Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Rainouts: 2023 Baseball Journal, Part 1

QUEENS, NY---Late September, in the final week of their disappointing season, the 2023 New York Mets were involved in some extremely unusual rainstorm-related shenanigans at Citi Field. First, after their grounds crew neglected to cover up the field during a tropical storm, the waterlogged playing surface didn't dry off in time for their next game and the grounds crew couldn't manage to get the field ready to play, thus forcing them to postpone their Sept 26th series opener against the Miami Marlins on a day when it didn't even rain. Two days later, in the final game of that series, with the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead in the 9th inning, the Marlins knocked in 2 runs to take a 2-1 lead, but the umpires suddenly stopped the game in the top of the 9th because of heavy rainfall. The two teams waited out the storm deep into the night before giving up any chance of resuming play. Miami, fighting for a playoff spot, had to go play their final series in Pittsburgh unsure of whether or not they'd be required to go back to New York after the final day of the regular season to play out the final inning of their last game against the Mets. The Marlins ended up clinching a playoff spot (thanks to a collapse by the Cubs) and the suspended game against the Mets was deemed unnecessary to finish on the field. And so, by a weird quirk in the rulebook, the events of the top of the 9th inning were erased from the record books, and the score reverted back to 1-0 Mets where it stood at the end of the 8th inning. A truly bizarre way to wrap up the Mets season with their 75th win. 


QUEENS, NY--- Late in July, I am driving thru Brooklyn into Queens to pick up my brother at JFK airport on a rainy night. The sky is thunderous and heavy winds and flash flooding are making the drive on the Belt Parkway more hectic and chaotic than usual. The 2023 Mets' hopes for playoff contention have dwindled, they're once again playing from behind, battling back in a game against the Washington Nationals at nearby Citi Field. Trailing 1-0 in the 8th inning, the Mets scratch together a run to tie the game before storm clouds move in, flashes of lightning, strong winds, and torrential rain force the game to go into a delay. I'm maneuvering thru the overcrowded insanity of an under-construction JFK airport on a rainy night. The Mets game is on the radio, in the middle of an extended delay from the storm. And then, just up the road, at the ballpark over in Flushing, while the game was still in a rain delay, the Mets officially waved the white flag on their season. News came over the radio that the Mets had agreed to trade their top relief pitcher, David Robertson, to the Marlins for prospects. When the storm eventually lets up around midnight, the game resumes, the Mets grab the lead, closing out a 2-1 win without their closer who just got traded, and my brother made it thru the crowded JFK arrivals into the car. In the following few days leading up to the trade deadline, the Mets would gut their roster, selling off all their most in-demand pieces in trades in attempt to bulk up their farm system.


TOKYO, Japan---Back in April, it's the middle of the night and I'm in and out of sleep in a tiny bed in a hotel in east Tokyo, keeping an eye on the TV which is broadcasting a game at rain-soaked Fenway Park in Boston, the Red Sox facing Shohei Ohtani's Angels of Anaheim. Shohei is the starting pitcher on the mound for the Angels against the Red Sox who've got their new addition from Japan, outfielder Masataka Yoshida, in the lineup facing Ohtani for the first time in an MLB game. The game was set to start at 11 AM eastern time (midnight Tokyo time) but it's pouring rain in Boston so the game is delayed. The Japanese pregame show I'm watching is not in English, but based on the charts, graphics, and stats they're displaying, I can tell these commentators know ball. They are analyzing the much-anticipated Ohtani vs Yoshida matchup. One month prior, Ohtani and Yoshida were teammates on Team Japan, leading to a thrilling WBC championship victory against Team USA. Now, Yoshida would be in the batter's box facing off against Ohtani on the mound at cold, wet Fenway Park. The analysts break down Ohtani's arsenal of pitches and Yoshida's strengths and weaknesses as a hitter.

The rain hardly let up but they started the game anyway. Top of the 1st, Ohtani comes to the plate and crushes a base hit on the first pitch he sees from Brayan Bello. Standing on first base, Ohtani puts on a jacket, but the zipper breaks on him so he immediately takes it off. In the bottom of the 1st, it's raining again and I'm nervous for Shohei who was slipping off the mound in his delivery before the grounds crew desperately tried to dry off the mound mud. Ohtani strikes out Yoshida with a 98-mph fastball in their only matchup. He pitched 2 innings before another heavy downpour caused the game to stop for a long rain delay and Ohtani's day on the mound was over. He did stay in the game as a designated hitter and I drifted into deep sleep while the Angels held on for a 5-4 win, avoiding a sweep. 

During my stay in Tokyo, I notice there's a TV channel that specifically shows the daily highlights of Japanese MLB players, from Shohei Ohtani and Masataka Yoshida to Yusei Kikuchi and Shintaro Fujinami. I'm also struck by how much anime is on TV, it's on almost every channel. One night I've got anime on TV and there's a whole bizarre sequence featuring a baseball game in a rain storm where the field gets completely flooded. 


OSAKA, Japan---Late April, I've been in Japan for a couple weeks, the Nippon Professional Baseball season is well underway but I haven't been able to attend any games yet because of logistics. Games are either sold out or too far away. Now that I'm in Osaka, the Hanshin Tigers play in a historic ballpark a short train ride out of town. So my plan is to head out to Koshien Stadium to see the Hanshin Tigers host the rival Yomiuri Giants. Only problem is there's been a steady rain all day. I've been wearing a Hanshin Tigers hat around town, eliciting comments from the locals; a bunch of Tigers fans high-five me at an okonomiyaki restaurant, a tour guide yells out "nice hat!" while guiding people thru the streets. I take the train out west near the scenic hills of Kobe. The train is filled with Tigers fans, folks just getting out of work, a kid in a Tigers hat with his grandmother. Everyone is anxious to get to the ballpark and hoping the rain lets up. It's not until we all arrive at the park, walk underneath the highway overpass and pass all the merch vendors in ponchos, that we learn the game has been canceled due to inclement weather. 

My one opportunity to see a ballgame in Japan, a rivalry matchup no less (and the Tigers would go on to win the pennant for the first time in 18 years), and the game was rained out just as I arrived at the stadium. My only consolation was that at least I got to see the stadium. Koshien Stadium will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. It's the oldest and most revered ballpark in Japan. One of the few stadiums in the country without a roof, it's also quirky because it features an all-dirt infield. I figured it was unlikely they'd be able to play the game with that infield all muddy. Rainouts are part of baseball, though, part of the experience of a baseball season. 

The outer facade of the outfield was covered in ivy which was a nice look:

Outside of Koshien Stadium, Nishinomiya, Japan.

Koshien Stadium was built in homage to the Polo Grounds in New York. The mythic status the Polo Grounds holds in the consciousness of an American baseball fan is partly due to the fact that the old ballpark no longer exists, there's no way to experience it except in grainy footage (or playing MLB: The Show). And yet in Japan there is a 100-year-old baseball mecca conceived in the same bowl-shape as the Polo Grounds. I'm committed to get back there one day to actually see a game. 

The bowl-shaped Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, inspired by the Polo Grounds.


QUEENS, NY---In the middle of May, I spent a few days in NYC hanging with family and I went to a Mets game. My first in-person baseball game of the season. Thankfully opted for the Friday game instead of the Saturday game because the latter got rained out. The Friday game ended up being the most exciting win of the Mets season and one of the best Mets games I've ever witnessed up close. Before getting to my seat, the Mets had fallen behind 3-0 to the Cleveland Guardians on a 3-run homer from Josh Naylor in the top of the 1st. Soon the Mets were down 7-0, but they chipped away. In the bottom of the 7th, Pete Alonso came to the plate with the bases loaded and the Mets trailing 7-3. He blasted a game-tying grand slam that sent the packed crowd into frenzied mayhem and Pete was so pumped he did a full celebratory twirl between the bases. The Mets fell behind again, down 9-7 going into the bottom of the 10th but once again fought back, battled through every at-bat, and won the game 10-9. Francisco Alvarez hit a homer and a game-tying RBI single. Brett Baty went deep in this game. Francisco Lindor had the walkoff hit in a huge game against his former team. It was the highest high point in a down year for the Mets. After the next day's rainout, the Mets swept a Sunday doubleheader to finish off their best week of the season. 


ARLINGTON, TX--- Mid-June, I was at the ballpark in Arlington watching Corey Seager crush line drives all over the park for the Texas Rangers in their fancy retractable roof warehouse stadium. The Rangers have a brand-new ballpark with a retractable roof yet it never rains there. The roof is to block the sun. The "old" ballpark for the Rangers remains standing right across the street, completely functional but lacking a roof to shield the field from the brutal solar rays blasting down each day for half the year.


HOUSTON, TX---Middle of June, I zip on down to Houston to watch the Mets play the Astros. Mets season falling apart. They stole a badly needed win against the Astros in the first game of the series. I was there to see Justin Verlander returning to Houston to pitch for the Mets against lefty Framber Valdez who carved his way thru the Mets lineup. Verlander was off to a shaky start on the season for Mets, lacking command, falling behind in the count nearly every at-bat. He battled but gave up a bomb to Alex Bregman and got beat by his old squad. Next afternoon, I was there at the ballpark again. The roof was once again closed, to keep it nice and cool indoors. The Mets looked sluggish as they dropped a winnable game to lose the series. After the game, perched across the street from the ballpark in a hotel room on an upper floor in a tall building, I watch as a massive storm system arrives over the city of Houston. The skies put on a cinematic lightning-and-thunder orchestra. As the torrential rains gush down, I notice Minute Maid Park has the roof open and the lights on. 

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Stone Vortex

Walking in a quiet cemetery in a scenic valley in search of a poet's gravestone. Silence, tranquility, the peace of souls in repose. In the midst of a road trip, I'd made a quick stop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on a summer afternoon to pay a visit to the grave of the poet H.D. aka Hilda Doolittle (Sept 10, 1886 - Sept 27, 1961), located in Nisky Hill cemetery, on East Church Street. The same street where H.D. was born and spent her childhood.

    Three months prior, back in April, I was in Asia walking along the beach on a small tropical island in the Philippines where a thick blanket of humid heat smothered the air and the lines of H.D.'s poem "Heat" became a repeated mantra:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

     A poem like this one is an object of contemplation, an artifact to be carried around, consulted, unpacked and admired. H.D. wrote many of these perfect gems. H.D. was the premier poet of the style her lifelong friend Ezra Pound had called Imagism or Vorticism, for the concentration of compacted representation into a vortex of words. Efficient, concise, unencumbered expression carved into verse as if chiseled into stone. As Pound described it in his Vorticism declaration, "It is the picture that means a hundred poems, the music that means a hundred pictures, the most highly energized statement, the statement that has not yet SPENT itself in expression, but which is the most capable of expressing."  The point of the Image, in Pound's view, was not simply to create a picture in words, but to create an intellectual and emotional complex. A convergence of meaning and impression. For H.D. especially, the poetic image was not something inert, a verbal photograph, but something alive, a compacted energy that opens up a portal. 

    H.D.'s poems had become important to me the last couple years. There is a force in so much of her poetry that I find gives me strength. I had been reading what's widely considered her greatest work the War Trilogy last year when I posted here about shell poetics and quoted, There is a spell, for instance in every sea-shell: continuous, the sea thrust is powerless against coral. That extended ode to the sea-shell comes from "The Walls Do Not Fall" which she composed in London where she was living during the German blitz of World War II. 

    Pound's declaration about Vorticism emphasizes the Image in poetry, and it was Pound who originally suggested to Hilda Doolittle that she sign her poetry "H.D. Imagiste." He touted her work as the exemplar of Imagist expression. This was around 1912, before World War I started. Pound had met Hilda Doolittle when they were high school students and they fell in love, he eventually convinced her to meet him in London where they got engaged, before breaking it off. But they remained friends. Doolittle had also known William Carlos Williams since their high school days in Pennsylvania. It's incredible that these three giants of 20th century literature all basically grew up together. 

    H.D. led an interesting life. She was a muse for acclaimed writers like Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and Richard Aldington, she consulted with Sigmund Freud for years, she even starred alongside Paul Robeson in a silent-film about an interracial couple. She was in London during both World Wars. She traveled to Egypt and to Greece (both cultures were major influences on her poetry) and was living in Zurich when she died in 1961. Her cremated remains were repatriated to the US so that her final resting place could be in the Doolittle family plot in the Moravian cemetery on East Church Street where she grew up.

    And so there I was walking thru that cemetery on a quiet street in Bethlehem, PA hoping to find H.D.'s grave and hoping it was worth stopping for. It was my girlfriend's idea, she's from the south Jersey/Philly area and accompanied me on the trip. Neither of us had any idea what we were going to find, though.

    When we reached H.D.'s gravestone, there was already a couple people there paying their respects. The grave stone was decorated with sea shells, it felt like a pilgrimage site for her readers.

    Her epitaph is an excerpt from a poem she wrote in her 1929 collection, Red Roses for Bronze, the poem is actually titled "Epitaph."

So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
reclaims forever
one who died
following intricate song's
lost measure.

    The silence which hung in the air of the cemetery that afternoon spoke to me about life and death. I'd just learned a few days prior that an old friend I grew up with had tragically died far too young. The shock of this knowledge was fresh and the air was pregnant with meaning. It was also a day or two after my 38th birthday which, thankfully, I got to spend surrounded by my close family. With all this in the air, in my mind, with a friend's spirit having been permanently exhaled back out into the mysterious universe, I was there in the quiet cemetery surrounded by gravestones and wondering: What is the value of a human life? What are any of us worth to the universe? Why are we here? Why do we live?

Looking at the gravestones I was struck by the inevitability of our bodies and souls all one day inevitably being summarized and compacted into a stone tablet on a patch of grass someplace. The Stone Vortex. I also was struck how H.D., Hilda Doolittle, a relatively minor literary figure unknown to most people on earth, had achieved so much in her life and made such an impact that I and countless others like myself were drawn to visit her gravestone and I actually felt great pride for what she had accomplished. Her own poetry was etched in stone onto her grave and she inspired people to turn her relatively small, unassuming final resting place into a shrine. A suitable legacy, perhaps. It is in the brevity and economy of her use of words, so carefully chosen, often simple recognizable words, together coagulating into an alchemical reaction, a mystical force capable of inspiring, impacting, staying with her readers, all birthed out of a few lines. In her "War Trilogy" she wrote:

I know, I feel
the meaning that words hide;

they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned

to hatch butterflies…

    The backdrop to this cemetery scene was kinda surreal, as a little further down in the valley stood an old steel mill, its rusty interlocked tubes and chimneys granting a steampunk vibe to the setting. 

    This was the old Bethlehem Steel mill, active during the days when Hilda Doolittle was a child growing up on this street. There was a story to be discerned in looking at the graves in the Doolittle family plot. Looking at the names and the birth and death dates, later reading up on her family, one could see that the family had a daughter who died at five months old. Hilda was the only girl in a family with five brothers. One of her brothers was killed in World War I in 1918 and, very shortly after that, Hilda's father died. It seems he suffered a stroke upon the shock of learning his son had been killed.

    Another of H.D.'s poems from her collection Red Roses for Bronze, "Birds in Snow" has a bit that I think captures the essence of the scene I was encountering:

like plaques of ancient writ
our garden flags now name
the great and very-great;
our garden flags acclaim
in carven hieroglyph,
here king and kinglet lie,
here prince and lady rest,
mystical queens sleep here
and heroes that are slain.

    Her father was a professor of astronomy. When he was appointed as head of the astronomy department at University of Pennsylvania, he moved the family to a neighborhood just outside Philadelphia. At the observatory at the university, Charles Doolittle dutifully observed and studied the tiniest, most minute perturbations of the earth's spin on its axis. 

    In the swirl of my thoughts on life and death, and the story of the Doolittle family, I was remembering scenes from Terence Malick's 2011 film The Tree of Life. A son goes off to war, the family learns that he has been killed, and as the parents process their child's untimely death, the film shows a sequence beginning with the birth of the universe, the development of solar systems, our sun coming to form, the earth congealing into a round rocky orb, scenes of dinosaurs, and then a meteor blast. The unspoken message seems to be that every individual life began with the birth of the universe, and every single event that occurred afterwards, big or small, happened in such a way so as to allow for the birth and development of that individual person.

"Till tree from tree, tree among trees, tree over tree become stone to stone, stone between stones, stone under stone for ever." 
- Finnegans Wake (p. 259)

*   *   *

I want to suggest some further reading for anyone interested, because I've been immersed in several books about H.D. and it's sprung forth far more thoughts than I could document here. I've been reading Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book which is a close study of her work. Also, the H.D. biography written by Janice S. Robinson, H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, is informative. Also been reading bits of The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner. The NY Times obituary for H.D. is maybe a bit unfair at times, but also sums up her fascinating life very well.

    My interest in H.D. originally was sparked by something I read in a book by poet & critic Peter O'Leary Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age (2018), where he talks about what happened when H.D. traveled to the Scilly Islands in order to recover from being stricken with the influenza virus during the 1918 pandemic, and where she gave birth to her daughter. O'Leary writes (on p. 16-17) that when H.D. was there she:
entered into a state of consciousness in which she felt herself merged with her surroundings and her new body. An oceanic feeling, if you will. Albert Gelphi explains that she "moved into moments of consciousness in which feelings of separateness gave way to a sense of organic wholeness: collapse gave way to coherence and alienation to participation in a cosmic scheme." H.D. herself characterized this as a state of "jelly-fish consciousness" in which an "over-mind" drooped down across her field of vision, "a cap of consciousness over my head, my forehead, affecting a little my eyes." [H.D. elaborated as] "a set of super-feelings. These feelings extend out and about us; as the long, floating tentacles of the jelly-fish reach out and about [me]. They are not of different material, extraneous, as the physical arms and legs are extraneous to the gray matter of the directing brain. These super-feelers are part of the super-mind, as the jelly-fish feelers are the jelly-fish itself, elongated in fine threads." H.D.'s oceanic feeling was so metaphorically saturated that it was pervaded with sea creatures whose motions activated an anticipatory awareness of the unison she would feel with her daughter.

    Later, O'Leary writes: "... she would merge (that Whitmanian term) with octopus and shark, powerful predators of the depths, unlocking secret doors and daring occult lore." (p. 20)

    Speaking of Whitman, I've been reading his Leaves of Grass where he writes, after a child asked him what is the grass: 
I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the vegetation.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 And later he writes: 

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death ...
All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses

Rest in Peace Michael Zazulka.