When Baseball Isn’t Baseball


Bull City Summer

In Ivan Weiss’s trailer for Bull City Summer, guest photographer Alec Soth says, “What I’m doing here isn’t about the game of baseball.” Soth isn’t the first project participant to say this (or words to that effect). The notion has been with us virtually since Bull City Summer was conceived, more than two years ago. It has since grown into an informal slogan.

It’s curious to say that a project about a baseball team, set in and around a baseball park, isn’t about baseball. But in fact, the diamond has long refracted our attention outward from itself: Walt Whitman compared baseball to America’s laws and Constitution; more recently, Michael Chabon wrote, in Summerland, “A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.”

The “summer day” part is a little too pastoral for me (the vast majority of games are at night, anyway), but Chabon is right that a ballgame, with its pauses and blank spaces built around what Whitman called the “snap” and “fling” of the game’s energy and action, encourages you to take in everything around it—everything that “isn’t about the game of baseball,” as Soth says. Chabon and Soth are getting at why we call baseball the national pastime instead of the national sport.

Of course, it’s both: a sport and a pastime, to borrow from James Salter. The autograph hounds in Weiss’s trailer, the voyeurism that unsettles our photographer Kate Joyce, and that peculiar alone-in-the-crowd feeling that haunts Soth—none of that arises without the ballgames themselves. There’s a reason A Sport and a Pastime is so full of sex, described in elaborate, ritual detail: Salter understood that the strenuous, disciplined, daily exertions of love—the physical sport—enabled and ennobled the pastime of the life around it. The sex had to be closely observed and recorded.

So does the physical sport that is baseball, its strenuous, disciplined—and, above all, daily—exertions. A Triple-A baseball season compresses 144 games into just 152 days. “It’s a long season,” says Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, “and you gotta trust it.” There is a point, usually around the second week in August, when the Triple-A season begins to seem endless: the long overnight bus rides, the gas station suppers at three in the morning followed by noon games under blazing sun; the bruises and blisters, strained hamstrings and obliques. The players trudge to their positions and wilt in the heat; they are homesick, hurt, behind on their car loans. Teammates with worse statistics get called up to the majors—it’s a numbers game, but the numbers are in dollars, not stats. Finally, Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo shortens practices and sometimes even cancels them. “Just show up and play” is the line he’ll invoke with reporters in August. But it’s no longer play. It’s work.

In order to do it, you have to have good habits. Cerebral as baseball is, you must be able to play the game unthinkingly and to play it right even when playing it right doesn’t matter. That’s why, for me, the most potent moment of Weiss’s trailer is one he probably did not even intend to capture, let alone draw attention to. Around the twenty-five-second mark, a pair of catches are made in sequence: the first, a fly ball in right field by the Bulls’ Wil Myers; the second by a kid contestant in the promotional “Termites in the Trousers” game (sponsored by a local pest-control company) played between innings. As the kid bags the stuffed animal in his oversize costume pants, a Bulls infielder appears behind him, taking a practice grounder.

Every baseball team observes this ritual between innings: the first baseman throws soft, bouncing balls to his fellow infielders, who nonchalantly scoop them up and lob them back to him. It’s not even close to game speed, not demonstrably useful “practice.” It’s just something that’s done while the pitcher throws his eight allotted warm-up pitches. Perhaps it’s as close as players get to the enjoyment of a pastime on the field. The infielder taking the practice grounder behind the termite kid is Hak-ju Lee, the Bulls’ highly regarded, twenty-two-year-old shortstop prospect who, in 2013, earned his first exposure to Triple-A after climbing the rungs of Class A and Double-A. Lee’s greatest asset is his glove, not his bat, but he was, surprisingly, one of the International League’s best hitters for the first two weeks of the season, with an astonishing .422 batting average. Lee was an electrifying player to watch at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths, where his dazzling speed worked havoc on opposing teams.

In this split-second moment in the trailer, Lee happens to misplay the practice grounder—it hits off the heel of his glove and caroms up toward his torso just as the edit cuts away to another shot. It would be a poignant moment, even if only for the unlikely error: Lee, a great shortstop, has fielded thousands of those warm-up grounders without incident, and here Weiss catches him flubbing one.

But the image cuts much sharper and deeper. Just days after this footage was shot, Lee was the middleman in a double-play attempt. His teammate made a bad throw to second base, and Lee leaped acrobatically and reached to his right to try to catch it. But the errant toss was just beyond his grasp, and the ball bounced off Lee’s glove, to his left. Lee lunged the opposite direction and made a second stab at the ball just as the base runner slid in under his knee, which was planted, straight and locked, at a slight angle to his body. The collision broke the runner’s nose. It also tore up ligaments in Lee’s knee; he’s out for the season. It was the worst injury I’ve ever seen on a baseball field. Watching the trailer again now, Lee’s harmless background bobble seems to augur this disaster.  

The postgame scene in the clubhouse after Lee’s injury was unexpected. Instead of sepulchral quiet, there was the familiar pound and froth of loud music and the usual macho badinage of barely clothed Bulls snorting and letting off steam and suds. The first-place ballclub had just swept a doubleheader from their closest division rivals (despite losing Lee in the first game), and they were disporting in what the poet Donald Hall has called the “lightness [and] resiliency that you can see rising like an aura from the bodies of winning ballplayers.” The snap and fling.

Even more surprising was that Lee himself was still there, too, sitting in front of his locker—not at the hospital as you might expect. His left leg was in a huge, immobilizing brace. He was, as Soth observed of so many people at the ballpark, alone in a crowd, his eyes empty, inconsolable. Not that anyone was trying to console him. What could really be said, and was there even time to say it? Lee would leave the next day for medical treatment in Florida, and then on to his home in distant Korea, not to return for a year or more. You can be forgotten very quickly in this sport, especially the minor leagues, where there is always someone waiting to replace you—in Lee’s case, the very infielder who made the bad throw that cost him his season. A ballplayer must be, like Phillip Dean, the hero of A Sport and a Pastime, “close to the life that flows, transient, borne away […] joined to the brevity of things.”

In any case, there was no time to dwell. The next day happened to be Sunday—an off day for most of us, but the Bulls had another game scheduled for five P.M., and they’d have to show up and play. For us in the crowd, the pastime, the cadence of a summer day. For them, the sport.

Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a columnist for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to its recently published guide, Baseball Prospectus 2013. Follow him on Twitter.

Read more about the Bull City Summer project here, and read the whole Paris Review series here.