The Rites of Spring

Posted: Apr 20, 2007 12:01 AM
The Rites of Spring

April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire. Or so T. S. Eliot opined. How did he know, not being a Cubs fan?

Perhaps that poet and expatriate forsook baseball altogether, like optimism and all else American, when he settled in London and became more English than the English. What a pity. With his talent for the elegiac, Thomas Stearns Eliot would have made a fine baseball writer instead of only a pretentious poet.

You have to be a Cubs fan to know tragedy season after unrelenting season. Only a few short years ago, I could have used the Red Sox as the personification of the tragic art. But then the Bosox had to go and win a World Series championship in 2004, their first since 1918.

What a shock. It was like seeing a Shakespearean tragedy redone as a musical comedy in which King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet all join in a fantastic, free-wheeling, high-kicking Busby Berkeley finale before rushing off to live happily ever after. It's just not natural.

Before the Red Sox did the unthinkable, and broke their 86-year record of hope denied, T. S. Eliot's dour mix of lamentation and cynicism would have equipped him perfectly for a seat in the press box at Fenway, staring at the insurmountable Green Monster, contemplating the glory that was Carlton Fisk, the grandeur that was Ted Williams.

I can see ol' T. S. there now, peering at that field of dreams through his round spectacles and over-educated sensibilities, and writing about the hollow men, the stuffed men. Namely, the Red Sox infield standing there helplessly as a routine grounder somehow gets past the pitcher, shortstop, second baseman, and out into center field, where it rolls to an unimpeded stop-not with a bang but a whimper.

But if the Red Sox can win a World Series, there is no longer any hope for tragedy, at least outside Wrigley Field. Can anyone imagine the late A. Bartlett Giamatti-scholar, dean, president of the National League, and just plain fan-writing his tragic ode to the game ("The Green Fields of the Mind") after the Red Sox had won their world championship? It would have been like mourning at a wedding.

Happily, his beloved Bosox continued their losing streak during his lifetime; Bart Giamatti did not have to endure joy. His eloquence remained unmarred by anything so vulgar as victory.

Even now the opening words of Professor Giamatti's essay steel the soul against coming disappointment, preparing us in this vibrant spring for the bitterness sure to come in inevitable autumn:

"It breaks your heart, it is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

No wonder a natural tragedian like Mr. Eliot, who sang of decadence as others sing of arms and the man, became an expatriate, leaving the literature of baseball to Zen masters like Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, who turned the English language any way but loose.

T. S., thou shouldst be with us now, for the fading national pastime calls for someone who can celebrate crumbling stadiums and their replacement by fashionable retro parks that look old but don't feel old-see Camden Yards in Baltimore.

These fashionable new ballparks bring to mind one of those perfectly planned communities-like Seaside, Florida-that are designed to invoke the turn of another century, only equipped with all the modern conveniences. Think of the Coliseum in Rome with skyboxes, the pyramids equipped with escalators, Stonehenge outlined in neons.

The only element lacking in these faux-antique ballparks is the one that cannot be manufactured, fabricated, sprayed on or appliquéd: the indelible touch that only time can give a place, a person, a piece of wisdom.

This new, fashionable faux past holds scant appeal for some of us. Me, I'd trade Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" any time for the work of a real composer like Red Smith when he was covering sports for the old New York Herald-Tribune, the original writer's newspaper. Now there was an artist. His poetry, unlike Mr. Eliot's, didn't need any footnotes. Only an occasional box score.

Happily, the sense of time past and glories evaded will in time come to these slick new parks, too. As sure as the sun rises and hasteneth to the place where it is arose. Baseball stadiums are mortal, too, which explains why the new ones have all the perfect, unconscious hauteur of youth, and the old are so venerated, especially if they come with assorted crotchets and crannies carved by time, like wrinkles on a face. Think of Fenway in Boston or Candlestick in San Francisco, where the Giants used to play in fog, chill and mist on a technically summer's day.

The new does have its charms, like bright hope when compared to dismal experience. It would be a sin to reject it only because it is new-instead of welcoming, enjoying, and celebrating it this perfect April, when all is promise. Play ball!

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