Fall baseball is back in New England, and over the past week or so it’s been as easy to get lost on as an autumn trail covered with leaves of gold. Not only is baseball our national pastime (though some would argue that football long ago took that title), it is also our most poetic. So to celebrate the Sox playing deeper into October than they have since 2008, I’ve been reading John Updike’s classic 1960 feature from The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which describes the author’s experience attending Fenway Park for Ted Williams’ final game ever—in which The Kid hit a home run in his final major league at bat, in front of 10,000 or so fortunate fans.
Updike’s opening line, like the action of the day itself, is now legendary (“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”) But his description of baseball, as an art form more than a sport, really hits it out of the park (what’s an ode to sports without an obnoxiously-punned sports metaphor?). Updike writes:
“For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual contests is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportwriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.”
Baseball’s playoffs are so spectacular because so many of its moments hold the promise of being season-altering (a three-run homer, an inning-ending double play), but could just as easily end up being nothing (another foul ball, a do over). The pace of the game, uniquly untimed, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, gameday by gameday, is ultimately so much more realistic than that of other sports. Even in this age of instant messaging, highlight reels, and non-stop overblown hype.