People cock their head in surprise when I tell them I’m an avid baseball fan; that I’ve gone to spring training three times and love listening to baseball on the radio and keeping score at games. Perhaps I don’t look like a “sports person” or maybe word got out about the dramatic ending to my very short career in team sports, when, at my first T-Ball game at the age of six, I shuffled up to the batting tee, dragging my extremely lightweight bat behind me and proceeded to whiff at the ball four times (the fourth time more a violent assault on the ball than anything resembling baseball) before I was forced to walk back to the dugout. Stephen-the-mean-redheaded-boy taunted me, I started sobbing and walked right past my team off the field and into my mother’s arms. My first and last T-ball game was over and I knew I was not cut out for team sports as a player or a fan. Game over.
Fast forward to age 24. I sat with my aunt and uncle at a Twins baseball game in 2005 and they very patiently gave me an abridged but comprehensive version of what was happening on the field. Halfway through the game, our rookie starter, Scott Baker, just recently brought up to the show, called time out and the catcher Joe Mauer trotted out to the mound and spoke to him glove to glove. As the story goes, Baker told Joe that his cup slipped during his windup and he wasn’t sure what to do. Mauer just looked at him and after a long pause said, “Well go fix it, man!” And Baker did.
Right then and there, with a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of the show, I thought—Well shit. Baseball is kind of like theatre.
I find baseball to be the most inherently dramatic sport to watch. It’s the Long Day’s Journey into Night of sports. It requires commitment and patience, and like theatre, is slowly losing its grip on American “smartphone” audiences with our fleeting attention spans and proclivity to fast-paced, violent sports like football. It’s rare to find a theatrical audience willing to commit to a three plus hour show without complaining and the same seems true with baseball. We seem more focused on rushing to the end of an event instead of enjoying the beauty of watching something play out.
And then there’s superstition. I don’t think you can find a more superstitious set of people than baseball players and actors. As an actor AND baseball fan, when my team is winning, I’m so superstitious I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house.
Last week, when the Mets faced the Cubs in game four of the NLCS, my Mets t-shirt smelled like a combination of deodorant, Chanel No. 5 and sweat. The underarms were still damp from my exuberant cheering the night before. I was wearing the exact combination of jewelry from previous games where we’d won and while my nails were chipped, (and despite hating chipped nails) this particular shade of Essie polish was the color I was wearing when they won and I wasn’t about to chance it with a fresh manicure. My orange underwear was on its second go-round for the week and I was seriously considering carrying Febreeze in my purse to the bar. I was a hot mess.
Because obviously the outcome of NLCS game 4 was completely riding on whether or not I was wearing my orange underwear.
The level of superstition in baseball is on par with superstition in theatre. Justin Morneau, formerly of the Minnesota Twins, was known to eat exactly the same meal (# 4 off at Jimmy John’s) and drink the exact same drink (Punto Slurpee, made exclusively by Nick Punto containing 1/2 mountain dew, 1/2 slurpee) prior to each game. Offensively, he stood guard by first base and obsessively swept the dirt off first base between each batter in a manner befitting the most neurotic of people. I understand that. There’s comfort in consistency and if its worked for you in past, if it’s yielded a “win,” it’s hard not to adopt it as a routine until it becomes, well, superstition.
Before I go on stage, it’s imperative that I’ve run at least three miles that day, meditated twenty minutes, put all my stage makeup on prior to arriving at the theatre and once there, have walked through my blocking and sped through my lines on an empty stage with my “show soundtrack” in my ears prior to house open. Ten minutes to “places” I do three complete sun salutations and at “places” I take three deep breaths and jump up and down three times. It’s no wonder I love Morneau.
Baseball is a dramatic event with a clear cut beginning, middle and end with a series of well-made plays along a clear cut arc. Years of training make way to a series of auditions and if you’re lucky and talented you can make your way from the Farm Leagues to the Show, much like a performer with luck and talent can make their way from off-off Broadway to Time Square. A team can have a terrible start to the season and still clinch a spot in the post-season just like a show can have a shaky start during workshops and later win a Tony award. Every game is rife with action and drama, good guys, bad guys, heroes (Daniel Murphy!), enemies (Chase Utley!) and humanity. And like theatre, a crowd of people gather, a community of fans form and together in one place, watch and share in an event that will never be repeated in exactly the same way.
The players in baseball, like the players in theatre serve a distinct purpose. There’s a collaborative effort from the defensive players in a baseball game where communication (Call it!) and cohesiveness is key and that’s no different than an ensemble in a play. If you don’t work together as a tight knit team, remain present in the moment and communicate effectively; lines get lost, balls get dropped and other teams drive runs in and audiences out. Offensively, a batter walks up to the plate and all eyes are on him —it’s his responsibility to hit it out of the park, much in the same way that when Hamlet walks center stage to deliver “To be or not to be” all eyes are on him and the expectation is, that this soliloquy will be a home run.
Last week I stood with a hundred other Mets fans in a bar, watching the end NLCS game four play out. We all stood with clenched fists as our closer wound up to deliver a pitch to the batter who represented the last out and a clinched title for the New York Mets. Familia set up, threw the pitch and as the ball flew through the air towards the pitcher at the plate, silence descended across the bar. We all waited, together in the same moment for the batter’s response. He was nearly still as the ball crossed the plate into the catcher’s mitt. A moment passed, and we all awaited the outcome, the next line in this unfolding script. The batter threw his bat and began to walk towards first, assured that the pitch would be called in his favor. A nanosecond later, the umpire called a strike. He was out. The Mets were in. The audience erupted, sharing a second of time that could never be recreated in exactly the same way, but would be remembered by everyone who shared it in the moment.