We tend to think of the baseball field as something static, a quiet temple or a sanctuary for youth. This is especially true at the stadium: the field takes on a beauty that borders on lifelessness. The grass is shorn into perfect diamonds, lacking the blemish of a single weed. The source of the conflict is at the plate, but the field radiates out from the pitcher’s mound, a Pythagorean web of arcs, right angles, and perfect circles. Even the chalk, pure white against the brown earth, gives the impression of definition and permanence. The result of this meticulous grounds keeping, twenty minutes before a game, recalls the replication of divine order. It was this spirituality that led Roger Kahn to write that “the ball field itself is a mystic creation, the Stonehenge of America.”
In light of this, it’s strange that baseball involves more (intentional) desecration of its places of worship than any other sport. The field of play, once as pristine as a Grecian idyll, is tampered with by human hands. Most noticeable to the fan among these alterations are the numbers painted on the outfield walls, but rustic tales abound even from the game’s infancy. Teams with skilled bunters banked their third base line, helping the ball roll fair. Opposing teams preferred to soak the ground around the plate to kill the ball within reach of the catcher. Even the pitcher’s mound, the most conspicuous feature on the field, wasn’t immune to a few inches of alteration in one direction or another.
The destruction hardly ends when the game begins. Even as the shortstop casts away the tiniest pebble from the dirt before him, other fielders etch their cleats in the dirt as if it were wet cement. Lenny Dykstra spat so much tobacco into center field that Andy Van Slyke described it as a toxic waste dump. The same players who hop, gazelle-like, over the foul line on the way to the dugout then proceed to strap on a batting helmet and kick up a sandstorm at the plate.
No locale in the baseball field is more war-torn than the batter’s box. The hitter (unless he is managed by Maury Wills) is bound to a six-by-four foot chalk-lined prison, and he fights back by scuffing and erasing the lines. He does this in front of his captor, in full view of the umpire and every fan at the stadium, and yet the crime rarely earns punishment. The famous example of this is, of course, Carl Everett. Everett was famous for erasing the back of the box to give himself a few extra milliseconds to react to the pitch. Five years into his career, umpire Ron Kulpa finally drew a line in the sand, or in this case the clay, driving Everett to apoplexy and physical, forehead-based violence.
However, Carl Everett is the exception to this phenomenon, not the rule. For every time a batter is called out for stepping out of the box, or warned for covering the chalk, countless others are unchecked. In his biography, Planet of the Umps, Ken Kaiser had his own solution: “Just before the game began, after the groundskeepers had laid down all the chalk lines, I’d run out the back line of both batter’s boxes. I couldn’t call a player out for being out of the batter’s box when there was no batter’s box. I rubbed out that line every time I had the plate for my entire career.” The umpire has his own priorities in a baseball game, and they veer away from divine right toward the safety of his own cranium.
There’s a baffling, fifty year-old story of psychological warfare conducted over field conditions between then-third base coach Leo Durocher and his own team’s owner, Walter O’Malley. Durocher had been driven to distraction by O’Malley’s on-field gimmick: replacing the field’s coach’s boxes with rubber mats. Durocher was notorious for his compulsive eradication of all chalk in his vicinity. Perhaps it was to sidle a few feet closer to his charges on third, but it’s also possible that Durocher was acting out against the rigidity of baseball, with its hard lines and its countless rules. The mats proved indestructible, but this didn’t stop Durocher from continuing to hack at them with his cleats. It’s possible that nothing could. “I wonder,” he mused, “whether I’ll have to buy a new pair of shoes before O’Malley has to buy a new mat?”
“Mats,” chuckled O’Malley, “are cheaper than the kind of shoes Leo wears.”
What drives a man to this kind of obsessive behavior? The naturalist might look at this metaphor as an indictment on humanity’s effect on the environment, his capacity for razing the most calculated natural beauty. The genealogist might consider these activities as a need to leave one’s mark on the world. The cynical businessman, meanwhile, could envision this frenetic activity, most of it being of little utility, as the human imperative to look busy, to evoke some change as evidence for one’s effort, win or lose, on the field. Or perhaps baseball is just full of little boys tearing the leaves off of trees.
Yet there’s something fitting in all the defilement that goes on amidst a baseball game, a sort of reverse chaos theory. After every game, the grounds crew will emerge to reset the entire scene to its factory specifications. The scoreboard will be reset, the infield raked, and everything will begin the way it did the day before. And though everything begins anew, the game is meticulous in its history, so much that a minor anecdote about a team’s third-base coach survives a half-century. In a world that is full of deterioration, and constant reminders of the fragility of the earth and of youth, it’s comforting to find in baseball and its scenery an eternally renewable resource, no matter how hard they try to erode it. Baseball may or may not share the mysticism of Stonehenge, but it seems to bear comparable endurance.