Confession, under the Light of the Game
[Note: The images in this blog are video stills from my ongoing documentary project chronicling a local New Jersey group of Little Leaguers preparing for an upcoming Cal Ripken Quickball tournament. Look for the video to appear here and through other venues the end of October.]
My parents – ok, my Mom – used to constantly intone how the world was getting too complex. Unnecessarily so. And like so many other adults whose lives have just tipped past apogee, I look back upon my arc of ascent, and with no small measure of dread, find myself agreeing with her.
Purity has becoming increasingly important to me; as increasingly important as the need to escape a closing doberman in full lope.
Because I live a life riddled with the unnecessarily complex, things that I can recognize as pure are few. My life lens is admittedly foggy, or perhaps scratched. But when I do recognize those Pure Things, they’re searingly bright. They are also refreshing. Like baseball.
Baseball is purely refreshing to this man of middle age, writing on a laptop to the world in 2010. Watching my children play baseball with the fury, intensity, and comedic push of newly minted testosterone is a joy. Photographing it; nay, videoing it, is an absolute experience in twisted time.
It is impossibly difficult to cheat in baseball. I mean, steroids notwithstanding, when was the last time someone tried to throw a spitball? And how ludicrous is it to try to fake dropping an infield fly so you can double-off runners? See, there’s a rule against that. And even if the umpire’s missed your sniveling attempt at treachery, the onlooking crowd would take up pitchforks against your sin. Baseball is a game of such simplicity, and yet demanding that each and every player be possessed of so many different skills, that the juxtaposition of child-likeness and intricacy provides a foundation for contests that are epic in scope, grandiose in description, and heroic in remembrance after the fact. The asterisks held up in the bleachers and the Congressional investigations bear witness to the fact that some rare, pure things, simply must be maintained.
Hank Aaron, you’re as yet unsurpassed.
Hugh Laurie as TV’s House, no wait…it was Einstein, said that time wasn’t a fixed construct. Like a piece of silk, with a supposed beginning and end, it nonetheless twists upon itself. In shifting light it takes on forms that make it appear endless, alive, sinister, seductive. But it’s still just what it is; a piece of silk.
Set to HD movie mode, I raise my Nikon to my eye. In the driveway, with cheap plastic bats and hollow balls scuffed raw, my sons and their friends both encourage and ridicule each other as they square up to a plate made of old ceiling tile. The October 2nd Quickball Wiffleball Tournament is approaching, and they’re getting in as much practice – well, they call it “practice” – as they can. As I watch through a lens, I find myself riding the curls of that silk, all the way back to 9th grade.
My school chums, all of whom I’d played endless hours of street ball with, had gone on to starting positions on the high school’s baseball team. Despite their urging, I never got past my fear of Systems and Authority and therefore, never tried out. Never mind that they couldn’t hit my curve or my sinker; they’d go on to win the state baseball championship three years later. The New York Lottery’s campaign slogan certainly applied to me that year: You can’t win, if you don’t play.
One otherwise normal afternoon that year, arriving early to my 4th period American History class, I discovered an entry-level Pentax 35mm camera, left under a desk. Clearly, a student from a previous class had rushed off at the sound of the bell, leaving what was then an expensive trinket behind.
Oh, snap. Having been raised southern baptist and being born a Gemini didn’t exactly prepare me well for decisions of an ethical nature. There it was, laid in the chrome wire basket under the orange desk chair like a gift from a Japanese stork. It even had a rainbow neck strap, as if it belonged to Mork. Visions of Pam Dawber ran thru my pubescent head. Great. Sin of omission meets sin of commission, with a double whammy of lust. Do I loot the store after the earthquake?
I didn’t have Buggs Bunny’s calm arrogance: “If I dood it, I get a whippin… I dood it…”
I am acutely aware now, of what pain that kid’s parent’s – much less the student – felt when he or she eventually disclosed to them that their costly investment had been carelessly lost. Assuming, of course, it was ever told.
After smuggling it home, wrapped in my jacket, I told my parents I found it in the field where my neighborhood friends and I often played baseball.
My heart was pounding in my throat like a pulsating gob of Mom’s fried chicken livers. And it just would. Not. Go. Down. But hot damn, they fell for it. I’m not gonna get a whippin’. I’m just going to be haunted by this decision for most of my adult life…
The sacred and the profane, muddied together. The holy ground of that field, sullied by my utter untruth. My 9th grade Pentax was my steroid.
I cared for my previous lie of a Pentax as if I had hatched it, myself. I persuaded my dad to purchase The Beginner’s Guide to Pentax Cameras at a local mall camera store. (He of course, thought he was investing in my self-driven education.) I saved money from my paper route and purchased K-Mart Focal brand lenses. (I would have had to have won the flippin’ New York Lottery to buy genuine Pentax glass.) And I shot rolls and rolls and endless rolls of remarkably poorly composed film. It was as if the karmic retribution for hiding my crime was being meted out in how awful my photos were. I sent them away to mail-order labs, and like Valentines from Charlie Brown’s longed-for red headed girl, I watched for the postman’s arrivals.
But I kept shooting, somehow trying to outrun those dobermen by attempting to craft solid photos.
Irony of irony, the next year, I enrolled in my high school’s brand new photography 101 class. There were only 2 students. As far as the school was concerned, my indiscreet non-disclosure was never uncovered. Many years later, I traded that camera in for a state of the art, professional autofocus number. Somewhere in Kansas City, someone acquired contraband.
Since then, I’ve married. Divorced. Remarried. Fathered children, and taught them the glory of the game. I’ve sat back to watch them revel in it on their own terms. From established Little League and Babe Ruth to Wiffle on the street, I find myself most enamored with the visceral punch of asphalt baseball, where, under neighborhood rules, you can be legally thrown out by a well-aimed shot to the arse. Their honest consumption with the game so complete, they’ve created a whiteboard in the garage that keeps careful track of home runs, strikeouts, how many times they’ve been hit by pitches, and at least a dozen other stats.
Accomplishment is measured in hard numbers, validated by a jury of your peers, and gloated on by all. There isn’t only no crying in baseball, there’s no cheating. The dry erase numbers are scribed truth. It’s a beautiful thing.
The upcoming Cal Ripken Quickball Tournament has them practicing every day until it’s just too darned dark to see the stinging ball whizzing past your nose. They’re out there throwing and hitting, swinging and missing, running and slipping, with all the urgency of rescuers attempting to raise miners half a mile underground.
Like an artist that can’t not sketch the beautiful woman he sees on the other side of the room, I can’t not attempt to photograph and video record their efforts. I know purity when I see it, because…I am not pure. And I love baseball. And I love my sons.
My current pro-grade equipment, like many previous cameras, has been honestly acquired. I loved my small, light, fast Pentax ME-Super. The used Minolta X-7A with motor drive was like a classic retro sports car; it’s mechanical “ka-chee” was it’s throaty carburetor roar, every time you squeezed the shutter button. The little Canon Digital Elph I regularly carry and even my iPhone’s camera are all part of the parade of Honest Eyes that have snapped thousands and thousands of images.
My present rig was purchased outright with money made from other full time efforts whose primary role it was to clothe, house, and feed my family. But every shot of my sons swinging and missing reminds me of battles in the Kentucky summers where I grew up, in a field that never saw a camera laying misplaced in it.
Someone once insidiously said…work makes you free. Even crafted the darned phrase out of wrought iron. I know; I saw a picture once. Years after the fact, here’s hoping the labor, with skills acquired via an unscrupulously attained tool will eventually atone for a shy, nervous high schooler’s silence.
The boys are practicing tonight. Gotta shoot.