‘A gentle trinitarian mysticism’

You know, it’s not always easy being the “baseball guy” at one of the nation’s top institutions of learning.
But it’s easier now than it used to be. Cultural Studies are acknowledged as an important part of higher education. Popular culture, sports, movies and the like are now in liberal arts curricula.
The phrase, “A Gentle Trinitarian Mysticism,” comes from an essay on baseball by the Catholic philosopher and prolific writer, Michael Novak, in his book, “The Joy of Sports.”
He wrote: “Baseball conveys a kind of mysticism in numbers … To circle the bases is to traverse exactly 360 feet, the precise number of degrees in a circle. Each base is 90 feet from the preceding … Baseball has three strikes, three outs, three players in the outfield, six in the infield, nine players in all — it is suffused with a gentle Trinitarian mysticism.”
The first baseball class I taught at Middlebury had this title, “A Gentle Trinitarian Mysticism.” It was kind of an in-joke. That’s how it would appear on students’ records and would appear impressive to graduate schools. I’m more secure now: The course I’m teaching this spring is simply “Baseball as Narrative.”
The passion for the game of A. Bartlett Giamatti also made it easier for the rest of us students of American history and culture. When he was President of Yale, this Renaissance scholar and Red Sox fan declared that his aspiration was actually to be the President of the American League. He did better than that: He became the Commissioner of Baseball, although he died young, 51, only seven days after suspending Pete Rose for life in 1989.
“Home” is baseball’s central metaphor. In his essay, “Baseball as Narrative,” Giamatti discussed the symbolic importance of “home” in this game that is identified so closely with a nation of immigrants. He invokes Homer (naturally) and compares the game to the Odyssey — and the players he describes as “heroes of romance descended from Odysseus.”
The game is all about the perilous journey of going out and coming back. “The route,” he wrote, “is full of turnings, wanderings, danger … The journey begins at home, negotiates the twists and turns at first, and often founders far out at the edges of the ordered world at rocky second – the farthest point from home. Whoever remains out there is said to ‘die’ on base.”
If the runner makes it home, he is “a returned hero, and the teammates are for an instant all true family. Until the attempt is tried again,” he wrote.
Giamatti summarized by calling baseball an “epic of exile and return, a vast communal poem about separation, loss, and the hope for reunion. It is the Romance Epic of homecoming America sings to itself.”
Baseball has a literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, also poetry and drama; certainly it is the most literary of our games. Those of you who love literature, but not necessarily baseball, would enjoy a wonderfully imaginative novel by Nancy Willard.
Her narrative, “Things Invisible to See,” is set in the 1940s, World War II, and tells the story of Ben and Clare, unlikely lovers.
Ben has a passion for baseball. He cripples Clare with a batted ball in the book’s opening sequence. They fall in love, and he heads off to war, where ultimately he confronts Death and makes a deal: a baseball game between Death’s minions, the Dead Knights, and Ben’s South Side Rovers with the stakes, life or death.
On the eve of the game, the Rovers are all injured in a bus accident and Clare and the players’ mothers must substitute for them in the big game. Clare pitches. She is unsure of her ability to face Gehrig, Mathewson and the other immortals. She asks her Ancestress, a spirit-figure, for help.
“I don’t have a way with the ball,” said Clare.
“True, said the Ancestress. Therefore, do as Ben does. Put some stuff on it. The Dead Knights can never hit a ball with some stuff on it.
“What kind of stuff?” asked Clare.
The stuff of being alive. Morning, evening, the first snow and the last snow, bells, daisies, hubcaps, silver dollars, ice cream, hummingbirds, love.
Clare drew a deep breath. “How do you put that kind of stuff on the ball?”
You say it very softly over the ball before you throw it.”
“Stuff” is a fairly mundane metaphor, but we use it: “He has great ‘stuff,’” we say of a gifted pitcher who makes the ball dip and rise at his command. And so she does. Facing Iron Man McGinnity, she whispers over the ball, “A cold beer. Your first home run,” and McGinnity fans. In the book’s final sequence, Clare, marvelously healed, and Ben are circling the bases, “heading at top speed for (and this is the book’s last word) home.”
In his very last game, the great Japanese hitter, Sadaharu Oh, hits a homer. As he circles the bases, his opponents line up on the third base line to congratulate him. He recalls in his autobiography the moment and reflects:
“My opponents lifted my spirits and, in doing so, reminded me of something that I had spent twenty-two years learning. That opponents and I were really one. My strength and skills were only half the equation. The other half was theirs … my baseball career was a long, long initiation into a single secret: that at the heart of all things is love. We are, each of us, one with the universe which surrounds us — in harmony with it, not in conspiracy against it.”
Harmony. Home. Love. Stuff.

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