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The Fall Classic 10 min read

The Fall Classic

Baseball, America's pastime, makes for beautiful stories

By Cary Littlejohn
The Fall Classic Post image
Atlanta Braves at San Francisco Giants, Summer 2017

There’s just something about October. In the South, it’s the tease of crisp air, a slightly less direct pummeling by the sun, a change in the color palette when gazing at a forested landscape at a distance, the distinct smell of woodsmoke that bonfires create but can never quite be replicated in a living room’s fireplace. It’s all those things, and more. It’s an interminable period for teachers where no break in the schedule happens—Labor Day was forever ago, Thanksgiving will never get here. It’s society collectively agreeing, for one month, that breast cancer is terrible, and in solidarity with those it has affected, we’ll all wear pink. It’s a personality assessment: What’s your opinion on Halloween? For some, it’s the greatest holiday of them all. For others, costumes weren’t that fun as kids, so why would they want to do it as adults? Thank goodness we somehow find the resolve to coexist.

But America’s greatest October export is the World Series.

I’m constantly aware of my age now that the number has reached into my third decade. It’s been over a decade now since baseball was a part of my daily routine. There are few things I look back on more longingly than the understanding of all involved that baseball was a priority; it was built into my high school class schedule—three blocks of academics and at 1:30, baseball became the final class of the day.

The routine of it all—suiting up in a the locker room, aesthetically unpleasing but not a concern because it was home to only a bunch of high school boys, the smell a baked-in sour from a mix of sweat and dirt and blood and grass. Stretches to limber up the body, and how strange they would look to an alien looking down on it all—strange contortions to maximize resistance and feel the satisfying burn of muscles waking up. A designated throwing partner; mine was Thomas and our partnership would continue into college as roommates our freshman year, and years later, standing in his wedding party as a groomsman. It was an unspoken organization, with pairs forming organically with a certain level of equality—those who took it seriously found those who took it seriously; you never saw the natural-yet-practiced snap throw from a starting middle infielder partnered up with the bench-riding underclassman most at home in right field, with the long, languid throwing motion. If you’ve never been out there, along a painted line down the outfield grass but careful not to step on it during each toss, you’ll likely not understand what I’m talking about. Nor would you likely care. But If you’ve ever been there, if you remember it with fondness and yearning, you will automatically know the truth of what I’m saying.

Baseball gives, and baseball takes away. It was always the lower tier sport in our high school; despite being one of the Big Three, it was decidedly third. Our crowds were small. Small enough to recognize all the faces—the parents and siblings and grandparents and significant others, sometimes our friends if we were lucky. In an age when filming a game was a much bigger production than simply pulling out our phones, I think about some of those exciting plays we shared with each other, the ones that would have landed on a SportsCenter Top 10 and set our nerve endings on fire with pure elation and adrenaline. The jog back to the dugout after a stellar defensive play to end the inning and the raised gloves tapping in a gesture much more satisfying than a fist bump, a leathery sound somewhere between a thud and a thwack. The chorus of cheers after having touched home plate, walking through a tunnel of teammates slapping you in affection—on the helmet, on the back, on the ass. Baseball gives.

But then it humbles those who dare to feel they’ve ever mastered it. In my youth, I was once invited to play a tournament with a traveling team, and in my small town, it felt good that someone somewhere had thought me good enough to play on a team of those who took it so seriously. I remember the first practice; Thomas was there. In the moments immediately after meeting the traveling team’s coach, he had me do the simplest (and most satisfying) batting drill ever: the soft toss. Kneeling in front of me, he softly tossed a ball up, it would reach its apex, then fall back into my strike zone where I was to hit it, line drive-style, into a fence in front of me. At that point, I’d hit approximately one million balls in that fashion, but on that day, you’d never know it. He tossed; I missed. No worries. Again. He tossed; I missed. That’s odd. Once more. Still no contact. This continued until he finally just stared at the ball in his hand, looked at the scattered balls at my feet, looked at me, and then back again. He said, “Are you just swinging through it?!” To this day, I do not know. Almost a decade later, I would be placed in right field in a high school game, and as a native shortstop, that side of the field, that part of the field, it was strange. A long towering shot was hit my way; I saw it coming. Oh no, it’s still rising; I’ve misjudged it. Backpedaling, I’m in retreat. It’s coming in hot, and I’m still not behind it like I should be. And I never would be. It reaches me, and then passes me, probably a foot above my outstretched glove as I tumble ass over teakettle.  If I said the words “right field” and the town where we were playing, my high school teammates could finish the story and would do so doubled over in laughter. And baseball takes away.

There is no more perfect encapsulation of that notion than “The House That Thurman Munson Built” by Michael Paterniti. He profiled his boyhood hero, the pugnacious catcher who defined an era of New York Yankees baseball, 20-some years after he died in a plane crash. I would argue that it’s more than one of the best stories written about baseball, but simply one of the best stories written. Period.

It speaks to me on numerous levels as a piece of journalism.  Here are some of them, in no particular order:

I love the repetition of the phrase “I give you…” Five of the first six paragraphs start with it, and then it pops up all throughout this story. When I think of the musicality of words, this repetition reminds me of the pop that echoes out across a quiet baseball field as two rocket-armed players play catch, where every ball is caught perfectly in the pocket of the glove and it claps like perfectly cupped hands.

I give you Thurman Munson in the eighth inning of a meaningless baseball game, in a half-empty stadium in a bad Yankee year during a fourteen-season Yankee drought, and Thurman Munson is running, arms pumping, busting his way from second to third like he’s taking Omaha Beach, sliding down in a cloud of luminous, Saharan dust, then up on two feet, clapping his hands, turtling his head once around, spitting diamonds of saliva: Safe.

I love how Paterniti’s framing of Munson invites everyone, regardless of feelings about Munson or the Yankees or baseball at all, to read it. Munson, in all his terrible complexity, is all of us. Paterniti, in his worship of his hero, in his crying at the loss, is all of us.

And to this day, I don’t understand: What happens when your hero suddenly stands up from behind home plate, crosses some fold in time, and vanishes into thin air? One answer: You go after him. You enter your own early thirties and, as a man, you cross the same fold and try to bring him back, if only for a moment.

I love the play of words of the title. Upon first reading, one might think it’s a reconceptualizing of Yankee Stadium,  historically known as “the house that Ruth built” as in, “This is now Thurman Munson’s house.” But it’s actually simpler and more complicated than that, all at the same time. It’s about the literal house that Munson built for his family, the way he played the game to be able to afford such a house, the family he loved and placed inside the house.

And then it really begins—years of Sisyphean work. First they have to find the perfect piece of land, which takes forever. Then, instead of hiring a contractor, Thurman Munson subs out the job, picks everything right down to the light fixtures himself. He gets stone for the fireplace from New Jersey; stone for the rec room from Alaska; stone from the living room from Arizona. He wants crown moldings in all the rooms. He wants a lot of oak and high-gloss and hand-carved cabinets. In the rec room, a big walk-down bar … then, no, wait a minute, not a big bar, a small bar, and more room to play with the kids.

I love the doggedness with which Paterniti pushed his editors to let him do the story. The online version of the story has an addendum from Paterniti talking about how his editors didn’t care for his passion project. It publish almost 20 years after Munson’s death, and it’s pretty much solely because Paterniti wants to the story.

“It took a while to get anyone to say yes to this, that's one thing I remember. Honestly, except for my brothers and a bunch of Yankee diehards, who in the world really cared about Thurman Munson nearly twenty years after his death? And, worse, why take up pages in a national magazine with an article about him?”—Michael Paterniti

I love the lack of direct quotations. The story is a masterclass is the power of writer-as-artist, as Paterniti writes the whole things without relying on quotations. It’s a reminder that humans don’t always speak poetically, but writers can retell those subjects’ truths in poetic language. We have all the time in the world to craft the words; surely we can do it better than someone speaking off the cuff.

When the Yankees bring Thurman Munson to New York after only ninety-nine games in the minors—after playing in Binghamton and Syracuse—he just says to anyone who will listen: What took them so long? He's not mouthing off. He means it, is truly perplexed. What took them so goddamn long? Time is short, and the Yankees need a player, a real honest-to-God player who wants to win as much as blood needs oxygen or a wave needs water. It's that elemental.

I love the reminder that the catcher is often the unsung hero on the diamond. There’s a workmanlike quality to the position, and to those who follow baseball closely or played themselves, catchers have a revered place for the toughness they display. I remember my own time in that position, before I flipped around and became the other half of the battery and started pitching. My dad had trained me up to be a catcher because he was concerned my feet were too flat to ever have any speed. I remember the full-sized Rawlings catcher’s mitt he bought me at a young age, the padding so thick that my tiny hands couldn’t quite operate it in those early years before it was broken in. It stayed in my bag all the way through my high school career, sometimes the preferred mitt of catchers who would call my games for me. I remember that characteristic toughness embodied in my longtime catcher, Bobby, who would sacrifice life and limb to the cause. The toughness was epitomized one day at practice, where Bobby was throwing batting practice to a tank-like junior named Josh who could put quite a sting on a ball. Bobby’s almost unnaturally lanky throwing motion whipped a moderately paced pitch from behind the L-screen that protected him from line drives, and Josh absolutely destroyed the ball, a line drive right back from whence it came. Bobby, his body safely at home behind the L-screen, simply stuck his bare hand out and snagged the ball out of mid air with a vicious hiss of leather and seams on his skin, a sound that stopped the rest of us in our tracks. “DAMN, Bobby!” we shouted at this clearly crazy man, somehow both dumbfounded and not surprised in the least.  It reminds me of my last true catch with a friend. His name was Mike, and we were both in the Mississippi Delta learning to be teachers for Teach for America. He was just a month or so removed from graduating from Binghamton where he’d been on the shortlist for the Johnny Bench Award, the recognition for top catcher in college baseball. He was two or three inches taller than I and talked about he was too small to have played in a powerhouse conference like the SEC. Though I was years removed from high school career, it was apparent just how delusional any thoughts of “what if I’d tried to play ball in college?” had been. We long tossed on the quad of Delta State University, and I’ll never forget the distance increasing between us as he warmed up. My arm, which had always been considered decently strong for my level of competition, kept up for a while, but at some point, his natural athletic superiority began to shine. His throws came on a straight line, but mine had to take on more and more loft to cover the distance, often not making it there in the air but rather in a series of feeble bounces. At the conclusion, his unfailing kindness in complimenting my aging arm was bittersweet; I knew it actually wasn’t that impressive, merely better than nothing. Before we’d leave for our respective teaching destinations, we’d make a trip to Greenville, where we’d go down into the banks of the Mississippi River and fill small containers with mud so dark it was almost black. Pitchers at Binghamton liked new balls (“pearls,” he called them) rubbed down with mud, as a way to break them in, Mike told me. And legend had it that mud from the Mississippi was the best. He intended to send some back to Binghamton. The sweetness of that gesture still gets to me, and it’s a reminder that baseball has an undeniable beauty to it.

Trust me, says Thurman Munson. Harumphs back to the plate. Guidry can see him chatting to the batter, telling him the pitch, then he calls for a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Damn crazy fool. Guidry throws the fastball anyway, batter misses. Next pitch, Thurman Munson is talking to the batter again, calls a fastball on the outside corner, Guidry throws, batter swings and misses. Talking to batter again, calls a slider, misses again. Strikeout. Thurman Munson telling most every batter just what Gator is going to throw and Gator throwing it right by them. After a while Thurman Munson doesn't say anything to the batters, and Gator, he's free and clear. Believes in himself. Which was the point, wasn't it?

I love that this story is a love story. Paterniti chased this thing because it meant something to him; he wanted to share his love. That’s the whole point of this newsletter, so it’s fitting that I should get to highlight it.

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