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The Offseason We Spent Watching Baseball

It hasn’t been the greatest offseason for following Mets’ news in our family — Joshua’s REYES jersey is gone [1], though I can’t bear to dismantle the diptych of Reyes and Wright above his bed — but the beat does go on. This winter, Joshua and I (often with Emily alongside) watched all of Ken Burns’s Baseball, starting with Cap Anson and King Kelly and John Thorn as guide and working our way through to Bill Lee and Carlton Fisk and Bob Costas discussing his quick retreat from the visiting clubhouse at Shea. And then we did The Tenth Inning, with Barry Bonds and Ichiro and Tom Verducci.

It was a lot — a lot of hours, a lot of John Chancellor, a lot of photographs zoomed in on — but we both loved it. And I loved that now Joshua has his baseball education, the sense of history I hope will cement him to the game beyond the doings at Citi Field, and cause him to appreciate those doings even more, seeing them as new threads in something far older and much larger.

Burns’s extravaganza gets its share of mockery — even sometimes from me [2] — for its myth-making and relentless air of elegy, to say nothing of its sheer immensity. Sure, sometimes things get a little slow going, with Donald Hall drifting off into the soliloquous ether or the economics of the Federal League refusing to yield screen time. But watching it again, I sunk happily into it much as I did in September 1994, when tragically it was the only baseball available to us. It was immensely moving then and it was this time, too — and made more so because this time it was my kid’s introduction to Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson. Besides, if I were going to poke fun at Burns, I’d also have to aim the needle at myself: At around the midpoint, Emily rightly took me to task for treating our viewing as if it were 22+ hours of church, with resident nine-year-olds expected to watch reverently without ever interrupting or wriggling. (“YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION WHILE JOHN CHANCELLOR SUMMARIZES THE BOYHOOD OF VIRGIL TRUCKS!”)

No, everything isn’t perfect in Baseball. I love Shelby Foote but was never quite sure what he was doing there (that goes double for Mario Cuomo), and letting the smarmy Billy Crystal weigh in on the pain of losing the Dodgers and Giants made me sputter with rage. But so much about it is perfect, or at least pretty close to it. The better commenters are marvelous in conjuring baseball’s timelessness and joy, and even better when you see their own childhoods returning to them in remembering their first beloved teams, players or games. Roger Angell is a terrific guide, as is Robert Creamer, and Tom Boswell and Bob Costas and Doris Kearns Goodwin and so many others. (The same goes for Keith Olbermann, Marcus Breton, Howard Bryant, Chris Rock and Mike Barnicle in The Tenth Inning — plus we get to see Goodwin finally enjoying a Red Sox title.)

The treatment of race and discrimination in Baseball is absolutely right and proper, whether it’s a young Branch Rickey confronting a wrong he will one day help put right, the unimaginable burden and indomitable will of Jackie Robinson, or hearing Curt Flood still raw with hurt and disbelief over his inhumane treatment in the minors. Smaller moments strike you down, too — Bobby Bragan explaining that he came to Rickey’s funeral because the Mahatma “made me a better man,” or the little detail that after John McGraw’s death, a list was found of all the black players he’d wanted to sign. At the same time, it isn’t all dour — Burns captures the barnstorming glee of the Negro Leagues in full flight, Count Basie’s strutting “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” feels like triumph, and Buck O’Neil is riveting and marvelous no matter what tale he’s telling.

Most of all, though, what I love about Baseball is the way it brings long-gone players to life, in all their majesty or ignominy. When I was a kid, I steeped myself in baseball history by reading Roger Angell’s collections and poring over the Baseball Encyclopedia, all of which I hope Joshua will do as well. But Burns let him also see the players: the death-in-the-eyes glare of Cobb, an impossibly young Mickey Mantle, an impossibly old Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson looking carved from marble, Robinson and Ted Williams seeking refuge in the dugout, Lou Gehrig’s bemusement in the background of photo after photo of Babe Ruth hamming it up, and Satchel Paige looking like he knows the secrets of the universe. (One suspects he did.)

The portrait of Cobb is wonderful, appreciating his feral talent while capturing him as a damaged, ultimately pitiable figure. Ruth explodes off the screen in all his beautiful brawling glory. Williams comes to life not just through footage but also in interviews, his arrogance obvious, infuriating and somehow utterly justifiable. Bill Lee is hilarious, smart and fascinating. (“… so then you go to a cross-seam fastball, which I don’t have [3].”) The Tenth Inning also has its star turns — Pedro Martinez flashes the Williams arrogance and charm discussing baseball as psychological war, while Joe Torre gets what even I must admit is his due — but no figure comes to life like Barry Bonds, compelling and horrifying and finally as pitiable, in his own way, as Cobb. The first episode ends by setting up Bonds’s fall, furious at finding himself forgotten and overshadowed by the ludicrously inflated Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and in the second episode Burns captures Bonds’s deeply weird, joyless pursuit of Hank Aaron before the quietly devastating coda of Bonds breaking the record, finishing with 28 homers (and a .480 OBP) and never playing again.

Joshua now has his grounding: He knows Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and Bob Gibson. He understands that the pain of being a Mets fan in a Yankees town pales in comparison with the annual horror our Brooklyn forebears went through — and that one triumph can erase all of that. He knows Casey Stengel isn’t just a name from the ancient Mets past, but the embodiment of New York baseball. He gets that Barry Bonds isn’t a hero or a villain, but a lot of things at the same time.

And I think he understands — to the extent that a nine-year-old can — that the triumph and joy of baseball wouldn’t exist without failure and loss. The best batters make outs most of the time. Every year begins with the near-certainty that your team’s season will end not in champagne, but with an agonizing loss or sad irrelevance. Today’s giddy young star is fated to become ordinary or get hurt or be traded or go somewhere else, and even if he avoids all that, he will not escape getting old and vanishing, because nobody does. Ken Burns didn’t inject an elemental sadness into baseball with white letters on black screens or sepia photos or quiet piano accompaniment — it’s woven into the game itself, and no one who loves baseball deeply can avoid it.

But the joy is there too. Baseball’s fun, of course — fun to talk about and worry over and watch intently and also just keep a friendly eye on. Burns brings that to life as well, in so many ways. But a tiny one stands out to me.

After a home run, my favorite shot is the one from the first- or third-base side, when you see the batter connect and then watch the flight of the ball, and in the background the fans get out of their seats, in ones and twos and then groups until even the casual fans or those not paying attention know the ball is gone and can exult.

In the early 1990s I lived outside D.C., in a group house where we watched the Mets or the Braves most every night, and when we saw that shot my friend Allan and I made a ritual of yelling, “Get UP, you damn fans! GET UP!” In Baseball, there’s a shot from that angle of Ruth connecting, probably sometime in the 1930s. The fans in the background are men in suits and hats, and the grandstand is held up by steel beams. But the reaction is exactly the same. In 1994, seeing that shot, Allan and I exchanged a glance and then were both yelling at the TV: “Get UP, you damn fans! GET UP!” Watching with us was a friend of ours, a woman who tolerated baseball more than she liked it. When Allan and I went into our ritual, she let out a kind of nervous, stunned laugh — because that little moment had just shown that baseball really was as timeless and enduring as we claimed it was.

Joshua is familiar with this ritual, too. When Ruth hit his shot, 80 years ago, I was ready. “Get UP, you damn fans!” I yelped. “GET UP!” And he turned and looked at me in surprise, then looked back at the screen, and laughed. And so on we go.