What's a poet doing writing a book about baseball (27 Men Out)?
Baseball, as many writers have attested, is a sport well suited to writerly reflection. There's something about the pace of the game that allows for the composition of sentences and phrases almost between pitches. As a game, it has a kind of perfection in its design that is a constant marvel to those who give themselves over to it. And thanks to the box score, it is enormously quantifiable as well. Math plus poetry equals lots of prose. For me, baseball has been a boon companion, as I've progressed from a six-year-old boy to a nearly 50-year-old professional. The game has stayed relatively constant throughout, so I can measure certain aspects of my life against it.
What prompted you to write about perfect games?
Most definitely it was the experience of witnessing one, something that remains, no matter how much effort I put into this book, an experience beyond capture. Perfect games are wonderful to contemplate, to think and read about. But to have a perfect game unfold, second by second, in your presence, is an extraordinarily emotional thing. Of course, it doesn't change the world in any particular way, but gathered with 40,000 people as I was in July of 1999 at Yankee Stadium, watching David Cone's game, it did feel as if there was something missing in the world that would be found if this performance came off. When my son and I came home from the game, we couldn't stop rattling on about what we had just seen. We ran out of superlatives, and that's why the research began—to find out more about these games—just to add to our ability to lunch out on the story.
Why is baseball no longer the national pastime? Why the rise of football and basketball, in terms of media popularity?
You just said the words: "Media popularity." The number of people who actually attend baseball games is double the number who go to see professional football games or professional basketball games put together. It's the number of people who watch football on television that makes it the so-called number one sport. A pro football game is not much fun to watch in person, but it's perfect for television, neatly contained within a frame with everyone gathered around the ball. In baseball, spread over three and a half acres, there's not a single camera angle that encompasses all the combatants in one shot. When it comes to spectator sport, baseball is still on top among the big three.
You set the perfect games in the context not only of the economics of baseball, with the increased power of the players and increased moneys from media, but also of more general history. Why?
There have been two books written on perfect games already. Each did a good job of talking about the games themselves. But I wanted to do something different, for two reasons. One, I didn't want to repeat what had been done. Two, I found the prospect of concentrating solely on the games rather dull. Perhaps it was because I was at a game myself, and knew there was enormous excitement that these books weren't conveying, but also, once I began to do my research, I found my interest was drawn to the players themselves and their ongoing struggle to survive in livelihood that was changing against an America that was changing. Once you start keeping an eye on that story line—the game within the game, the game within the culture—you uncover a whole other drama.
If you could go back and watch a perfect game, which one would you pick?
The Addie Joss game in 1908 against Ed Walsh. It was in the midst of perhaps the best pennant race of all time, with four teams in one league and three in another in contention the last week of the season. That's seven teams out of 16 with a shot at winning a pennant. And Joss's game was in that last week, with everything on the line. And he nearly pitched himself to death.
If I went to that game, would it look like today's game?
You would see two umpires, not four. You would see a game that was over in 88 minutes. It would be low scoring, played with heavy bats, tiny gloves, spitballs, elaborate windups and a lot of obligatory sacrifice bunts. The players would all be white. You'd see spectators standing on the field, held back by ropes, swelling into fair territory when they felt like it. And a lot of spitting and cussing everywhere—well, some things don't change.
Your book highlights the best of baseball in these tremendous individual achievements. But it doesn't look away from the difficulties baseball has endured through greed, manipulation, steroid and drug use. What's the future of baseball?
I seldom hear Hollywood stars being called "greedy," and I object to baseball players being called the same when the business of baseball has such a value in the media sector that these huge revenues are generated, and the players are just out there trying to get their share. There's still that hunger to win on the field. Witness the Red Sox—Yankees series last year. Winning meant everything, going into that clubhouse with your team having at least one more run than the other team. Money has no place in the bottom of the ninth. That's why gambling is not tolerated. The game, purely played, can survive no matter what distance develops between fans and the guys on the field in terms of the socioeconomics. The game wins. It always has. As for steroids and drug use, the players have always had their stimulants of choice, from slippery elm to rye whiskey.