Back in the 1970s a group of my friends used to chant, in unison, a Henny Youngman joke that became a badge of their in-group:
at Yankee Stadium.
I had no idea what it meant, but since they were all super-brainy intellectuals as well as anarchists I assumed that it must be very deep—some kind of zen koan, perhaps—and was embarrassed to show my ignorance by asking.
That’s how out of touch I was with baseball, the Great American Pastime. It was only years later that it dawned on me: of course—a baseball diamond! I couldn’t believe that I had been so clueless.
All that began to change after Nikhil was born. It wasn’t long after he began walking that we began playing wiffleball with him and Eric in the front yard, and, after he started school, Tee-ball and regular baseball, graduating from foam and plastic to wooden bats and then to a surprisingly light but terrifyingly hard-hitting metal bat. Nikhil loved any game that involved a ball, playing each sport in season once he started school—baseball, basketball, and soccer, respectively—until all three gave way to Ultimate Frisbee in high school. I wouldn’t characterize him as a jock, but he was a team player, and like everyone in his dad’s family, he loved learning all the rules of every game or sport he played.
I, on the other hand, am not only about as far from a jock as is possible, but find it exceedingly difficult to keep track of the rules of a game, and baseball was a particularly bewildering sport for me to follow. From cricket in India and rounders in England I understood the basic principle, that a player from one team threw a ball and a player from the other team hit it as far as they could in order to be able to run and score points while the other team was scrambling to catch it. But for the life of me I couldn’t seem to keep track of the intricacies of the scoring, make sense of the “stats,” or learn the specialized lingo.
As a new immigrant I had begun to notice how thoroughly American English was permeated with baseball metaphors and had to learn how to use them. Someone who made an incorrect statement was “totally off-base,” remarks that were completely off-topic came “out of left field,” while someone who was considered a little crazy was “out in left field.” In high school I learned that baseball terminology even dominated the language of American courtship—or at least, the language of male braggadocio—with would-be lovers calibrating their attempts to “score” by keeping track of whether they had got to first, second, or third base. More recently, how many times have we heard politicians of every stripe calling self-righteously for the Iraqi military to “step up to the plate” or prison reformers trying to repeal the “three strikes” sentencing laws? Surely you can come up with many more.
But when Nikhil joined Little League, I soon saw that this was serious business, even in liberal Amherst, where many adults affected not to care for competitive sports. Baseball was different; baseball was sacred, and I knew that I could no longer flaunt my ignorance of the sport. In any case, I wanted to be there to cheer Nikhil on. As a leftie, he was continually getting hit by the ball when he was up at bat, and the ethos of the sport required him to take the hit stoically as he walked to first base, head held high, having earned the walk by virtue of being hit. Although my mother’s heart bled for him, I did my best to play the part of the tough Baseball Mom; but I always felt myself to be an impostor, due to my ignorance of many of the finer points of the game—and to be honest, many of the basic points as well. Much of the time, although I cheered with the best of them, I didn’t understand what I was watching.
All that changed one sunny day in late Spring as I stood in the bleachers with the other parents on our team, still dressed in my work clothes. It was a glorious afternoon and my teaching week was over. As I relaxed into the experience I began to follow the action in a pleasant haze. Nikhil’s team was up at bat, I knew that much for sure. The very first player got to first base, and the next couple of players had scored hits as well, enabling the first player to get to third base and themselves to second and first base respectively. Now player number four was up at bat, and as he prepared to hit the ball, psyching himself up with all the obligatory pre-hit rituals of a major league player, the haze lifted and the whole scene cleared into a tableau before my eyes: the pitcher, knee lifted, arm curved, ready to let fly; the hitter, bat raised, daring him to bring it; the rest of the team, whether in the dugout or awaiting their turn to bat, alert and expectant; the parents of our team cheering frantically, for some reason I didn’t yet understand; and the three players who had already taken their turn at bat poised to run for their lives as soon as the bat made contact with the ball. And then it hit me: the bases were loaded.
“The bases are loaded,” I found myself saying out loud. I had heard that phrase before and I suppose I had more-or-less understood it, in theory. But now it came to me with all the force of a revelation—no, an epiphany.
“The bases are loaded,” I repeated, to anyone who could hear me, to no one in particular. I had finally got it. Baseball was no longer just a metaphor; it was a whole world, a world I was now part of.