Maxwell is up to bat. He’s 10 and 4 ft 11 inches tall, a solid 100 lbs. His swing is good, level, practiced through fall ball, winter clinics, weekly trips to the batting cage. The kid on the mound is huge, his shoulders tell me he’s a farm kid, maybe he pulls the plow by himself. He’s easily five eight and he’s throwing heat–the equivalent of a little league Nolan Ryan. The first pitch is a ball and Max pulls himself out of the batting box holding up his right hand, the sign for time. He steps back in, holding his hand up and wiggles his cleats down into the dirt. He lowers his hand, adopts his stance and the pitcher lets go. “Strike!” growls the ump. The ball hit the catcher’s mitt with a satisfying thwop–meaty and deep–the ball was flying. The next pitch, Max gets a piece of it, pinging it foul to the first base side. The next pitch, a ball high and hard–Max’s whole body jerked he wanted it so bad, but he restrained himself. Another pitch, another foul. Another pitch, another ball a full count. And a good AB, he’s making the pitcher work–making this demi-god who needs his birth certificate checked sweat a little bit in the humid after rain morning of Lincoln, Nebraska. The next pitch Max swings… and misses. He’s out. He has failed. It was a good at bat though–seven pitches is a good attempt–it’s good work at the plate–it’s not the result he wants, but against a tough pitcher, a quality plate appearance is all one gets sometimes.
I’m in my office, and while the dimensions aren’t nearly that of a baseball park, something like an at bat is going on here, too. I’m facing a page two-dimensionally projected onto my laptop screen, my only spectator on old black lab who’s looking awfully sleepy at what must seem like a lack of action. Hank Aaron wrote that the thing that he liked “about baseball is that it’s one-on-one. You stand up there alone, and if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake. If you hit a home run, it’s your home run.” I’m working through the pitcher’s repertoire here, trying to get ink on the page that makes sense for the reader even if it’s only the equivalent of hitting a bloop single in A ball, hell maybe in sandlot ball. I type a bit, and then a bit more, stop, put my hand on my head or drink my coffee. I consider that I should be in the shower, should be making breakfast, should be waking my wife, but then reject all of that and come back to the plate or the page. The great Yogi Berra once quipped that “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical” and this morning as my concentration ebbs and flows like the the concentration of my son in the batter’s box, I laugh at the genius of Berra. It’s like there’s more happening than is possible, the control of the prose, the pushing of the ball out into a part of the field where no one is standing–feels immense–like more than two halves crammed into a whole.
Learning to hit a baseball well is the hardest thing in all of sport. It’s simple physics really: hitting a sphere with a cylinder, which are both traveling at varying speeds, and are further affected by wind, temperature, humidity, and how the fallible human eye perceives it, all create lots of room for difficulties. If I were a physicist, I could probably explain the fluid mechanics to you, but you’ll have to take my word for it–it’s hard. Over the years of coaching baseball and now watching my son on a select team (he’s left my coaching abilities behind), I’ve seen countless kids cry after striking out, or after getting a weak grounder and being tagged out at first. To say that there is no crying in baseball as Tom Hanks’s character claims in the film A League of their Own is patently ridiculous. There’s also anger in baseball. I’ve watched kids wallop home plate with their bats and come back pissed to the dugout. And, of course, on tv I’ve seen major league tantrums by major league players–bats destroying water coolers or rows of helmets. Hell, in just the last week some guy went on the DL for breaking his hand in anger after a poor pitching performance.
Learning to write well is another of those hard skills. In writing, I’m a player/coach, that is a writer and a teacher of writing. One of my favorite grading standards that I’ve seen is: student is in control of the prose, which I suppose is like saying that the player has a good swing, but that doesn’t mean that the idea, the concept that we’re trying to tattoo down the line for a double, is holding still at all. The ball isn’t controllable, but the swing is practicable. This morning I’m controlling the sentences as they come out, but the mind, the pitch, goes wildly everywhere, racing ahead of me like a fastball and suddenly cutting out from my ability to hit it like that nasty breaking stuff.
Baseball and writing are all about process, we spend time judging the product, but the work that makes that product possible is in a process. Last year for the city all star tournament, Max cried everytime he struck out (he was nine folks)–and there were a couple of epic strikeouts with runners on base, in scoring position, with the game on the line. Max had to produce in that pressure filled situation. It didn’t matter what he’d done the rest of the season, all those doubles to right and the stolen bases to get his team 60 feet closer to a run, he needed to produce here too. After those games we rode home in my truck, such conversations should take place in a truck by the way, and I tried to tell him how to mentally work through those plate appearances–the pitcher’s weren’t better than Max, and I’m not saying that as a dad, it’s just that they were hittable–the task was doable, but the pressure got to him–he wasn’t in control of his process. And I’ve had those moments writing too. There are times when the sentence isn’t right and that I’m not saying what I mean. Like right now, I want to bowl the reader over with beauty, with the connection of baseball and writing and how they both teach something about human endeavor. I should go back to my advice in the truck, which was make contact with the ball, don’t worry about the homer, or the score, be present for the ball. Being present for this sentence does teach me about human endeavor if I am there for it.
Often students tell me that they just aren’t good at writing and that they don’t like it. I’ve come to believe that they just aren’t good at practice, which is something that baseball is teaching me over and over. Every coach will haul out the old chestnut that you will practice like you play. It’s true; just as one has to write an essay many many times, has to free write for 15 minutes every morning, has to make sure their butt is in the chair at ‘o’ dark thirty, one also has to put the glove in the dirt while putting the second hand over it so that the ball doesn’t squirt out. We build muscle memory in the field just like we do writing pushups. Fielding and writing don’t happen overnight. And just as with my writers, it’s enjoyable and satisfying to watch the growth of baseball players from year to year. What had seemed impossible two years ago, and improbable a year ago, is routine this year. Max knows the two strike approach, he can protect the plate and extend the at bat most of time now–just as I, over the years, have learned to fill a page or two with something readable and coherent, if not brilliant and insightful.
The lesson of baseball is practice and that is the lesson of writing too. The 15 minutes at the batting cages everyday is analogous to the 15 minute free write. But it’s more than that, it’s also the lesson of process. There is a right way to learn a batting stance and there is a right way to field the ball, but each of those right ways is subtly modified by the individual–there are several right batting stances and swings, but they must be arrived at through hundreds of hours of trial and error. I think back to writing poems in notebooks as a senior in high school–terrible poems–like the worst hacks of the untrained batter. I had a pen and paper, a bat and a field, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I only had desire.
Taylor Mali, in his great poem “What Teachers Make”, quips that he teaches students to show their work in math and hide their work in English. He tells his listener that he makes students write definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful over and over again until they will never ever misspell it. Writing and baseball are like this: they hide the work that they do. Maxwell is a catcher and he will go out and he’ll gear up and I’ll throw him nasty, mean balls that bounce and spin so that he can practice blocking the plate, being a wall as you’ll hear coaches scream. Definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful as ball after ball hits his gear or his unprotected inner thigh, or bounces into his mask. And it looks beautiful in the game, but it’s the ugly practice, the work, the catching of fly balls until the sun is so low that each one is a broken cheekbone waiting to happen that makes it work on the field. Do the work, but hide it and look brilliant when you perform–this is the lesson of baseball and writing. I know this because it’s 5:49 AM and I, too, am doing the ugly work of practice, trying to get the words right so that when others read them they are beautiful.