The Buddha Plays Baseball


2007 was a time of ill winds, to be sure.  Bizarre and endless wars sucked our vitality, job losses mounted, the treasury was being looted and millions of dollars had been shipped to Iraq and… vanished.  Days and months stretched while an unpopular wastrel fiddled through his second Presidential term. By October,  Congress had passed  the laughable Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, Pub.L. 110-81 and drought had turned the landscape brown from Tennessee to Delaware.

A definite malaise was starting to leech the colors from our national self-portrait.

But in a corner of that premonitory year,  a mythic battle of underdogs was being waged and their fans were galloping toward an epic finale.  Baseball’s American League Championship Series (MLB-ALCS) was swelling hearts with  the sweetest agonies of love and loathing.

The Cleveland Indians and their obnoxious Chief Wahoo mascot had swept The Hounds of Hell  (New York Yanks) out of contention and the Something-Something Angels had fallen to the cursed Bosox. (Appended as a matter of fact  but not excuse:  the Cleveland team “was named after Louis Francis Sockalexis, the first American Indian in the majors.” However and imho, nothing about that fact makes Chief Wahoo endearing.)

The Cleveland Indians have been my beloved enemy for fifty one years. I am Charlie Brown and they are Lucy. Each spring I foreswear my allegiance and by  July, I’m mired in another season of crazed hope.

In 1948, five years before I was born, Cleveland captured the American League pennant by beating the Boston Red Sox in a one game playoff. Insult was added to Boston injury when Cleveland went on to defeat Boston’s Braves in the consequent World Series.  In the  fifty nine years since, the Indians have played most of their seasons in the dank basement.  (One exception was their World Series loss to a not-to-be-named Florida upstart team in the eleventh inning of the 7th game in 1997.)

And Boston…?

There’s a swath of baseball fanatics who’ve convinced [our]selves that old  teams like Boston and Cleveland wear  the mantle of working men and women. (There’s even a blog devoted to Blue Collar Baseball.)  When Boston breached the trust by trading The Babe to the Dark Side, the stars were blotted from Boston’s firmament.

For the most part, the Red Sox rotted in their own stagnant brew until 1975 when Carlton Fisk,  Yaz and  rookies Jim Rice and Fred Lynn inspired  their hapless fans  to board the train to Armageddon.  They came home bloodied by Cincinnati’s juggernaut – The Big [Evil] Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose raised their crimson helmets over the strew of Boston bodies and were rewarded with gold, glitter and aftershave commercials.

In 2007 (unlike 1975) Good Guys were pitted against Good Guys, or so the ode goes.   Baseball would give us a blue collar victory because, no matter whether Boston or Cleveland won the ALCS,  an underdog would be going to the World Series.  Any win was  a win worth savoring when President and Congress were busily destroying most other working class dreams.  (Also, see:  NY Yankee 2009 ticket prices as a sample of what it’ll cost to enjoy a new “Socialist-funded” sports arena.)

In the third game of the 2007 ALCS matchup, Cleveland and Boston dueled through the top of the 7th, locked at one game a piece. Cleveland’s  pitcher, Jake Westbrook, peered over the web of his mitt at Jason Varitek, Boston’s formidable catcher.  “The Captain”  stood nearly upright in the batter’s box, the business end of his bat circling high over his shoulder. Westbrook’s performance in this tie-breaking game had exceeded all expectations but he was visibly worried about Varitek — an explosive hitter — a catcher savvy in the deceit of posture and the fingers’ grip on the ball.

I’d been at a Buddhist Monastery with Thich Nhat Hanh for four days — gliding around with 800 other retreatants — our passages greased by self-conscious and meditative half-smiles.

I needed baseball. I needed the here and now, mindfulness of baseball. The fleeting, combustible sufferings and joys of baseball. I needed cracking bats and bubble gum; the concentration of a pitcher’s eyes peering into the black hole of the catcher’s mitt; the timelessness of a ball traveling 60.5 feet from the mound to the plate; the flight of a ball before its intention is clear.  Will it dip? Will it slide?  Will it sink heartlessly beneath the bat’s hopeful arc?   Will it hang for One. Precious. Nanosecond… wherein the pitcher dies and the batter is resurrected?

The pitcher knows his own intent. The rest of us speculate given the score, the inning, the number of runners on base, the hitter’s skills, the true nature of the on-deck-batter, the wind, the kinds and numbers of bugs; but none of us knows the outcome. We wait, suspended in time and place; locked in a single expectant moment. Even then, some Karmic debt or merit, unaccounted for by our schemes, might send the ball scalding into the dirt, past the straining limbs of the catcher.

When my “monastic” roommate returned to our hotel room, she saw me drop my sneakers in disgust. Westbrook was behind in the count.

“What are you doing?” Her tone was sharply incredulous. As retreatants, we were pledged to silence and  meditation.

“Watching the ALCS,” I whispered, eyes fixed on the wind up.

“It’s not very…Buddhist,” she sniffed scornfully.

The 25”  TV was housed in a pressed wood cabinet.  I scooched as near the screen as I could and wrapped the cabinet doors around the back of my head.

She didn’t hear or didn’t understand the signal crack when Varitek smacked the ball to center. She didn’t see or didn’t understand that before the ball disappeared beyond the centerfield wall, time and gravity hung suspended with hopes and dreams and  the eleven alternative universes of string theory.

In the limitless space between past and future — Now is held: complete and fleeting. Fluid and whole. Easily felt. Easily lost. Impossible to trap.

Remember Boston’s Carlton Fisk,  bouncing sideways  down the first baseline in 1975, his torso and catcher’s arms waving the ball fair,  pleading with the Fates for that  one break.  Thirty two years later, another Boston catcher  stoked the boiler and  Boston’s train thundered down the track toward a World Series triumph.

“Patience,”  The Buddha might say.   “Time convolutes all things.”

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