“Opening day of baseball season is like the first night of your honeymoon. Once that first pitch smacks into the glove, everything and anything is possible. Plus, you get to live it all over three, four, five times or more that day and you goo to sleep smiling”
-Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher
It is that most serendipitous and melodic harbinger of the end of winter - baseball. Spring training has wrapped its languid flow in Florida and Arizona and the teams have dispatched too locales from coast to coast. Optimism reigns as fans return like Capistrano Swallows to major league ballparks in an effort to get their initial, anticipated glimpse of the year at their favorite teams, beloved veterans and highly anticipated newcomers; to soak in the sun and think of the possibilities of what the new season will bring.
Their first chance since fall to experience baseball…to talk baseball in something more than wistfully nostalgic tones for last year or unbridled optimism in the unseen for the year ahead.
Talking baseball takes on a fresh urgency this time of year.
It was with this backdrop that I made a pilgrimage to a local watering hole for the chance to talk baseball with a true baseball legend. A man who knows baseball, the game of life. I found him sitting alone in a booth, nursing a tap beer. His business card lay on the table in front of him, facing the spot across the table from him. My seat on the mountaintop. He motioned me to sit down, gracefully extended his hand. We shook, he motioned for me to take his card.
It reads, simply, ‘Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher’ in elegant, 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers uniform font.
Now while Mr. Plato knows life and knows baseball, he does not see himself as a great thinker – more an observer of and ruminator on life and how it relates to all things baseball. I have quoted Mr. Plato frequently throughout the years in various forms, but more importantly, I have taken his wisdom and utilized it to full effect. The opportunity to sit down and speak with him face-to-face was not to be passed up.
I could not if I had tried.
Over beer and salted-in-the-shell ballpark peanuts, I spoke with (mostly just listened reverently to) Mr. Plato about some of his views on baseball and life. What follows is a sampling of our conversation covering a broad array of topics baseball.
“Mr. Plato, sir” I began, a bit nervously.
“Call me Home. But not ‘Homer’ – people should know that ‘Home’ isn’t ‘short’ for anything, and I do not write epic poetry. I simply observe it.” He smiled knowingly.
“A two-to-six putout, as it were.” I replied, thinking myself clever.
“Leave the philosophizing to me, kid.”
“Sure thing. Where do we start…”
“And don’t call me a ‘baseball card.’ I don’t do jokes or puns.” His tone had an impish quality.
“Yes sir, Mr. Plato.”
“Call me ‘Home’.”
Moving quickly on, I asked Mr. Plato when he first knew he had a gift for offering perceptions. He leaned back in his chair, and in one smooth motion he reflexively pried open a fresh peanut shell with his thumb and rolled the two peanuts into the palm of his hand before popping them in his mouth, all the while never breaking our eye contact.
“Back in the day – I was in high school -we were being coached on how to steal a base. I made a joke; something about ‘my mom told me I shouldn’t steal stuff’ and my teammates laughed, but the coach wasn’t amused. It kind of just took off from there. I just modified mama’s advice a little bit to fit the situation.”
“Mama always told me, never lie and never steal…unless you can put yourself safely into scoring position with less than two outs and one of your big hitters coming up.
“Do you have kids?” I asked, figuring that much of Home’s advice needed a ready target, like a catcher framing the plate.
“I have nine.”
“What kind of advice do you give them?”
“Only the best kind.” he replied with a grin and a wink.
“Ask any infielder; bad hops are a part of the game of life. Even the easiest looking play can be set awry by a stray clump of dirt. What counts is how you handle the bad hop. If you don’t catch it, stay calm, knock it down, pick it up. Stick with it; you can still make the play.”
“Bad hops are indeed a part of life.” I agreed.
Plato nodded. “I always try to remind my kids that sometimes, even the best of situations can provide a challenge.”
I nodded, writing it all diligently down in my notebook.
“Everyone who has ever played the game has done it – lost a ball in the sun. Life is like that; even the best and brightest of days can sometimes blind you to what you need to do.”
“Sound advice.” I was jotting that down furiously. Home was on a roll.
“Being proactive is good, but you also need to know how to react when things go awry. There are always going to be bad hops and off-target throws coming at you; always expecting to have to react to the unexpected, then reacting expectedly to the unexpected, is what separates the all-stars from the guys who ride the bench.”
“I’ve read that one before. Heck, I’ve tried to live it.”
The Old Philosopher seemed pleased. He nodded knowingly. “That’s good.” He replied confidently,without ego, taking a healthy sip of his beer. I was eager for more.
“What else can you tell me about how to live life?”
“You can argue with the umpire whenever you want, but you’ll rarely prevail – and you might get tossed from the game. Sometimes the victory comes in just letting him know you disagreed with his call in a respectful way. Stay in the game. Keep disagreements civil, and pick your battles wisely. The next time you step up to the plate, forget the last at bat ever happened.”
“That’s good stuff, Home.”
“Thank you.” He cracked open two more shells simultaneously, rolling the four peanuts around in his hand, ala Captain Queeg – without the angst.
“When the game is on the line, you can be caught looking. Don’t rely on the umpire to decide the outcome, never take a called third strike for the last out of the game. Go down swinging.”
“Another classic, Home.” I was soaking in not just the wisdom but the masterful peanut shelling. “In all my years of ballpark peanut eating, I’ve never mastered the one-handed shelling like you have.” I ventured.
Home looked down at his hand, cocked an eyebrow as he threw the peanuts into his mouth. “It’s all in the grip” he said matter-of-factly. Just like throwing the perfect curve ball.”
Made perfect sense. I had never mastered the curve, either.
Home checked his watch; It was getting late. “Before we go, can I ask you about self-confidence?”
“Self-confidence.” He took a breath, repeated the phrase slowly as a smile creased his face.
“There are two outs, and you have two strikes against you – what do you do? You step back, make eye contact with the pitcher, smile at him. Then give him a wink, a quick nod, smile again, step back in. Nothing so unnerves an opponent as your self-confidence. You’ve got him right where you want him.”
Home paid the tab and we got up from our table, walking into the crisp, spring air. I could swear that in the distance, I was hearing a faint roaring of a crowd.
“Thanks for your time, Mr. Plato.”
“Home.” He reminded me gently. “You’re very welcome.” The old philosopher smiled, adjusting the brim of his vintage Dodgers cap.
“Any last thoughts?” I asked knowingly.
“You know why is baseball played on a diamond, son? Like the stone, a baseball diamond needs to be cut just so to shine just so perfectly so. In both cases, it’s a sparkling thing of beauty when done just right, no matter what the setting is.”
I finished writing, adding the last period with a penciled stab, I closed my notebook.
I nodded, we shook hands. I watched him walk away into the darkness, and I swear I could hear, from somewhere, the gentle lilt of a ballpark organ, a gruff voice hollering ‘Play ball!’ the cheers fading into the night.