The old man and I have cheap seats. He’s been gone for nearly 20 years now, yet as we settle in I look at him and wonder if he still might be too big to fit in the remodeled little buckets in the top deck. Even if he was alive, even though he would still be interested in all things American, he’d be making movies and maybe he might not give much more than a passing glance at the game. Then again, maybe he might be initially curious, but he wouldn’t know from strikes and balls and strikes and astronomical salaries and steroids, and eventually he’d take his big cigar and lumber away back to the set. Still, as I sit gazing out at the field as the players mill about, stretching, throwing, swinging, getting ready, the crowd still far from filling up the stands on Opening Day, I breathe in all the aromas, good, bad and ugly, that make up the advent of another year at the ballpark, I feel like gambling on his interest. I look over at him defiantly chomping on that cigar—they haven’t allowed smoking in the seats at Dodger Stadium in years-- and I’m glad I have the old man’s undivided attention.
The stogie is part of him, at least as far as I know, the only nod to physicality he still enjoys, and I doubt it’ll be disturbing anyone this day. I try to explain to him the singular joys of hot dogs and beer, but he is clearly disinterested. He wouldn’t have been so blasé 20 years ago, when he could have easily earmarked three or four dogs for death. But not now. He has already settled in and concerned himself with something more ethereal, more spiritual--- this American coliseum, its life, its collective heartbeat. His eyes barely move from the field, taking in its majesty, its epic quality. The gigantic center of gravity that is his abdomen ensures that there is for him precious little difference between leaning forward and leaning back; his interest in the game is not well betrayed by the sight of him perched rather imperially above it, giving little physical indication of being swept up by its fascinations. As the afternoon wafts along at its own lilting pace and the ceremonies of the day begin to give way to the beautiful rituals of the game itself, he leans slightly toward me and grunts occasionally. The game itself begins, and he starts to speak more directly to me than he has since we arrived in the park hours ago, croaking questions and spinning observations and trying to make connections, all in that exaggerated Italian accent that would be laughed off any improv stage as absurdly overwrought. But it is the way he speaks as he begins to understand the structure of the game, to work it out for himself with my help.
As I watch him taking it all in, it’s almost as if I begin seeing the game anew, through his eyes. I am telling him all about each element as it unfolds, yet I cannot hear myself talking. The crowd, before an integral part of the atmosphere so important to grounding his understanding, has all but disappeared from his consciousness, and by extension mine, so focused is he on the lyrical, methodical movement on the field. All sound except what’s happening on the diamond has faded away, becoming a symphony of found noises that could only be heard here. The flapping of the flags in center field. The umpire muttering not to himself, unintelligible. Then a sharp release of air from the pitcher. The first pitch snapping into the catcher’s leather—strike one. The grunt of the catcher as the ball sails back from home to the pitcher, whose own glove snaps back as he catches it. The pitcher’s cleats shuffle on the rubber, catching red clay on the toes as he pushes off and delivers. The old man notices how the ball starts on one plane then dives down underneath the bat. The batter, fooled, swings and misses, the cut air ringing like it had been separated by a scythe. The catcher, who knew right where the ball was going, takes it in with ease. The old man hears the batter as he takes two steps out of the box, rubs his cleats in the dirt, takes a practice swing and steps back in. The tap-tap-tap of wood on hard plastic as the batter gives his helmet three knocks, the first obsessive-compulsive ritual of many the old man will witness today. Another hard expulsion of air from the pitcher. The ball sails toward the plate and is met with a hard crack of pine which drives it into center field.
The crowd is cheering, but the old man can’t hear it, and neither can I. We can only hear the grunting of the runner, the furious displacement of infield earth as his cleats kick up damp clouds and he makes the turn toward second. The throw comes in from center field toward second base, and the runner beats it there by a microsecond. The second baseman holds the ball up, pleading silently with the umpire, but to no avail. The hard breathing of the runner, on his back and now moving to his feet, is eclipsed by the loud bark of “Safe!” from the hefty man in the short black shirt. The sounds of this one play, separated from all the ambient noise that we should be hearing, have created a symphony of sorts, a gathering of organic noise that fits together for the old man, giving him a vivid picture, a bolt of feeling of what it all might mean, in much that same way that he once opened one of his movies, the insistent noises of a “quiet” railroad station that created a sense of dread and told a story of the film’s landscape without ever saying a word.
We continue all that afternoon blissful hostages to the game. Once he becomes more grounded in the basic rules, he begins to inquire about of the ins and outs and oddities—in between pitches I explained such strategic intricacies as tagging up, sacrifice flies and bunts, and even eventually, when the action called for it, the infield fly rule. With a runner on first and second base during the seventh inning of play, the batter pops up an infield fly. The old man is understandably confused when the umpire calls the batter out even before the ball is caught. I try to explain that the umpire is making a judgment about the effort it might take to catch the ball, that unexceptional effort would be enough, and if he deems the ball catchable under those circumstances the infield fly rule is invoked. The ball is in fact eventually caught on the outfield grass, and the old man becomes even more flustered, waving his arms in disbelief. How can an infield fly rule be invoked when the ball travels into the outfield? I try to explain that the rule is the province of the umpire, which makes no sense to him. A judgment call in a game of numbers and inches? But look, I press on, the rule is basically designed to keep crafty infielders from intentionally dropping easy flies, drawing runners off base and creating easy double and even triple plays. With the infield fly rule, the runners on first and second can still tag if they so choose, but with the batter automatically being called out the inevitability of a force play on the runners is removed.
Photo courtesy of Fritz Roberson
He looks at me like I’m crazy. The old man has come to see, in this accelerated afternoon, a microcosm of the world on the field, in its orderly procedures and open-ended framework, a game that takes as long as it takes to play out to the end, sometimes nine innings, sometimes more. Does not the infield fly rule negate some of the possibility of unpredictability in a game that otherwise thrives on it, a game where any number of things can happen in any given moment, despite its apparently rigorous structure? If Tuco can shoot intruders with a gun half-submerged in a filthy bathtub, then why cannot a shortstop pretend to bobble a ball and lure a runner into a trap? The old man misses the opportunity for confrontation, for deception, for theater in the infielder selling his moment of ineptitude and turning it into a dazzling play for the crowd. I try to imagine one of his films without the dizzying highs of operatic style that send my emotions into the stratosphere, the inspired leaps of imagination that make every man’s face a landscape of the forgotten West and every street seem half a mile wide. And I think maybe he’s right.
Here is a man who has created some of the wildest, most passionate moments of revisionist American mythology I have ever seen, someone who I have brought here today, against all laws of spirit and metaphysics and religious belief and what have you, to introduce him to something as meaningful to me as his own films, and he has given me pause about an aspect of the this game I consider, in the essence, to be near perfect. He shakes his head as play continues, more caught up than he ever thought possible before the first pitch was thrown, enthralled at the beauty of the game and riled by its seeming inconsistencies. He has come to view baseball with a love tempered by fury and passion and a critic’s eye, in much the same way he always viewed this country in his films. I imagine how much different the game would be if my friend, the old man, were alive, if he were allowed to examine it the way he did that other great American institution, the one that was never so purely American as is baseball, the Western. I imagine him down on the field calling balls and strikes and close plays at the plate. I imagine him a boisterous commissioner of baseball, leading a campaign to convince owners and players to exorcise the game of its vices and demons and silly rules. I imagine him bursting out of the dugout, a raging bull of a manager to make Vesuvian countryman Lou Piniella look sedate and measured. He’s a natural.
As the crowd begins to file out on this opening day, I realize the man sitting next to me looks nothing like I thought he did when I first sat down. He is no giant bear; he is a smallish, youngish man, and he sits quietly with his wife, both of them attached to earpieces piping the precious sounds of Vin Scully into their brains. Maybe the old man was right; maybe I am crazy. I look around for him, but he’s nowhere. Nowhere except where he probably always was. And that’s good news for me, I guess. Baseball has always tended to bring out my susceptibility to bliss, and somehow, on this beautiful April day, so many years after his death, the old man, reaching back through my cluttered perceptions of his own legend, has managed to give me a final gift. He has allowed me an opportunity to give something back, to reciprocate joy to the architect of so many of my own most treasured cinematic moments, to communicate the essence of something I love and show me how to see it through his eyes, in Super Panavision, of course. On this day the field at Dodger Stadium is as glorious as ever, yet somehow different. If I squint through the rays of the setting sun, I can almost see Angel Eyes at third, Blondie at second and Tuco at first, all holding down on each other, replaying that graveyard showdown across waves of heated grass, once upon a time around the horn. Ennio Morricone is faintly echoing behind the strains of Nancy Bea Hefley’s organ on the P.A. system. As I get up out of my seat I start to smile, and I know I’ll never be able to explain to anyone exactly why. Sergio Leone and I argued about the infield fly rule together today. What game, what film could ever match that?
For better or worse, this little fantasia was inspired by a comment left on this blog nearly two years ago from a reader who goes by the name “Herecreepwretch.” The topic under discussion at the time was whether or not I would change the name of this blog. Herecreepwretch made a case that for keeping it that I found compelling. Here’s what he said:
“I would simply like to concur with everyone who thinks the name change is unnecessary. The name reminds me of the long poem "Baseball," by our new poet laureate, Donald Hall. The poem opens by imagining what it would be like to sit in Fenway with the German modernist collage-maker Kurt Schwitters and explain the rules and spirit of the national pastime to him. It then wanders in a kind of stream-of-consciousness collage of materials from the poet's life for nine "innings" without ever accomplishing its express purpose - and not worrying much about its lack of accomplishment.
This is what the title of your blog evoked when I first read it: a film buff sitting in the stands of Dodger Stadium explaining the arcane aspects of the game to his favorite director of spaghetti Westerns.
It's perfect. Don't change a thing.”
Needless to say, I took the advice of Herecreepwretch and everyone else. Every once in a while someone unrelated to this episode says or writes something about how much they like the title of the blog, and I realize all over again how fortunate I am that I didn’t go and tinker needlessly with it. But that image of sitting in the stands with a mildly perplexed Sergio Leone, who I imagined would grow increasingly fascinated with the game the more he understood it, really stuck with me. I felt like honoring the idea somehow, but I never seemed to get around to it.
The Super Siren of Cinebeats: Kimberly Lindbergs
Then, late last year my good pal and blogger extraordinaire Kimberly Lindbergs sent me an e-mail with an attachment. She had been goofing around one weekend and decided to create an image based on the idea of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. The image she came up with, the poncho-laden Man with No Name sporting a fielder’s glove rather than a pistol, was so irresistible that I immediately had it made up into business cards. Then, out of the kindness of her heart, Kimberly asked me if I’d ever considered messing with the design of my blog. And since it was coming up on three years of the same green Blogger-sanctioned style, I had to admit that a nice change did sound pretty attractive. But I was too computer illiterate to try anything on my own and scared shitless over the idea besides. So Kimberly volunteered to work up some ideas and implement the changes for me, all on her own time during a Christmas holiday that was probably busier and more stressful than expected. We went back and forth on some details, and I solicited the opinions of some trusted friends about how it was all coming together. Kimberly brilliantly mocked up the Fistful of Dollars style of the film’s logo for my blog title, and she enlisted mutual pal and commenter nonpareil Jonathan Lapper to answer some template-related questions.
At the same time, my oldest cyberpal Peet Gelderblom contributed what was for many the crowning touch to the excellent revisionist approach to this site’s look that you see today, the crumpled, weathered wanted-poster look of the header image. Between the three of them, they turned a very ordinary looking blog into what I think is a small masterpiece of design.
Two fine specimens: Gelderblom (L) and Lapper (R)
I love the look, the color scheme, even the fonts of the new page. It has revitalized not only the look of the blog, but it has also helped revitalize my desire to write, after a full year of pumping out 5,000-word papers for my teaching classes that had the audacity to have nothing to do with the movies. So this whole post, and this tribute specifically, is my way of saying thank you to this three inspired, faithful individuals who have really gone out of their way to help me make this page an attractive place to want to come and hang out. Kimberly, Peet, Jonathan, I really appreciate everything you three have done for SLIFR, through your talents with graphic design and templates and your continued presence as writers and lovers of film.