Once again this year, in celebration of the spooky season Stan reads a favorite ghost story, “Rats” by the master of the genre, M.R. James, first published in 1929. Also, this week in history and a dark day in Mayberry. Draw near the fire, dim the lights, and enjoy…..
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
“Casey at the Bat,” Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888
Six months ago, on April 1, I welcomed the start of the baseball season, and now the Braves have made it to the National League Championship Series, the semi-finals of the World Series.
They made this trip 8 years in a row between 1991 and 1999, winning 5 National League pennants, returned in 2001 (losing 4 games to 1 to the Arizona Diamondbacks), then had a 19-year drought before returning to the NLCS in 2020 in a pandemic-shortened 60-game season. They led the eventual champion Dodgers 3 games to 1 before losing three straight to hand them the pennant. Will this year be different? As of this writing, they still await their opponent—either the San Francisco Giants or the Dodgers again. Either team will present a huge challenge.
The 2021 MLB playoffs have already had some very strange moments. I’ve been watching baseball for 50 years but I’ve never seen a play like we saw in Game 3 between the Red Sox and the Rays last Sunday. With the score tied 4-4 in the 12th inning and the go-ahead runner on first base, Tampa’s Kevin Kiermaier hit a deep fly ball to right field. Everybody knows about Fenway Park’s 37-foot Green Monster in left field, but the fence in right is only 3 to 5 feet tall.
The ball hit the top of the fence, caromed back onto the field, hit Boston right fielder Hunter Renfroe, and then bounced over the short fence and out of play, which otherwise would have easily scored Yandy Diaz, the Tampa runner at first. After the umpire’s conferenced with each other and then talked to the replay booth in New York, the play was ruled a ground-rule double, sending the go-ahead run back to third base and stopping Kiermaier at second. Outrage and dismay rang out loudly across the Twitter-verse. The next batter struck out and Boston’s Christian Vasquez hit a walk-off 2-run homer in the bottom of the 13th, ending a game that lasted 5 hours and 14 minutes and featured 16 pitchers.
Would that Tampa run have made any difference if Diaz had been allowed to score? Who knows, but that extraordinary and bizarre play encapsulates what is so great about baseball: even after 150+ years of baseball history, the game can show you something new every night. And it demonstrates the uniqueness of the game. Think about this: every professional ice hockey rink has the same dimensions, as does every NBA basketball court, and every football field, whether at the high school, college, or pro level. But every baseball field in every stadium in major league baseball has different dimensions in terms of the distances between home plate and the outfield fence, and as regards the height of the outfield fence. A ball hit in Fenway Park will not play the same as a ball hit to right field in Dodger Stadium. That’s the charm and the lunacy of this game.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the old historic ballparks as much as the next person, but it’s a shame to see the park itself determine the outcome of a game. That wouldn’t have happened in a more modern ballpark with taller fences.
Then, in Game 3 of the Giants-Dodgers series on Monday night, with the Giants leading 1-0, a strange wind blowing over Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles knocked down a potential game-tying 9th-inning home run off the bat of Dodger Gavin Lux. The same hit would have been out in nearly every other park, but it dropped dead that night in LA and ended the game. Giants win, 1 – nil.
In the 4th inning of the Braves clinching Game 4 win Tuesday night in Atlanta, Adam Duvall hit a pop-up behind home plate that deflected off Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez’s glove before being caught by third baseman Luis Urias in what looked like a great heads-up play. But replays showed the ball hit the ground before Urias caught the ball, which should have extended Duvall’s at-bat.
Everyone—especially Braves fans—waited impatiently for the play to be overturned on review. But—Sonja Henie’s tutu!!—the play turned out to be un-reviewable by the umpires. Why? According to MLB: “An umpire’s decision whether a fielder caught a fly ball or a line drive in flight in the outfield before it hit the ground is reviewable, but fly balls or line drives fielded by a defensive player in the infield is not eligible for review.”
A play like that is not reviewable, in Game 4 of the playoffs with both teams’ season on the line? Why? What is the point of having replay if not for moments like that? To quote Dr. Clipton in Bridge Over the River Kwai: Madness.
Finally, there was the bizarre base-running interference play in Game 3 of the Astros-White Sox series on Sunday night that I won’t even begin to describe. But if anyone can adequately explain MLB’s rules to me on what does and what does not constitute baserunner interference, dinner at the Burp n’ Slurp is on me.
These kinds of strange plays happen frequently throughout baseball’s long 162-game season without attracting much notice. If you lose tonight, you play again tomorrow night. Repeat that sequence for the next six months. But suddenly in a short playoff series these missed calls and freak plays can end your season and championship dreams quickly.
That’s always been the most maddening and yet intriguing part of the MLB playoffs to me. Baseball plays the longest season of any professional American sport, at 162 games. Across that long span we know who the best teams are in both leagues. There’s no guesswork involved. This year the San Francisco Giants won 107 games, and they are clearly the best team in the National League, just as the Tampa Bay Rays with their 100 wins are the American League’s champs. In a normal universe, these two teams would go straight to the World Series and play each other for the championship.
But that’s not the way it works in Mudville. Here, the post-season tournament starts, and all of that is thrown out. Madness begins. Eight teams make the tournament and anything can and does happen. In a short series, good hitters bats go cold; Cy Young-winning pitchers can’t find the strike zone. Relief pitchers who haven’t lost a game since Hector was a pup give up game-winning home runs. Controversial plays aren’t reviewable, the wind knocks down a game-tying home run, a ball hits a player and bounces over the fence, and your season comes to a crashing halt. Teeth gnash and grown men and women wail.
Former baseball commissioner and Yale president Bart Giamatti was right: baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
But just when all hope seems lost, Mighty Casey, in the fine form of Freddie Freeman, steps to the plate against one of the best relievers in baseball—who hasn’t given up a run in almost two months—and he does not strike out. Instead, he crushes a game- and series-winning tater over the wall, sending the faithful into a furious frenzy. Joy in Mudville.
Who knows what heartache may await in the next round, or in the World Series? For some team, it will surely come.
Let it. That’s what this great game is designed to do. God, how I love it.
Item: Back in 2008 I subscribed to the Easton Press list of the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written,” and every month for 8 years and 4 months a handsome, leather-bound volume turned up in my mailbox. I should note here that these are not in fact the greatest books ever written. They’re the 100 books that someone at Easton Press thinks are the greatest ever written; many of them wouldn’t pass muster for being “great,” and needless to say the list is very western- and male-centric. You will not find on this list Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s Records of the Grand Historian, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, or Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. For that matter, you won’t find Montaigne’s Essays or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, nor Boswell’s Life of Johnson or The Education of Henry Adams. But you will receive Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, which may be one of the most important books ever written, but it is not, stylistically, a great book. Be that as it may, I dutifully read the first 90 or so on the list as they randomly arrived (they aren’t ranked) before getting distracted with the last 10. I’m finally making my way through those and am currently reading The Republic by Plato. I’m about a third of the way through. It’s certainly one of the foundational texts in western literature, and I would agree with Clifton Fadiman’s assertion that it is an ambitious and rather difficult book. He suggests that those following the Lifetime Reading Plan start with Plato’s other works, beginning with the Apology, the Crito, the Protagoras, the Symposium, then the Phaedo. I’ll continue on with the Republic and learn as much as I can, listening to the dialogue between the fascinating Socrates and his many interlocutors. Even if I absorb only half of what is going on in this book, that’s saying something. More later.
Item: I just finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking, 2016). It’s the fictional account of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced in 1921 by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, and he spends the next 30+ years there without (hardly) leaving. Doesn’t sound like much of an opportunity for a plot, does it? Just as in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1944 film Lifeboat, however, confining all the action to a small area places tremendous demands on the author and his characters, and the book succeeds and satisfies on many different levels. Highly recommended.
Item: The Atlanta Falcons are two games into the latest NFL season with new coach Arthur Smith and everything seems familiar—and not in a good way. It’s still hard to believe that this team was in the Super Bowl just 5 years ago. Even with a new coach and general manager, they still seem headed in the wrong direction. There are three equally bad teams coming up on the schedule—the New York Giants, the Washington Football Team, and the J-e-t-s, Jets, Jets, Jets—with a combined record right now of 1-5. We’ll find out a lot about the home team over that span, though you may want to avert your eyes.
Item: The Georgia Bulldogs, on the other hand, look mighty good after three games, the first of which was a beat-down of perennial powerhouse Clemson. It’s still hard to know how good or bad Clemson is, however, coming off a slim and unconvincing win over Georgia Tech. That’s the problem with college football—there’s no pre-season, and when you win your first game over a good opponent, you don’t know whether your team is really great or if the good opponent ain’t all that good after all. Georgia will find out quickly, however, if its defense is as great as it seems, with games coming up on the road against Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee, and home matchups against surprisingly good Arkansas and Kentucky. Don’t avert your eyes on this one.
Item: Here in this space back on April 1 I was excited for the start of the Major League Baseball season. The Bravos haven’t disappointed, poised at this juncture to win another National League East title, with 11 games left and a 3-game lead in the loss column (the only place that matters) over the Phillies. After stalling in third place for most of the first half, it’s been a lot of fun to watch the Braves catch and pass the Phils and hated Mets over the past three months, even if they don’t go far in the playoffs. It’s also been great fun to watch the much-vaunted Mets crash and burn again too. Did I mention I hate the Mets? The postseason begins Tuesday, October 5.
Item: Sothebys’s will auction a rare copy of the final printed version of the US Constitution this November, and it’s expected to fetch upwards of $20 million. It’s one of only 11 in existence, and the only one in private hands, the others being in institutions. The owner bought it in 1988 for $165,000—not a bad investment. You will recall that GHS owns a draft copy of the printed Constitution with Georgia delegate Abraham Baldwin’s hand-written edits. It’s one of only 12 in existence.
Item: Look out for a short book review essay in the Fall 2021 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), and, most recently, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (2017).
Item: Not surprisingly, the Rolling Stones did not take my advice and call it quits after the death of Charlie Watts, thank goodness. They launch their long-delayed No Filter tour of the US this Sunday, September 26, in St. Louis, and if history is any guide, they’ll sound amazing. They always do. Let’s hope they can dodge both the Delta variant and the Grim Reaper for just a while longer.
Item: In the July 23, 2021 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, in a review of Reid Byers’ book, The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom (Oak Knoll, 2021), A.N. Wilson quotes Leigh Hunt, the English essayist, critic, and poet on the difference between a library and a study: “I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather. I like a great library next to my study; but for the study itself, give me a small snug place, almost entirely walled with books. I dislike a grand library to study in. Capital places to go to, but not to sit in. We like a small study, where we are almost in contact with our books.” A small snug place almost entirely walled with books would describe the room in which I’m sitting, and from where I often recorded Dispatches from Off the Deaton path, including this one on libraries. It made me wonder exactly how many books I have crammed into this space, so yesterday I counted: 1,672, plus or minus a few. But there’s always room for more.
Till next time.
Stan talks about This Week in History (including King George III, AIDS, RFK, Mount Everest, & Charles Dickens), remembers a record-breaking baseball player, highlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and spotlights an incredible and historic collection of golden-age comic books about to hit the auction block–and the influence of comics in his own life.
It’s Opening Day of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, and the first pitch is at 3:00 this afternoon, so this blog will be short, though the season won’t be, thank goodness.
You will remember that this time last year, we didn’t get to celebrate the return of baseball because the pandemic shut down the MLB season, as it did all other major sports, at least for a time. I lamented the loss of our national pastime and commemorated the anniversary of Henry Aaron’s 715th dinger in one of my Dispatches. Baseball eventually played a 60-game season, which was better than nothing, but it felt like the campaign ended before it even got started. This year’s season, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, will be a full 162-game swing, complete with playoffs and World Series.
Long-suffering readers of this blog well know that I’ve been a life-long baseball fan and have shared that love here many times, dating back to the blog’s earliest days. I swooned over watching Hank Aaron hit home run #713 at the very first Braves game I attended in 1973; lamented the retirement of Yankee great Derek Jeter, who exemplified the way the game is played; and celebrated the heroic Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. What memories await us this season?
Last year our beloved hometown team made it all the way to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series (blowing a 3-1 series lead along the way) before losing to the eventual champion and much-hated Dodgers.
This year’s version of the Atlanta National League Baseball Team Known As the Braves should be even better. Ian Anderson, last year’s rookie phenom will be pitching a full season. Mike Soroka will soon return from a gruesome Achilles heel injury and join young Max Fried and veteran Charlie Morton in a solid starting pitching rotation that will be backed up by one of the best bullpens in the majors (even if it does still include Luke “Serve ‘Em Up” Jackson, who is singlehandedly the cause of more airborne TV remotes than the entire Atlanta Falcons team combined, no small feat).
National League MVP Freddie Freeman anchors the infield, and with the re-signing of Marcell “Ledbetter” Ozuna, the Braves’ offense is solid and loaded with young talent all over the diamond—including Christian Pache, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, and Ozzie Albies. And though the Braves will miss the retired Nick Markakis, they should get some much-needed veteran leadership off the bench with the addition of the Kung Fu Panda, the three-time World Series champion Pablo Sandoval.
We’ll never take Opening Day for granted again. It’s an old cliché, but it’s still true: Wherever you are and whatever the weather, it’s a beautiful day for baseball.