In the early 1980’s, I saw an advertisement in The New York Times classified section (they still had classified ads back then) for a freelance writer for The Annual Obituary, a new reference book to be published by St. Martin’s Press.
Respondents were required to submit a trial essay. Which I did (see PDF document above). The essay was typed by me on my “cherished” electric typewriter. No word processors in those days. Typos were corrected by hand. A wavy line underneath meant boldface, and so forth.
I was excited about the opportunity to write about real people prominent in fields such as the arts and writing — I had been working as a copywriter for a college textbook publisher.
I was hired on the basis of this essay I wrote about the writer Jean Rhys. I have no desire to read her books now. But, I was thrilled then to be hired. My wife got a phone call from the editor saying that I had been chosen. “He will be so excited to hear they you called and that he has been chosen,” she said. “Well, he has,” she said, stuffily.
Mark Harris, in his wonderful baseball novel The Southpaw (1953), talks about an aspect of the game, fly balls.
The Southpaw is the first in a series of novels about Henry Wiggen, a star pitcher for a fictional team, the New York Mammoths. In an expository passage, Harris observes that it is aesthetically beautiful and satisfying to watch an outfielder do something that is considered routine: catch a fly ball, say, during practice when a coach is hitting fungoes. He refers to the flight of the ball and the grace it requires to track and catch it.
When you think about it, catching a long fly is a skill one has to develop. It is actually counterintuitive, in a sense. Think of a person not brought up with baseball in their culture trying to do it (and how ridiculous they often look when they try).
I bought an instructional video on fielding once for my sons Henry and Stephen. It was quite good. The instructor said that the key to catching a fly is to run to the spot where you think it is going to come down and be sure you are under it when it does. Otherwise, you will find yourself out of position, lunging for the ball. If you are already in position, in the right spot, you have a good chance of making the catch.
The instructor also said you have to cradle a grounder like an egg and see it into your glove. I have often marveled at how few errors major league infielders make. I have noticed that they always seem to position themselves correctly, in terms of their stance and glove. It seems to be the key to their success in this regard.
“It is a beautiful sight to see a good outfielder gather in a fly ball, moving over as graceful as you please while from 250 or 300 feet away someone has tossed the ball up in front of himself and laid into it and sent it upward and upward in a high arc until the ball is just a white speck against the blue sky, and then it hits its highest point and begins to drop, and you look down and there is a player loping over, moving fast or slow, depending on how he sizes up the situation, and he moves under the ball and it zooms down in his glove. It looks so easy when a good ballplayer does it. It is not easy. Ask any kid that has ever tried to play ball whether it is easy, and he will tell you. But when a big-league ballplayer does it, it looks easy because he is so graceful, and he gathers it in and then runs a few steps on his momentum and digs his spikes in the ground and wheels and fires that ball back where it came from, and it hops along, white against the green grass.”
Below is the text of am email of mine from October 2004 to my older brother, sister, and my uncle, Roger Handy.
From: Roger W. Smith
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Subject: Manny should have caught it
Manny Ramirez looked like a Little Leaguer trying to catch Bernie Williams’s fly in the 8th inning last night. The Red Sox might have had a chance if they had gone into the 9th one run down.
Everyone knows — as color commentator Al Leiter pointed out — that you are supposed to turn around and run to where you think the ball is headed while looking over your shoulder, not try to catch a fly ball backpedaling waving your glove in the air.
One of the guys I have been playing baseball with lately is a 25 year old ex-minor leaguer in the Mets farm system. He discussed with us some of the fundamentals one is taught in the minors. Things like throwing, basic stance and swing, and so forth.
His advice was actually helpful to me. For instance, I realized I usually throw the ball wrong (overhand instead of three quarters). He tries to coach the kids we play with, some of whom don’t listen.
Where was Manny when they were teaching fundamentals? But come to think of it, I am not sure he ever played minor league ball.
My first dog was Sugar, a mongrel, in fifth grade. We had a problem because Sugar was chasing and biting college students on bikes, so my parents took the dog back to the pound. I was very upset. This was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Then we briefly had another dog, Cougar, which could not be housebroken. So we had to get rid of Cougar.
Then we got a wonderful dog, Missy, a shepherd collie, when we were still living in Cambridge. We moved to the suburb of Canton, Massachusetts and Missy had puppies. My mother assisted with the delivery! The puppies were adorable.
Missy died in 1959 when I was in the seventh grade, shortly after we moved to Canton.
This devastated me. My father picked me up at the Eliot School. We were on double sessions then because of overcrowding of the schools, and we got out of school at something like 12:30. The first thing I said was “How’s Missy? When is she coming home?” He said, “She’s never coming home.”
I cried all the way home. For the next few days, I was in pain. I would go outside on the back porch, forget momentarily that Missy was dead, and expect to see her, then would remember.
It was a sudden death on the operating table of the vet, who was very sorry about what happened. Missy had had to have an unexpected operation involving a “female” problem arising post-pregnancy.
Right after, we got Robbie, a pedigreed Irish setter. I still have the pedigree. The price was $75, expensive back then.
Robbie died in the mid to late Sixties. Then we got Bambi, a great dog, loyal and smart. Bambi got hit by a car once on Chapman Street in Canton, but recovered. Bambi used to follow me all around the house and was totally devoted to me, as was I to her.
My parents both liked dogs and pets in general and were good with them.
My father taught Robbie, our big Irish setter, things like not to go onto the living room carpet. Usually, Robbie obeyed. Robbie would creep up to the entrance of the living room at the edge of the dining room and would lie there with his paws outstretched almost touching the living room carpet.
My father conducted choir practice at our house every Thursday night. During one choir practice, Robbie snuck into the living room. He used to like to stand up on his hindquarters and put his paws around my father’s neck. He did something of that sort. Whereupon my father said in a firm, loud voice, “Robbie, sit down!”
One of the choir members was Bob Fish, whose other nickname was Robbie. He was startled because he thought my father was talking to him.
— Roger W. Smith
Robbie, Smith family dog, Canton, MA
Robbie, Smith family dog, Canton, MA
my sister with Missy, Mellen St., Cambridge, MA, August 1958
Posted above is a brief personal essay of mine that was written as an assignment in an advanced course in the Spanish language taught by Professor Susana Redondo de Feldman, Chairman of the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Columbia University.
The essay consists of an evocative, affectionate sketch of our beloved family dog Bambi, who was living with my father in Massachusetts when I wrote the essay.
This exercise in creative writing was an assignment for an advanced course in the Spanish language at Columbia University taught by Professor Susana Redondo de Feldman, Chairman of the Spanish and Portuguese Department.
Professsor Redondo de Feldman remarked, with irony, that the paper was by a would be Hemingway.
A downloadable Word document containing the text of this post is below.
My favorite activity on Saturdays is to play baseball with my sons and their friends on a playground in Queens.
I am some 40 years older than most of the other players, whose ages range from seven or eight to 14.
On most occasions, my role is “designated fielder” or pitcher, for both teams.
Sometimes, when the teams are uneven, I am assigned to one or the other and get to bat. I also function as an unofficial, self-appointed umpire, a thankless but necessary job that often finds me in the middle of some contentious disputes over what actually happened, what is fair, and what the rules are in the first place.
Usually (assuming I am not batting on that day), I take up residence at shortstop, third base, or left or center field and enjoy the game from there, playing defense for both sides. The field is very small, so I am very much involved in the action regardless of the position I am playing.
While standing on the field, impatiently awaiting the next slow pitch and hoping the ball will be hit my way, I have plenty of time to meditate, the moments of tranquility being interrupted (only briefly) by a burst of activity when I am in the middle of a play or watching it unfold, shouting at the boys to “throw it, don’t hold on to it!” “home it!” or “cover second!”
The serene and meditative state I often find myself in at such times (once the excitement over the last play has subsided) has made me reflect on its causes and to conclude that baseball is indeed a most wonderful and beautifully designed game.
To be able to enjoy baseball or softball, I have concluded, one needs enough players, at least five or so on each side, to make it playable, and a sufficient level of organization and skill on the part of the players to make the game reasonably competitive and playable. That is all that is needed (other than a ball, bat, and gloves), and I have found that baseball is more fun, for me, to play and watch this way than in a more organized venue (e.g., a youth or professional league).
When I play baseball with boys some thirty to forty years younger than me, I find myself completely caught up in the game. The pleasure, I think, comes from the aesthetic beauty of the game itself and the keen sense of satisfaction I get from watching each play unfold.
To give a few examples: There is a Polish-American boy of about age 13 who used to play with us regularly. (I haven’t seen him at the field this year.) His father, who is a cab driver, took him to the park on Saturdays and busied himself while the boy was playing in a game. The father spoke broken English and hardly knew the game. The son was a good baseball player and took the game very seriously.
One day the son was on first base when someone got a hit. He tried for third (the distance between the bases is short) and ordinarily would have made it. A boy in the outfield fielded the ball cleanly and threw it to me at third. It looked like the Polish boy would make it to third easily, but the throw was right on the mark and the ball “caught up” with him. The ball thudded into my glove and I placed a tag on the surprised runner. He was out, and just as I tagged him, I saw a monetary look of surprise and disappointment flash across his face. This is what baseball is about, I thought. A boy or man trying to outrun a ball. If the ball was thrown a little less further or little less straight, he would have been safe.
My older son (age 14) is playing shortstop. Someone hits a sharp grounder in the hole between shortstop and third base, to his right. He lunges, makes a backhand stop, manages to keep his footing, and looking like Derek Jeter, comes up with the ball. He is momentarily surprised himself that he came up with ball. Then, realizing that he has indeed done so and is supposed to throw to first, he lets go a throw that is both joyful and hopeless, a wild sidearm heave that is a bit too late and wide of the bag. He throws the ball with joy and abandon. It is too late and wide at first. The runner is safe. But he still made a great stop.
My younger son (age 12) is playing first base. Sometimes he has to fight with the other boys to let him play first. He had decided he likes the position, but it is not automatically his. There is keen competition for infield positions.
A sharp grounder is hit to my younger son’s right. He shifts and comes up with it! I fully expect him to run over the first to complete an easy putout, but realizing that there was a runner on first base who is headed for second, he twists and throws to second for a force out, then races back to first to take a return throw which doesn’t quite arrive on time but which could have meant a double play.
It was an excellent, heads up play. I was proud of my son for getting to the ball, and for having the presence of mind to go to second base to nail the lead runner. He sure has improved at first! For a minute, he looked like a major leaguer.
The pleasure, the extreme aesthetic satisfaction, I get out of baseball, I realize, comes from situations like this in which plays unfold and scenarios happen in front of you. Ten years from now, I will still remember the time when the Polish boy was out at third, the good plays my sons made, the outcomes of certain games, just as someone will remember major plays in the Big Leagues such as the catch Willie Mays made in the 1954 World Series or the time when (I remember) Carl Yastrzemski threw out Julian Javier at the plate in the first game of the 1967 World Series. These plays stay in the mind because of their simplicity, their beauty of execution, and the drama of how and when they happened.
Which reminds me of another wonderful thing about baseball. One minute you (player) are an observer, the next moment you are a participant, and most exciting plays involve at least two players on the defensive team (plus the batter and one or more base runners). Plays and scenarios do not unfold in a vacuum; the enjoyment comes from the teamwork. My son’s good stop at first and heads up throw to second would have not been so memorable if another boy hadn’t thought to cover second and to return the throw to first.
Baseball is a thinking man’s game because it can be contemplated as well as played with great satisfaction. You can do both things at once (play and reflect on what is happening, the latter both through anticipation, or foreknowledge, and analysis of what is happening and what did happen), or simply enjoy watching.
Most of the time when I play with my sons and their friends, the level of play is not particularly good. But every play, every incident, is ripe with interesting possibilities, and it is fun to anticipate possible scenarios and watch them unfold. A double play; a dramatic play at home; a bases loaded situation that you hope to get out of; a key hit; a rundown can happen at every level of play, from sandlot to Major League, and can be just as exciting. It’s always fun, for men as well as boys, to watch boys play and to anticipate what will happen next.
On the rare occasions when the boys complete a double play, the excitement is palpable. It is a rare occurrence that takes near flawless execution. Two outs on one ground ball! It’s pretty exciting and makes one tingle with pleasure that at this level of play it was actually accomplished.