I have done what is for me, an unheard-of thing. I bought a Sports Illustrated magazine, and read it cover to cover, avidly– nearly every word– and I was just as entranced by the photographs of men in strange costumes doing a kind of Ballet in the Dirt as I was by their interviews. It was the World Series Commemorative Issue, celebrating the Giants’ many record’s-setting trouncing of the Texas Rangers. I greedily read it before letting one of my Giants-fevered sons have it, but only with the promise that he would keep it in good condition and let me have it back when he was done. Because I might have missed something.
I first watched baseball to be a companion to my son, and to learn this strange language he primarily speaks. I watched with a book in my lap, and looked up at the good parts–at the hits and double plays, when the bases were loaded and the score was tied. By the time the playoffs were happening the book had long since disappeared because everything had become interesting. Why hadn’t I been able to see all this drama and dance before? This demonstration of mighty feats of bio-engineering the human body can produce? In the the crackling tension of the duel at the plate and then a satisfying snap made as a small ball arcs through a blue sky, there is a wonderment to behold. There is ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing’ — as described here:
THAT ANYONE CAN even hit a big-league pitch is a wonder in itself. That some can hit home runs is practically a miracle. On paper, at least, the feat seems impossible.
A pitcher starts his windup for each pitch at a distance of 60 feet six inches from home plate. But by the time he releases the ball, he’s about five feet closer to the plate. If he throws a 99-mph fastball, the ball is going to reach the batter in 395 milliseconds. By comparison, it takes 400 milliseconds to blink your eye completely.
A lot has to happen in those 395 milliseconds. It takes the first 100 just for the batter to see the ball in free flight and get an image of it to his brain. If a decision is made to swing, the batter generally has a grand total of 150 milliseconds to get the bat around and through the strike zone.
And those are only for the gross movements involved. There’s still some fine-tuning to do. If the batter is only seven milliseconds early or late in connecting with the ball, he’s going to send it foul. And even if his timing is perfect, he still has to put the “sweet spot” of the bat within an eighth of an inch of the correct spot on the ball. To give you an idea of the margin of error, the width of an average pencil is twice as big as the margin of error on a major league bat.
To top it off, the batter has to swing pretty hard. If he’s going to hit a home run, he has to swing very hard, and as every golfer, tennis player, and place-kicker knows, the harder you try to hit, the tougher it is to hit with accuracy.
But I might love the excitement of the defensive plays the best- the thrilling scramble for that tiny ball, the fielder rolling in the dust, as he triumphantly retrieves it and throws it again, almost without looking, to tag out the runner. And the beauty of a leap by Cody Ross, SF Giants’ outfielder, straight into the air, glove high, is no different than the cabriole executed by SF Ballet’s principal dancer Pascal Molat–both exhuberantly defy gravity and balance– but one is backing up to a wall, and the other is fronting a stage.
I love the endlessly retold meme of the Giants: that they are a ragtag band of misfits — they are the washed-up, the rookies, the seemingly permanently disabled, those seemingly chosen without thought, or almost by accident like the aforementioned Cody Ross. The Giants have been humbled since the proud days of Barry Bond’s performance-enhanced pyrotechnics. Consider this story reported by SF Gate on August 23, titled, “Incidentally, Giants Add a Bat in Cody Ross”:
“It appears the Giants have a new outfielder, whether they wanted him or not. They placed what was believed to be a blocking claim on Cody Ross of the Marlins to prevent the Padres from acquiring him…”
Cody went on to become a powerhouse hitter, and a reliable arm in the outfield. The rookies Bumgarner and Posey performed like seasoned veterans. The washed-up and ready to quit Aubrey Huff was the glue that held the team together. And Edgar Renteria got up from the bench to become MVP for the Series. In the seventh inning of Game 5 , with runners at second and third, two outs, and no score, Rentería hit a three-run home run that won the series for the Giants. Thrift-shop castoffs, all of them, but they played like they were designer goods.
These are satisfying stories because they follow a biblical arc, like so many good memes do. Like a well-hit ball building in momentum, and then recognized as a home-run, the Giant’s history this year is deeply soul-stirring. It reminds me of Jesus with his unlikely band of followers:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Cori. 1:26-27)
It is this story we both responded to, my son and I. We serve the God of the Second Chance, who chooses selfish losers and luckless ones and enables us to play not for ourselves alone, but for the team! And then He disciplines us into champions. I loved watching this wonderful story unfold, as the Giants told it to us in the language of bats and balls– a language I delight to learn because it is a bridge to my boy, an entry into his world, because he is leaving mine. My boy has left my lap forever, and is entering the world of men. It is a completely mystifying world to me, his mother. But at least now we will always be able to talk baseball.