I’m not sure I should admit this, because it’ll probably destroy any chance I have of writing for The Classical, but I know nothing about bullfighting. This is at least partially my fault; I have a longstanding rule that when I read the word “bull” in a Hemingway novel, I immediately skip forward to the next chapter. But however elaborate and nonsensical the version of bullfighting that exists in my head, I tend to think of it as a rather graceful sport. The bull charges, the bullfighter glides just out of reach, and the scene continues like a dance until, again in my mind, just before bull or man is bloodily gored in front of thousands of men, women and children. The sky is blue. There are trumpets in the background.
I relate this anecdote to provide context for my mood on Monday morning. It looked to be an arduous week, and so as I prepared my office I gave myself a little treat: I dialed up mlb.tv and enjoyed the phenomenon of position players pitching. There stood Chris Davis, who according to the media guides weighs thirteen pounds less than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, as he cast his entire repertoire at the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 16th. There was the fastball clocking 89, or perhaps a tick faster than Jered Weaver’s, but even more enjoyable was the indecisive knuckle-change that seemed to give up halfway to the plate.
It was one of his mistakes, however, that led to what drew my interest. With a runner on first, one of Davis’ fastballs found itself up and over the plate, and Mike Aviles relocated it to te base of the left-center wall. Marlon Byrd rounded third and met Matt Wieters.
I have, like many people, complained about catchers blocking the plate as they wait for the ball. The home plate collision invoked a new round of controversy after it felled Buster Posey last year, but I’ve long found the practice distasteful. Catchers are no more entitled to the runner’s path than any other fielder. In this case, however, the catcher stood well in front of the plate, stretching out to receive the relay at its earliest point and sweep the tag back over the plate. The throw was true and early. Wieters turned. Byrd threw his left elbow into the catcher’s ribs. The two men sprawled over, the dust billowed, and Wieters held up his mitt dramatically to reveal the ball still inside. The crowd cheered; the inning was over.
The play felt wrong to me. It felt dirty.
I realize I am in the minority in this respect. The rules don’t talk about home plate collisions in the same sense that the U.S. Constitution fails to tackle abortion: like government, the game of baseball evolves, however slowly, as a sort of social contract between the representatives and the People. In this sense the home plate collision is baseball’s pittance to its fans, a rare acquiescence to the natural fan appeal of goonery. Hockey has its referee-sanctioned fistfights, football has its everything; baseball, in comparison, has merely sacrificed Ray Fosse to the altar of bloodlust.
My idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag.I’d like to leave the collisions behind, relegating them to the memories of belt-grabbing and knee-high cleats. My ideal form of baseball is more like my version of Hemingway’s version of bullfighting, an ethereal grace under pressure. In fact, my idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag; every moment in baseball centers on each player’s interaction with the ball, not each other. This renders the tag as the most potent and percussive act in the game, like the flourish of the cape. The rest of the game becomes a sort of waltz, performed either by Kinsella’s ghosts or Plato’s forms, both in some way seeking perfection.
This is romantic of me, I realize. But the game is moving this way on its own accord, becoming more visual and less visceral. The players themselves become less real as they are increasingly separated from the fan by distance, security and tax bracket. The game has become an increasingly televised event as baseball’s culture spreads across the country and globe. And perhaps most vitally, the game itself is no longer held in common between player and fan; fewer and fewer people play the game they love, preferring to watch passively. This is not a sign of decay, only change; we as fans love our game a little differently than we once did. Baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.
Maybe that’s why I felt so strongly about Byrd’s slide; after all, he wasn’t trying to hurt Wieters, nor break any rules. What he did wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the baseball I’ve romanticized, that we all romanticize to a certain degree. When Alex Rodriguez tried to slap a ball out of a player’s glove a few years ago, he was condemned, not for his desire to win, but by his gaucheness. This felt the same. The game, for me, is greatest when it is at its most gentlemanly, and it’s a shame that Wieters was unable to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.