Posts for:  October 2010

The Music of Baseball

Cliff Lee, pitching for the Phillies in the 2009 World Series


As a kid, my husband Tom played shortstop and slugged home runs in the Little League. He never grew tall enough to become a professional baseball player, but he retained a great love of the game, and during our early married life in Columbus, Ohio, he always had the radio tuned to the “Cincinnati Reds Radio Network.” As the mother of two little girls who were into ballet and Laura Ingalls Wilder, I tuned out the play-by-play commentary, although the sausage jingle for Kahn’s “Big Red Smokies” still sticks in my head.

It wasn’t until we moved to Philadelphia that I started noticing baseball. It couldn’t be helped; I succumbed to the constant barrage –- jerseys, stickers, car antenna pennants, caps, shirts, and talk, talk, talk -– of Phillies this, Phillies that, especially during the ‘08 and ‘09 World Series, when Phillies fandom reached fever pitch. I tuned in, and fell in love with the grace of baseball when then-Philly pitcher Cliff Lee fielded a ground ball behind his back and shrugged as if to say, “hey, that was as easy to play as a C-major scale.”

I began to understand the suspense of baseball, began to see that watching a pitcher is like hearing a great concert pianist perform. The audience expectation is high and the anticipation palpable right before the wind-up/the first chord. The delivery is quick and immediately telling – one must be absolutely accurate in the strike zone/in playing the right notes. Predictability is fatal for both. A pitcher must vary his rhythm and the kinds of pitches he throws so the batter can’t get a hit off of him. A pianist must vary her phrasing and tempos, or her audience will fall asleep and not be moved. A pitcher collaborates with his catcher; a pianist with an orchestra or a singer or an instrumentalist. Both pitcher and solo pianist must possess the mental toughness of a general.

And when they blunder?

Three days ago, Cliff Lee, starting in Game One of the 2010 World Series, but this time in a Texas Rangers jersey, pitched a game that did not go his way at all. He gave up seven runs and was pulled out of the game after only four innings. Camera shots of him sitting in the dugout showed him stoically watching his team disintegrate. The “machine,” his catcher Benjie Molina reminded the press, was “just a human being, like all of us.”

And here the parallel continues. All performers are human, and some concerts will be duds. But when everything lines up, when practice, talent and hard work conjoin with inspiration, a good instrument, fine acoustics, and right timing, the thrill of that performance is like the thrill of an exciting post-season game –- unique in the moment and to be savored forever.