The Marvel of Al Kaline’s Name

I had a lot of gloomy introductions to this post, which I have excised. There is a lot of gloom, if that’s what you want to look at. Marilynne Robinson writes that for many people, “the worst thing you can say is the truest thing.” Every sentence I tried to write to set up the sentence I eventually want to talk about wound up drifting to the worst thing, which made me feel angry and overheated. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Much political rhetoric suggests that without anger there is no powerful engagement, that anger is a sort of gasoline that runs the engine of social change.”  I myself tend to get gloomier than angry in every circumstance except for people who are walking in front of me and walking, in my opinion, too slowly (maybe that’s good; Solnit follows up her point by adding that “sometimes gasoline just makes things explode.”) In “The Conversion of the Jews,” Roth describes a particular day by saying, “It was a gusty, clouded November afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or ever could be such a thing as baseball.”

I thought about this last quote in relation to this installment’s sentence, which is none of the above sentences but which I will be coming around to shortly, a great deal while I was driving around recently in the rain. I was on an errand to retrieve, from a house on Cape Cod, a mislaid pinstriped suit; the last time I had been down there in such dismal rain, I had listened to Game Four of the World Series that the Kansas City Royals would eventually lose to the Giants, on a mission to retrieve, from the same house, mislaid earrings. The rain that day, in late fall, drove in a particularly nasty and horizontal way, making yesterday’s dull springy rain a kind of amelioration. It was not November yesterday, which means there was, and could be, such a thing as baseball.

 

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My interest in baseball is not particularly well attuned to the thing itself. My friend Darius will sometimes describe to me aesthetic practices of the baseball men — a beautiful swing, an understated delivery relative to a pitcher’s handedness — that leave me with a blank mystification that I have to fake my way through. Of course, I have learned to say. Typical, for a guy with an arm slot like that. I do not, as often, know what I am talking about. I am much better with knowing what happened in a series, or which pitcher once rolled the ball, Bocce-style, for a 1-3 putout: the hermeneutics, not the erotics, of baseball. It is perhaps related to this failure of a real detail-level connection to baseball that makes me go pretty quickly to Philip Roth quotes about the game, and also why I love the greatest and sanest of all the baseball hermeneuticists, Roger Angell.

Roger Angell wrote a passage in a stellar essay about the 1975 World Series called “Agincourt and After” justifying his love of sports, which comes, essentially, down to the desire to believe in something. “It seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.” That was in 1975! Nearly two decades before Reality Bites! Anyway Angell knows that it’s dumb to care about baseball, and that part of the reason that it’s important to care about baseball is that it’s dumb. There are more Important Things to Know About.

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I’ve been thinking a lot this baseball season — a season which, incidentally, has seen the best player on my favorite team get popped for an almost comically retro steroid and suspended for eighty games — not about the “Agincourt and After” passage, but a different one from Angell, which I wish to analyze now. (It’s actually two sentences, yoked together between parentheses):

(Not until this summer, by the way, did I suddenly become aware of the marvel of Al Kaline’s name. Somewhere in the world, I wonder — perhaps in Spain — could there be an outfielder named A. Cid?)

This is baseball analysis as an epiphanic dad joke, and I adore it. So much of what we are compelled to notice all day is obnoxious and embarrassing and bad, even in something like baseball, a putative distraction (although: how much of a distraction, and for whom, is evident by looking at any argument that involves someone on twitter being told to stick to sports). The marvel of Al Kaline’s name — that, without a space, it’s a word — seems to me to be truly marvelous; I have had just the phrase “the marvel of Al Kaline’s name” bouncing around in my head for weeks now, and I could not be happier.

This marvel is essentially the opposite of that other greatest of baseball sentences, which is the boy at the end of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” saying “Short’s the best position they is.” Angell’s sentence is kind of baroque, and it more or less needs to be read (I have found out first hand and repeatedly how badly it goes over when said out loud to half-listening family members). Wolff’s sentence — the thing that the protagonist surprisingly thinks of just at the moment of his death — is sheer sound. I love them both, and I love that both of them — along with Roth’s observation on the glumness of certain days — are all appurtenances of baseball despite having essentially nothing to do with it.

I was thinking about all of this at a bar yesterday, when the bartender’s brother told her that all jokes were against someone. She countered this reheated Freudiansim with a joke about a lion and a cheetah playing cards; the lion accuses the cheetah of cheating, and the the cheetah accuses the lion of prevaricating (out loud, it’s funny). The brother said that “language jokes” don’t count. Such a way of being in the world is too grim even for me. Language jokes are the only thing that count, as far as I am concerned; the joyful contingency of Al Kaline’s name, a sudden meaningless piece of order in the unending disorder that is being alive today, is not against anyone. Bergson thought that we laugh when we see “the mechanical encrusted upon the vital” — some poor alive schmo sticks his foot in a bucket and falls down, and we laugh at him because his aliveness wasn’t enough to hold off gravity. What the gentleman at the bar called language jokes are a kind of marvel for reminding us that language is mechanical and vital at the same time; being able to have both of these at the same time is the best position they is.

There have been three major leaguers born in Spain, but Roger Angell and I are still waiting for A. Cid.

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