves, as men who know something about challenge and response, courage and individual aspiration.

What happens to a young boy in spikes is that he's caught up in himself. The game gives him that luxury. Most imagine, quite rightly, that they have unique gifts and that these gifts will free them and reward them.

That is what I thought while I was prancing around the San Diego training camp 15 years ago. There I was, as close as I'd ever get to the big leagues, thrilled by being able to sign for meals, to room with big Tom Alston, to listen to Theolic Smith, to be prodded through my lazy paces by Herb Gorman, to put on that pinstripe uniform and have Lefty O'Doul punch my chin and say, "I can see you're a fighter." Never mind if only Lefty O'Doul is a familiar name to you; they were all familiar to me and figures of awe.

I knew all along that I was "going out," that I would be sent to some Class C ball club, but this did not matter, for I knew, too, that I would come back, that I would play someday for San Diego. And so it always bothered me that Milton Smith, San Diego's muscular little third baseman, kept petitioning obliquely to get placed on some club far away. But Smith always had his reasons and his style, and it was he who gave me my first impression of what kind of business I was in.

The first time I saw him he was dressed in a one-button roll, with shoulders wide enough to startle me, a Los Angeles boy, suede shoes, wide-collared pastel shirt, all crowned with the then Hollywood-style dark glasses. Nothing spectacular, but spectacle enough to make the club's executives uneasy. When he went in to negotiate his contract, the club president told Smith that his clothes were distasteful. Smith reminded the president that he, Smith, had passed maturity and knew how to spend San Diego's money

Smith, in his way, challenged that unspoken ethic that pervaded the game even then. He saw baseball, as I suspect most people who run the clubs see it, as a lucrative business and, at its vulgar limit, show business.

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