Sunday, August 14, 2011

Box Scores and Being

A couple of weeks ago the Braves played an extra-innings game. I was out of town and having my usual trouble falling asleep, so I stayed with them – propped up in the bright white sheets of the Holiday Inn – until after midnight, at which point I decided I should at least try to get some rest. At 2 a.m. I gave up and turned the television back on. They were still at it.

The game lasted 19 innings, longer than two regulation games, and after a jolt of Diet Coke the next morning I started wondering: If, as I’ve long believed, baseball is the perfect metaphor for life, what does a 19-inning game that ends on a controversial call at home have to say?

You never know how long a baseball game is going to last. There is no clock as there is in football or basketball; the rules give each team nine opportunities to score and when those opportunities have been used up, whoever has the most runs wins. Occasionally things get a little complicated in the later innings – a pitcher falls apart and allows the other team to catch up, a hitter comes off the bench and makes a great hit – and the game gets extended, but only for a few brief moments. Sort of like open-heart surgery or a liver transplant.

But 19 innings? Really?

The first three innings, what poet E. Ethelbert Miller who wrote about mid-life in his memoir "The Fifth Inning" would consider youth and young adulthood, were exciting. Pittsburgh took a 3 - 0 lead and Atlanta came back to tie it. But nothing happened after that and by inning 15 everybody was exhausted and their uniforms were filthy and shredded at the knees and starting pitchers were asking for directions to the outfield because they knew that the next substitution was probably going to be sending them there.

And those of us crazy enough to still be watching were saying prayers that sounded way too much like Ricky Bobby: "Dear Lord, Baby Jesus, would you please let Martin Prado hit this next pitch over the centerfield wall, Lord, Baby Jesus? I need to turn off this light and go to sleep, but I just have this feeling that if I don’t watch this game to the very end that somehow I’m going to be responsible if the Braves don’t win and then lose the National League East Championship by one game to those obnoxious Phillies. And, Baby Jesus, what if they somehow don’t even win the Wild Card and don’t get to play in October and I have to carry that guilt for the rest of my life? Dear Lord, Baby Jesus, would you please let Martin Prado at least get a double?"

According to my calculations, based on an average life expectancy in the United States of 78.7 years, playing a 19-inning game is like living to 166. There can’t possibly be any metaphorical application of that.

Except, of course, that the beauty of metaphor is its malleability. No one lives to 166, but some people do live a very long time and some people who live not long at all manage to fit a lot of adventure and learning and love into just a few years. And as I contemplated the statistics – life expectancy and box score – it came to me: The point of the 19-inning game was to impress upon me something I’d heard my favorite Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson say over and over, "Every game is different."

Every life is different. Some lives are one-run no-hitters. Some are slug fests. In one at bat you can strike out swinging, the next get hit by a pitch, and the next hit a grand slam. In one inning you can turn an unassisted triple play and in the next make a throwing error that costs your team the lead. Sometimes the weather forces the umpire to call the game in the fifth inning and sometimes it goes nineteen. You just never know.

What you always have to keep in mind, of course, is that when the game is close and the night is long, you have to find the courage to risk being thrown out at the plate because the only way to score, the only way to win is to be called safe at home.
Copyright 2011

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