Have you ever flown into O’Hare Airport and counted the baseball diamonds? I have, and I always lose track. The flat Midwestern landscape just lends itself to the game. I grew up outside of Chicago, and have been writing about the region for the better part of a decade. The current project I’m working on is a book-length collection of poems about the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, my father, and listening to baseball on the radio. I’m fascinated with our regional character, our loyalty, and even our “quiet desperation.”
Poetry provides us with a unique means to enter the conversation around baseball. Take Jason Koo’s “Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fame” for example. The poet recounts the spontaneous trip he and his father made to Cooperstown. Near the end Koo writes:
…I start to wonder if it’s too late
for father and son, the Hall closing, a long drive through the dark
still ahead, but Dad looks so happy, oblivious to all
the disappointment dusting his shoulders, trusting
in his camera to lock our experience into glossy rectangles,
that I can believe, for a moment, in the rightness of our presence…
Perhaps intrinsic to poetry is this timelessness; most poems are not “literature on a deadline.” In fact, during this World Series run, a publisher inquired about printing my Cubs book right away. If I had taken him up on the offer, the book would have been available before Christmas 2016. I responded, “I’m only half done writing the poems!” The publisher implored me—“Just consider it! We can make a bundle! Write the last 20 poems in a manic, playoff-induced haze! Let’s get this out there!” I half-thought he might be right, but I maintained my “no.”
Poems make their own deadlines. Perhaps this is because poetry, even poetry about baseball, comes from what Octavio Paz calls, “The Other Voice.” He says, “The other voice is not the voice from beyond the grave: it is that of man fast asleep in the heart of hearts of mankind. It is a thousand years old and as old as you and I, and it has not yet been born.” Doesn’t that man sound like a Cub fan? That voice may be received, coaxed, or revised, but never rushed. Take a typical poem from my collection like this one, written during the 2012 Cubs season:
Tucked in the western grandstand imagine
Wrigley: a sliver of light, orange-green
beams gone between Golden Arches
as scoreboard plates clink in place.
The fourth inning haze filters the sun—
a yolk yawning itself undone
in the upper deck air—to curve against
each pillar, straining my gaze in Aisle 228.
My father gripes and wipes his nose
through the April game—
the team terrible again—
yet players lope over this green hill
and our minds agree to rise
and clap for them.
Yawning, hazy, loping, and slow-clapping: I approach these poems the same way I approach a season. It’s 162 games long, and as Annie Savoy says in Bull Durham, “You gotta trust it.” Things even out in the end. The best teams emerge with the best records, hot streaks cool to embers and a veteran who makes a slow start will probably hit his career averages by the time September rolls around.
The great thing about our game is that on any given day anything can happen. A truly awful team can beat a great one going away. When you play every day, anomalies are expected. As T.S. Flynn says in the essay, “Predictions,” “I’ll go again and again, because it’s big league ball, and because you just never know what’s going to happen.” I’m taking a similar approach to writing about the Cubs, because that’s the fan I am—there every day, silently or loudly cheering them on, doing the laundry or making dinner with an eye or ear to the action. Yes you have to wait, but who knows when the whole thing could pop?
As a Cub fan and as a poet, I have expected futility. This is probably my downfall. Wyl Villacres says in his excellent book about the team, Bottom of the Ninth, “Tommy talked about how this year, things might be different—the Cubs were doing well lately, they were scrappy, they were fighters. He said something about how they didn’t need to dwell on past failures and I stopped listening.” When the team is good, we’re almost lost. This year, as the Cubs racked up 103 wins, I remained guarded—cautiously optimistic. Theo Epstein, Cubs President, reminded the fans again and again that the postseason is a “crapshoot.” I thought, well, at least I’m savoring every inning of the first 162. We’ll see what happens in October. No expectations. I am not ashamed to admit that I wrote the Cubs off at least three times during this year’s playoff run, and I still don’t believe “it” really happened. In fact, I’ve already drafted a poem about God rewinding the clock and taking back the World Series trophy, popping that final ball from Anthony Rizzo’s mitt. Maybe, like the Cubs, my book will surprise me and be written and accepted ahead of schedule. I’ll have unexpectedly hit it out of the park.
Baseball is a game of “unwrapped gifts and free surprises” as noted fan Annie Dillard says. It’s a game where folks romanticize the nuttiest things, like an out-of-date scoreboard and even umpire errors. We excuse bad umpiring, labeling it the “human element.” Both poets and ballplayers are convinced that rituals and superstitions bring productivity and creativity, and Cub fans are all traditionalists in one way or another, even the ones who don’t like to admit it. It’s almost as if we watch games at Wrigley through that gauzy filter used to film Barbara Walters. Baseball is also our most spiritual of sports. It’s loaded with religious imagery—just think of the numbers involved. Three strikes and you’re out, three outs and the inning is over, nine innings in a game, and the “Seventh Inning Stretch”? When we go to games we sing songs, pray, weep, and Cub fans scatter the ashes of loved ones on Wrigley’s warning track. We listen to organ music and shuffle into rows. Andrew Forbes’ brilliant book on the sport, The Utility of Boredom, leads off with an essay titled “Sanctuary.” In it he says, “Visitors to the South Bend Cubs’ team store are greeted with a verse from Exodus written on the wall. ‘Make for me a sanctuary,’ it reads, ‘and I will dwell in their midst.’” God is in the ballpark. Amen.
Baseball is also a rotational game: the starting five and goal of wheeling players around the bases makes me think of poetry’s metrics and music. It’s a grind, and it’s workmanlike. It’s a slow season; one game doesn’t mean much, but at the end something has been decided. The game’s a lot like our lives and poetry gives us a way to voice these observations beyond the box score. I think about the sons and daughters who visited their parents and grandparents’ graves during this World Series and the older folks wearing the “Just one before I die!” t-shirts. I think of my own father, who I kissed on the cheek before he walked through Gate K for Game Three at Wrigley. I thought of him as I sat outside on the curb of Waveland Avenue listening to Pat Hughes call the game on my transistor radio, wanting a win for my father more wholly than for myself. He’s 67 years old. All I could think of during the 1-0 loss was Sylvia Plath’s famous line from the last poem she ever wrote, “Edge”: “We have come so far, it is over.” Thank God the Series wasn’t.
I think about all the people who watched the World Series this year, how postseason baseball ratings shot past those of NFL games, and how no one on sports radio in Chicago is talking about the Bears. And I think about how the Cubs own this town, this state, and how fans have been waiting to show it. We turn out, and part of what we turn out for is the poetry of baseball. This year Cub fans witnessed the symmetry of the game click into place. The threes became nines and the nines became zeroes. Zero years since the Cubs have won the World Series. The lines finally scan, the diamond gleams. Even now in the offseason, Andrew Forbes reminds me to “scan the dial for a game. Drive and think about baseball. Be grateful for it….recognize you’ve placed your faith and love in something that will outlive you. Be glad you went.” And I’ll add: I’m glad I wrote about it.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Whiskey Island, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from George Mason University and is currently a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University.