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Monday, July 11, 2011

Middles (4)—The Catcher "In the Fire"

[a] Middle  RF
Baseball's 2011 season has hit the All-Star Break, and I am devoting the next two posts to the sport that is most like life. I am not the first person to point this out, but it is not hard to see that life is a good deal more like a .287 batting average than any statistic any other sport can produce (just try). Even from the "team" angle, real life has no 1972 Dolphins (football; 17-0). The greatest records in the history of baseball over the course of a season still show about one loss out of every four games. Most teams hover between .450 and .550, and an even number of wins and losses is nothing to be ashamed about. 81-81 won't get you to the World Series, but there is a solid, grudging respect that comes from more or less keeping things on an even keel.
[b] Gender  RF

Life is a lot like that.

The other thing that baseball has going for it—and that makes it a lot like life—is that there are games almost every day. From that angle, football is a little like yachting. Competitions take place occasionally. The beauty of baseball is that the 15-0 loss you experienced on Monday can be eased (if not "erased") by two-run and one-run victories on Tuesday and Wednesday. This actually happened to my Minnesota Twins two weeks ago. Life is good.

[c] Portcullis  PD
Today's "middles" post will look at one of my very favorite pieces of writing...ever (there are about 200 of these, and you will see many on Round and Square in future posts). It is from an essay on baseball catchers written by the longtime New Yorker essayist Roger Angell. It appeared way back in the New Yorker when I loved the magazine (when William Shawn was editor), and it still sums up "the person in the middle" of the game better than any collection of sentences ever has.

Let's take a look at the middle of baseball trouble—the catcher.. "in the fire."

In the Fire
Roger Angell[1]
Winter, 1984
Consider the catcher. Bulky, thought-burdened, unclean, he retrieves his cap and mask from the ground (where he has flung them, moments ago, in mid-crisis) and moves slowly again to his workplace. He whacks the cap against his leg, producing a puff of dust, and settles it in place, its bill astern, with an oddly feminine gesture and then, reversing the movement, pulls on the mask and firms it with a soldierly downward tug. Armored, he sinks into his squat, punches his mitt, and becomes wary, balanced, and ominous; his bare right hand rests casually on his thigh while he regards,through the portcullis, the field and deployed fielders, the batter, the base runner, his pitcher, and the state of the world, which he now, for a waiting instant, holds in sway. The hand dips between his thighs, semaphoring a plan, and all of us—players and umpires and we in the stands—lean imperceptibly closer, zoom-lensing to a focus, as the pitcher begins his motion and the catcher half rises and puts up his thick little target, tensing himself to deal with whatever comes next, to end what he has begun. 

These motions—or most of them anyway—are repeated a hundred and forty or a hundred and fifty times by each of the catchers in the course of a single game, and are the most familiar and the least noticed gestures in the myriad patterns of baseball. The catcher has more equipment and more attributes than players at the other positions. He must be large, brave, intelligent, alert, stolid, foresighted, resilient, fatherly, quick, efficient, intuitive, and impregnable. These scoutmaster traits are counterbalanced, however, by one additional entry—catching's bottom line. Most of all, the catcher is invisible. He does more things and (except for the batter) more difficult things than anyone else on the field, yet our eyes and our full attention rest upon him only at the moment when he must stand alone, upright and unmoving, on the third-base side of home and prepare to deal simultaneously with the urgently flung or incoming peg and the onthundering base runner—to handle the one with delicate precision and then, at once, the other violently and stubbornly, at whatever risk to himself.

[d] In the fire  RF
But that big play at home is relatively rare. Sometimes three or four games go by without its ever coming up, or coming to completion: the whole thing, the street accident—the slide and the catch, the crash and the tag and the flying bodies, with the peering ump holding back his signal until he determines that the ball has been held or knocked loose in the dust, and the wordless exchanged glances ("That all you got?"..."You think that hurt, man?") between the slowly arising survivors. Even when the catcher has a play on a foul fly—whipping around from the plate and staring up until he locates the ball and then, with the mask flipped carefully behind him, out of harm's way, following its ampersand rise and fall and poising himself for that crazy last little swerve—our eyes inevitably go to the ball at the final instant and thus mostly miss catch and catcher.[2]

[1] Roger Angell, Season Ticket: A Baseball Companion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 18-19.
[2] The full essay can be read in Season Ticket or (in its original form) in the March 12, 1984 issue of The New Yorker (beginning on page 48).

Angell, Roger. Season Ticket: A Baseball Companion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

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