Baseball, it should never be forgotten, is a game. But it is not just a game. Because of the way it employs life and death metaphors, its analogy with human drama is compelling if not totally convincing. A runner may “die” on third, but not literally. A batter may stay “alive” if he fouls off a two-strike pitch. But a third strike would not result in his demise. “Fair” and “foul” suggest a moral distinction, while “win” and “lose” separate off-the-field success and failure.
Because baseball is a game, the failures and foibles of its performers are not tragic. In fact, if sufficiently offbeat, they can be comical. Errors, mishaps, bloopers, and bonehead plays can have an enduring charm of their own, and they do not cry out for forgiveness. The Dean brothers, Dizzy and Daffy owed a good portion of the immortality to their zaniness.
Marv Throneberry symbolized the futility of one of the most tragicomic teams in the history of baseball—the 1962 New York Mets—losers of a record 120 games. “Having Marv Throneberry play for your team,” wrote columnist Jimmy Breslin, “is like having Willie Sutton work for your bank.” His ineptness as a hitter, fielder (a record 17 errors in one year as a first baseman) and base-runner endeared him to members of his fan club who wore shirts sporting “VRAM” (Marv spelled backwards) and chanted, “Cranberry, Strawberry, we love Throneberry.”
In a game against the Chicago Cubs, Marvelous Marv, as he was ironically dubbed, steamed into third base with what he thought was a triple. Ernie Banks took a relay throw and stepped on first base. The umpire declared Throneberry out because he did not touch first base. When manager Casey Stengel came out to protest the call, the umpire pointed out that the reckless runner had also failed to touch second base. Throneberry might as well have stayed home.
Baseball, like life, demands order. First base–second base–third base is sequential. The game does not abide disorder. A runner cannot proceed from the batter’s box directly to third base. In committing such an egregious violation of the rules, the runner is called “out” (and probably taken “off” the team). Baseball cannot remain an intelligible game unless it staunchly prohibits such disordered base running. Rules are its lifeblood.
Marv Throneberry’s adventurous base running reminds us of the critical importance of what I will call the “fixed order of one-two-three.” A few examples should illustrate the principle. The honest man learns a trade or profession, gets a job, and then earns money. The thief, a la Willie Sutton, goes directly to where the money is. When caught by the authorities, he is taken “out” of society. The order that applies to baseball first applied to life.
A chaste person respects the order that links friendship to marriage and to children. The lustful person may advance directly to siring children out of wedlock, by-passing both friendship and marriage. A good student will attend class, study hard, and earn good grades. The Ferris Bueller type will use the computer to elevate his grades, thereby avoiding school and all the petty annoyances that it represents to him.
The baseball diamond is designed as a tribute to the moral requirement of moving through life by steps and not by leaps. A soldier is a private before he is a sergeant, a sergeant before he is a captain. In human relationships attention prepares one for appreciation, while the latter paves the way for affection. We make progress by degrees, each one preparing us for the next. In the words of Shakespeare, “The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre observe degree, priority and place.” But “when degree is shaked, which is the ladder to all high designs, then enterprise is sick!” It is through “degree” that we come to “stand in authentic place” (Troilus and Cressida Act. 1, Sc. 3).
The “fixed order of one-two-three” is imprinted in our bones and leads by gradations to our “authentic place”. The batter who bangs a double off Fenway’s “Green Monster” can stand proudly at second in his authentic place. Julius Caesar famously declared, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). But he missed third base. “I came, I saw, I loved” is a far more humane maxim. St. Thomas Aquinas said that it belongs to the wise man to order. He could just as well have said that the wise man acknowledges, appreciates, and affirms the natural order inscribed in both nature and in the human heart. The day advances from morning to afternoon to night-time. Our lives evolve from youth to middle-age and then old age. The farmer prepares the soil, plants the seeds, and then harvests the crops.
We are all in a hurry, so it seems, to reach third base. But there are no short-cuts. The imagined short-cut leads to nowhere. “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? asked the lost pedestrian. “Practice, practice, practice,” came the stern response. Performance must be preceded by patient preparation and painstaking practice.
Life is a series of doors in which each door leads to a room which shows us the way to the next door that we must open. We should not want to deprive ourselves of the joy and rewards that each room offers. Third base for Willie Sutton turned out to be a penitentiary.
We invent a game—baseball—that is modeled on life and then forget the model. But a wildly inept base runner who, in his haste to get to third base by-passed first and second, can revitalize our appreciation for the “fixed order of one-two-three” that is engraved in our very being.