It’s cold this morning in New Jersey. The leaves that even yesterday were undecided between verdancy and variegation have now chosen the later decidedly, and bright blasts of yellow, orange, and burnt sienna mix among the still green holdouts. The hummingbird feeder hangs solemnly, unattended, strikingly so considering the hum of activity a day earlier.
It has been an unusual warm autumn. Typically the highs in early October are in the mid-sixties, not the low-eighties as they were the last few days. The hayride and apple picking adventure I took my son and niece on yesterday felt more like a sub-tropical excursion. It’s hard to get excited about apple cider, pumpkins, short days and long, spooky nights — the feeling of witches’ breath on your neck as you approach Halloween — when it’s beach weather.
Today, however, that beach weather is gone, and the crisp chill of October rain intensifies the chromaticity of autumn leaves, full saturation against its gray backdrop. It reminds me of those wedding photos that are black and white except for the striking color of a bouquet, except everywhere I look is a color burst against the battleship sides of sky.
It is a roast day. We’ve finally achieved the resonant frequency of fall that allows my mother to use the oven without minding “heating up of the whole house.” Now it is the grill’s turn to sit fallow. The smells of summer that float away on the breeze will be turned inside out like a windsock, and returned to the kitchen and the hallways of the house. There is a richness, the slow-simmering end of summer, that now lies in full-promise on the table. There is an inversion of time, the quickly cooked summer meals that are lingered over in the twilight turn into the long, slow roasts and braises that are consumed greedily in the early darkness. Our Sunday dinners start at 3 PM, before the tenebrous sky blots the sun completely. We eat early, and sleep earlier, because this time is not our time.
I love this cool darkness. It awakens something in me. Some dormant creativity that comes alive every autumn — the harvest and the crack of the bat — as everything moves towards dormancy I become alive. Yes, the crack of the bat, the orbit of a red-seamed white ball, launched by Newton against the invectives of Bernouli against an impossibly dark sky. Because along with the harvest, the smell of my parents’ neighbors stoking oak coals in their wood stove, is the promise of transformation: The Promise of October baseball.
Down in New Orleans, along the the river and bayous that I now call home, baseball is acknowledged, and sometimes even finds its way onto the TV, but we are a distinct minority. At my local, Finn McCool’s Pub, we play a distant third fiddle to football and soccer. My own private theory is that in the hectic Northeast where the ground moves constantly beneath you, baseball somehow stops — or at least slows — the passage of time. The languid pace of the game, the opportunity to breathe deeply and take in your surroundings and smell freshly cut grass is a unique and welcome experience. In the South, where time seems inert, football — the pace, the conflict, and the level of play — gives the South a sense of speed and superiority that is sorely lacking in other areas. This is what we do here, and no one does it better. And they are right. Both are right.
Football has surpassed baseball in our country’s consciousness; of this there is no doubt. It is measured in forty-yard dash times, bench press repetitions, vertical leap, and body mass indices. Football players are drafted as much on athletic potential as on their understanding of the game. Coaches, like captains of industry, look for the best sources of raw material to mold into finished products. Fans too are in awe of the raw athleticism of the game. The speed and power of the athletes, the crushing hits, the trench warfare metaphors, the slow grinding gaining of ground, or conversely, the rapid air raids. War metaphors extend throughout the game, as coaches become generals, quarterbacks field generals, and lineman infantry. There is something gripping in this narrative, especially the in light of the shortened campaigns of a 12 or 16 season game, where losses carry a ponderous weight and where faith often waivers.
If you want to test the veracity of this theory, look no further than Les Miles and LSU. After yesterday’s disappointing loss to Florida, many are calling for the general to be relieved of his command, and declaring the season over. There is an urgency that attends the game that turns into rage and irrationality as losses mount. It is the nature of the game.
Yet, for me, baseball will always be bracing and tonic. It is the rebirth of spring and promise of October harvest: it follows the Farmer’s Almanac. And October baseball is a plentiful harvest, the reward for faith, hard work, and more than a little luck: because baseball rewards luck like no other sport, and there is a magic that surrounds the game that no other sport can conjure. A broken bat base hit. A physics question: who will get to the ball first as it is falling weakly into shallow left field? The backpedaling shortstop? The inrushing right fielder? Or the grass? How can your best pitch become your worst nightmare? How does an undersized, weak hitting second baseman manage to change the whole tenor of the game on a weak hack?
Baseball has and always will capture my imagination because of what it is not as much as what it is. It’s a game of craft and skill and scuffed balls and odd nicknames and impossible bounces. A kid’s game played by grown men, but a man’s game that can only be played on its own terms and has befuddled great athletes. Michael Jordan made everything look effortless except baseball. Babe Ruth and Rod Beck looked like professional eaters more than athletes, and CC Sabathia ate two boxes of Captain Crunch a day up until last year. Baseball players are measured in how little they fail more than how often they succeed, and are less likely than weathermen to be accurate.
Even the playing field is asymmetrical. Right field in Yankee Stadium is not the same as right field in Fenway Park, whose left field towers thirty-seven feet, two inches above the field. Center field in Camden Yards is 400 feet, while its 420 feet at Comerica Park. The shape of the stadium actually influences the nature of the team, and in the case of Ruth, the player influenced the shape of the Stadium. In a world where everything is become increasingly analogous, baseball parks are wonderfully unique, a veritable Route 66 of Americana, despite their corporate monikers. I have always wanted to visit every ballpark in baseball, something I have never heard among fans of other sports. Because honestly, how interesting is every ice hockey area? Or football stadium? Outside of the storied fields and fan bases like Boston or Green Bay, what impetus is there to visit Cleveland or Detroit if your team isn’t playing there? There is little romantic about the Prudential Center in Newark, despite the fact that’s it’s a fine venue.
This isn’t true about ballparks, though. When the 4 train runs along the elevated tracks behind Yankee Stadium, I still get chills; when the ball clears “the Green Monster” onto Landsdowne Street, or hits the warehouses along Eutaw Street, it’s like a lightening strike, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. And October is the epitome of this: when faith is rewarded. The ghosts of October — condensed phantasmic vapor — once again breathed into life by the faithful in chilled autumn. If this is summer’s last gasp, it is a glorious one, and for a few weeks, and for a few teams, everything is new, and all becomes possible again…