– Mark L. Lucker
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
My first writing love is poetry. Please check out my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic at https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/
“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” – Former major leaguer & Author Jim Bouton
I’ve been told – more often than I can count – to take a walk.
I have sacrificed.
Took lots of pitches and touched all the bases. Made it to a few when I probably shouldn’t have, gotten thrown out when I tried to take an extra one…often experienced the thrill of sliding in safe at home.
There are times when I have been left stranded, others when I have been benched. I have been shelled, and pulled for a reliever who could close out what I started.
I have made more than a few long, slow walks back to the dugout.
I loved the game and life – and it returned the favor far more often than it could let me down. Oh yeah, a few pennant races broke my heart – but isn’t that life in a nut shell? I’ve had good winning streaks and a few tough loses.
Hurled a few biting changeups of my own, too. Others will tell you there are times when I’ve been a real screwball.
Sometimes I’ve had to play hardball. I have usually won.
I have been thrown out, tagged out, shut out.
I have balked.
I have loved the game – my life – it has returned the favor.
Now, the grass is greener than ever, lush and rich; the sky is always a vivid blue. In my mind I can always I feel the breeze on my face, breathe in the aroma of oiled leather, hear the distant crack of solid horsehide colliding with polished ash.
Someday I’ll be rounding third and headed for home, with someone waving me on. I’ll know then as I do now that it’s been a grand and glorious event, an extra-innings affair to remember; a ninth inning grand slam in every sense.
It’s hopefully a long time before I need to come out of the game, many years before I’ll need a curtain call to acknowledge the home crowd, tip my hat and then disappear, headed for the clubhouse to hang up my gear for the last time.
Not now, not today.
Hope, potential and promise fill the air, a game has yet to be lost.
A long, blissful summer awaits. There will be highlights and losing streaks, rainouts and glorious days you’ll hope will not end. For now, the joy is in simply taking the field again.
As Ernie Banks always says, “It’s a great day to play two!”
I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
All poetry, all the time.
The ‘Beat Generation’
now needs a pacemaker;
they can still Howl – but
it’s mostly in discomfort
Hippies now take a drag,
teeter on artificial joints
Peace, love, rock-and-roll?
Viagra, naps, Metamucil
Culture they unleashed
now subjected to leash laws
yet I admire their restraint
in not pandering to regret
Graduation from high school
meant moving on, getting on
with life, trying something new
somewhere else – leaving
Graduation gifts were practical
to the situation; a typewriter,
a briefcase, cash, sage advice…
a contradictory set of luggage,
gifted by mom and dad.
Not wanting me to go, knowing
I must; wary, hopeful, resigned
questioning all the inevitability
that raising children nurtures
A matched set of five brown
vinyl bags; two suitcases, under-
seat tote, garment bag, shaving
kit, all filled quickly, portaged
across multiple states, stages,
careers, life transitions – stuffed
with the tactile accoutrements
of a life, with room remaining in
corners and zippered pouches
for moments, memories. A life.
A few quick Junes from now
my eldest son reaches the same
well-trod crossroads, whether to
go or to stay will not be the point;
moving on a given, a goal reached
The temptation will be to send
him on his way much as I was; a
laptop, a briefcase, cash, debit card
and a large, sleek, shoulder-carry,
nylon duffle bag along with prudent
counsel to travel light while still
taking it all in; to bring it with him
when he comes back, take it all
with him when he leaves again, but
most importantly of all, to use it
along the way, carry himself well
The young ballplayer drags his bat to the plate, leaving a neat,
shallow furrow in the dirt in which the seeds of success are now
sown; there is purpose to his gait, no fear. He is resolute.
He practice swings the bat in a warped, pendulum loop while his
oversized, red plastic helmet acts a boa constrictor trying to
digest his head. Dogged determination shapes the boys eyes
He stands beside home plate, tongue protruding from the lower
left corner of his mouth in intensity; his face drawn in pseudo-
sneer, he spreads his feet, digs toes firmly into the sacred dirt
The boy is ten.
He looks every bit the ballplayer; body language poised – just
shy of cocky; seriousness finger-painted in bold red dirt streaks
across the white script team name adorning his uniform shirt
His bat slowly rises, coming to rest on his shoulder as he fixes
a nearly-hardened gaze on the adversary forty-six feet ahead;
takes a deep breath, wrinkles his nose to move the sweat off
The pitcher looks at him, cocks his arm, throws. Bait not taken;
a ball! The bat in the boy’s hands wobbles alongside his head,
goes still a brief moment as the next pitch approaches before
whipping violently from his shoulder, thrust in a swept-sword
arc at the hurled sphere coming; arm muscles strain, elbows go
straight, torso and hips spin wildly, eyes close as bat meets ball…
Momentum causes the boy to teeter briefly, before an ungainly
burst from the batter’s box sends him lurching toward first as
the ball, like a flat stone on water, skims the infield dirt, kicking
up four quick puffs of diamond dust and the boy’s thought is of
only one thing; the sudden grandeur of a double – a double! – as
he rounds first, and the ball comes to a stop in the outfield grass
The boy playing right field for the opponents charges in, plucking
the ball from the turf where it has come to rest while in the same
odd, Quixotic-windmill motion he catapults it toward second base
Then it all happens so fast.
The boy has ducked his head rounding first, doggedly running
fast as he ever has or ever will, only looking up in time to see the
ball jutting from the webbing of the glove suddenly before him
the sight alerts the boy’s baseball instincts to his only option;
intuitively he launches his feet out from under him, left leg fully
extended, right leg tucked beneath him, curled at the knee
his left buttock slams into the dirt with a cloud of dust, his body
sliding to a stop a full foot in front of second base, he sees the
glove smack his shin, hearing a soft, excited voice; “You’re out!”
Lying there looking up into fading afternoon sun he can make the
silhouette of his vanquisher; arms raised in exultant triumph, ball
in one hand, glove the other, and a look of surprised satisfaction.
From flat on his back he lifts his head to focus, and through the
dissipating cloud of grit the face of his rival comes into soft focus
from beneth her frayed bent cap brim. No gloating countenance,
the gentle face is a wide smile, large eyes – framed by two tightly-
braided, long, dangling, swaying pig-tails; near the end of each
dangle shiny plastic barrettes the exact hue of her cap and jersey
There is an oddly comforting lilt to her voice saying “You’re out!”
He doesn’t hear moans of disappointment from his team’s bench.
Still on his back, chin on chest, he smiles, repeats; “You’re out.”
His head flops back on the dirt. She leans over him, still holding
the ball, hands on her knees, he again repeats, “You’re out.”
The girl nods. “Yep” she repeats with a broad smile, “You’re out.”
From that moment on, though he will often try, he can never quite
accurately articulate or explain to anyone (even himself) his inate
passion for baseball, his true love. His love of the game.
Sitting alone at a bar
downing a row of
tequila shots will earn
from across the bar;
privileges – at the very
least a knowing wink,
tacit agreement, a nod.
Sitting by yourself at
throwing back espresso
shots while clicking
away on a laptop gets
you ignored indifference
as most baristas lack the
hereditary imperative of
the best barkeeps, while
of the traditional, dimly-lit
habitat is rendering the
breed of mixologist our
most endangered species
For anyone who masters
the hybrid genetics, there is
a Nobel Prize in it for you.
Or at least a full tip jar.