Columnists

Geometry Made Into Poetry: A conversation with Mark Kingwell about the game of baseball

By Stacey May Fowles

coors field

For baseball devotees, whether they be of the emotional or analytical type, this time of year is one of hope, renewal, and endless possibility. Over the past few weeks, baseball players from across the league have been reporting to their spring training homes in Florida and Arizona, getting in their first workouts, playing their first exhibition games, and preparing for the long season ahead.

In anticipation of what’s to come, I corresponded via email with Mark Kingwell, philosophy professor, baseball lover, and author of this spring’s Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters (Biblioasis,)about why this game is so compelling, and why both fans and writers return to it again and again.

 

Stacey May Fowles:

I thought I could start things off with a very broad question. Why do you love the game of baseball?

Mark Kingwell:

The question of love is the most basic but the hardest to answer! I love baseball because it is geometry made into poetry, the most difficult game of large and small drama, from painting the corner with a curveball to an explosive home run. But as I say in my book, the declarations of love are lot easier to make than explanations. I keep thinking of music, especially particular performances or styles—Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould. Of course we relate to the complexity, the relationship of elements, the virtuosity. But then there is something over and above all that, a kind of transcendent joy that defies ordinary sense.

I should also say that, like most fans, I have much more basic connections to the game than these 'philosophical' ones: playing it (badly), watching it with my father, the friends and family who have shared my love of it. This sustains me like no other community I know. Then there are the moments that live in memory: special players, special games, special plays. Baseball constantly renews itself, famously in the fact that you can go to a game and see a play you have never seen before.

 

SMF:

I think a great deal about “transcendent joy” and this idea that "declarations of love are lot easier to make than explanations." I find so much joy in writing about baseball, but I admit I also find it to be on the more challenging end of the work I do, mostly because I have so much unabashed, near childlike enthusiasm for the game. I've written before that we seem to live in a culture that praises negativity, confuses cynicism with intelligence, and it's rare that we see writers just gleefully exalting the things they're truly passionate about.

That's not to say I think baseball and its culture are beyond criticism. I just think there's something worth examining in the unique love so many people have for it. How the constancy and reliability of baseball sustains them, gives them hope and a reason to move forward, even while they happily acknowledge it is "only a game." The experience is, at least for me, a very full-bodied love, one I feel in my gut, one that never stops surprising me. My tearful reaction to a walk off home run, for example, feels both totally uncharacteristic of who I am in my day-to-day, but also totally authentic. I would even go as far as to say loving baseball makes me more human, because I allow myself to be moved by it, make myself vulnerable to it, in ways I wouldn't in other areas of my life?

Fail Better Kingwell

MK:

What I have always admired about your writing on baseball is the way the critical stuff—about sexism, bad economic logic, management short-sightedness—is clearly motivated by an attachment to the game. Isn't it always the way? It's the things we care about most that have the potential to disappoint us when they don't live up to our ideals.

I'm not a particularly emotional fan, I don't think. I tend to be cerebral about the game, and I respond to its intellectual appeal. I like other sports a lot, and follow some with great interest, but they don't sustain the thinking and writing that baseball does. Can anyone imagine a poet of football the way Donald Hall is a poet of baseball? Can we conceive of a great basketball novel?

David McGimpsey, himself a poet and intellectual who's written about baseball, has expressed skepticism about this literary "sanction" of baseball. He suggests that the conjunction is a sort of class-based move, legitimizing low-brow leisure by invoking high-brow champions: Whitman, Fitzgerald, Marianne Moore, Jacques Barzun, DeLillo, Roth, Updike, Coover, and others.

I wonder what you think about that argument? Is baseball elevated or ill-served by these celebrations of a literary and intellectual sort?

 

SMF:

I do think that any suggestion that baseball is somehow elevated, or more literary or intellectual than any other sport is pretty ridiculous, even offensive, especially if you know anything about the game's culture or history. We like to believe it's a classy, non-violent “gentleman's game,” and that false idea keeps us from really looking at the kinds of things that happen within it. (I mean, there are literally codes of retribution that can follow teams throughout a season or multiple seasons.) I do agree there's a great deal of dreamy, dramatic, orchestral music-style mythology around it, and that for whatever reason writers are more frequently drawn to what it seems to represent, but there's certainly no more poetry or appeal in baseball than in, say, hockey or basketball.

As for it being served by these kind of celebrations, I'm not sure baseball even cares. It seems that the baseball powers that be are more interested in shaving off minutes for ratings purposes than emphasizing its dreamy, meditative qualities?

MK:

Yes, the history of the game can get obscured in the Edenic style of celebration, and I find that frustrating. Baseball is a complicated cultural property, a tough urban contest as well as a sort of picnic-pastime release-from-life. For every Tony Gwynn there is a Ty Cobb. Very American, all that, I think. By the same token, people forget that pre-professional football, based on rugby, came out of Ivy League civility and a sort of gentleman-thug's code, which is in itself worth examining carefully.

And I guess we all realize, at some level, how hockey relates to small-town Canadian self-image, Quebec nationalism, Prairie resentment, Original Six pride, Don Cherry honour-code braggadocio, and a whole bunch of other things. Sports!

 

SMF:

My particular attraction to the game, both as a writer and as a human being, has a great deal to do with pacing. I have watched, enjoyed and even loved other sports, but always found that my full devotion was halted by the fact that I just couldn't take the stress of the ticking clock. Baseball can certainly be an anxious game at times (though it was amazing, the Jays' Wildcard game was a particular kind of hell for me) but on the whole it feels roomier, gives you more space to breathe, and more opportunities for a comeback. I don't think that makes it better or worse—it's just a matter of what you're drawn to.

Unlike you, I'm an almost entirely emotional fan, so hockey overtime, or the last three minutes of a close basketball game just pulverizes me. Maybe it's just that baseball is more forgiving, gives you more room to accept the inevitable, while the way it's structured still offers a glimmer of hope? 

MK:

Totally agree about baseball's expansiveness, though I actually do consider this makes it a better (i.e., more interesting) game. The (mostly) non-violent and non-territorial aspects are joined to that exceptional notion of time, counted in outs and innings. A clock-pressured game can be very exciting—the two-minute drill in the NFL, yes, the final minutes of an NCAA basketball game—but for me nothing comes close to the excruciation of a late-inning ballgame. Almost anything might happen!  I guess that makes me a sort of flipside of you on this? Hope is hard.

Oh, and ditto on the Wild Card game last year. The 92 World Series was the worst, however. Eking out a hit, let alone a run, in a tight game that matters so much—it makes you go a little bit crazy, watching that and wishing for it. The time between pitches. The fouled-off fastballs. I adore it and I can't stand it, all at once.  “It hurts to be in love.”

I should say: I can get emotional about a baseball game, but I don't think I've ever cried at a walk-off homer. I did shed a tear when Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green at Royal Liverpool in his 2006 British Open win, and man, does that seem a long time ago now!

 

SMF:

Sometimes I think baseball is simply a conduit for the feelings I'm not free to have otherwise. When I have a lot of emotions about a home run, or a devastating loss for that matter, it feels more cathartic than anything else. Like I haven't let myself be emotional about something pressing, and the game has provided a safe, sanctioned release. It has given me permission.

I suppose that can be said for the less emotional ways we investigate it as well? It gives us a place to look at various cultural ideas. It gives us the room to examine our humanity. It provides a framework to work on big ideas within. And there's no shortage of pathways into it. I mean, it's clear you and I approach the game from very different places and experiences and interests, and yet we're still able to garner the same level of enjoyment from it.

MK:

I like this cathartic reading of the game.  It certainly aligns with my own sense of how the world of the game is set off importantly from the rest of life. And yes, I figure every route to fandom is different—though I am always struck, when I talk to other fans, by clusters of similarity.  It's like Jung's idea of the seven basic plots: every individual narrative is distinct, but there are archetypes and affinities.

On a completely different note, what would your walk-up music be if you were a Major League player?

 

SMF:

I love that question, and I feel like every time I answer it I pick a different song. I think for the 2017 season I'm on a real Lionel Richie kick. (“All Night Long” for sure.) What about you?

MK:

Well, I change it up all the time too, when I'm walking to work or whatever. But right now, "Rudie Can't Fail," by The Clash.

 

SMF:

Speaking of the 2017 season, I think it's only fair to leave readers with a few predictions. What are yours?

MK:

I'm so bad at predictions, but I do think a few things are likely. The Cubs won't repeat, but it will be close, and fun. The Jays will win the AL East because they have the best five-man rotation going, and Jose Bautista will have his last truly outstanding season. (This feels a little like a jinx, so don't pay any attention to it.) Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw win the Cy Youngs. Jose Altuve and probably Bryce Harper for the MVPs. But I think Josh Donaldson will once again be in the AL conversation. MLB will finally introduce the DH into the National League, but the debate about the future of the four-pitch intentional walk will go on forever.

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Mark Kingwell is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. He is the author or co-author of eighteen books, his most recent the essay collections Unruly Voices (2012) and Measure Yourself Against the Earth (2015). Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters launches April 11 with Biblioasis.


Stacey May Fowles is the author of three novels, and her bylines include The National PostThe Globe and MailElle CanadaMaisonneuveToronto LifeThe WalrusVice SportsHazlittQuill and Quire, and others. Fowles' third novel, Infidelity (ECW press 2013) was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, was selected as an Amazon Best Book of 2013, and won an Independent Publisher Book Award. Her most recent book, Baseball Life Advice, is an essay collection released by McClelland & Stewart in spring 2017. Editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing (ECW 2017,) Fowles writes about books for The Globe and Mail, baseball for Jays Nation and The Athletic, and is author of the popular weekly Baseball Life Advice e-newsletter.