We all have our own private Americas, a quirky little something, even silly, that evokes broader meanings than it should. For me one moment expresses everything I love and yet it steadfastly refuses to transgress into metaphor. Utterly shorn of pretension, it is far from poetry — but it is poetry. It’s common enough that most have seen it, it’s rare enough that it will never become banal. It exhilarates, can break hearts, leave one spent and breathless or leaping in glee or tragedy. And most of all: only in America. Who else has the imagination?
The play at the plate.
Homers are spectacle, double plays usually snappy and brisk, great snatches just over the wall both graceful and an exercise in wistful what-might-have-beens.
The play at the plate is something else. It’s a violent drama of interception as ritualized by three men, one of them armored. It’s for keeps in its own little world, no matter the level or league. When it is over, everybody knows, everything will be different. I’ve seen enough but want to see more. They are so vivid I even remember the first I ever saw.
Chicago, 1959, in the junk pile known as Comiskey, rotting in splendor and the stink of beer and urine spilled last Tuesday. The White Sox, cruising through a vacuum left by a surprisingly flat Yankee campaign and pursued by a fierce but ultimately feckless Cleveland Indians team, are closing in on the pennant. A certain late-season, urgent game finds them tied with the Orioles, then still new to Baltimore, in extra innings. Don’t know who was pitching, who was batting, but it doesn’t matter. In this tiny five-second war the combatants are the O’s tank-like catcher, Gus Triandos, on third, and, for the defense, the Sox string-bean catcher Sherman Lollar and right fielder Al Smith, a fire hydrant on legs. All were slow, all were salty, all were tough. None was lithe or pretty or had endorsements. Lollar had the face of one of Montezuma’s Green Berets; the other two, just as scarred, ugly, and blunt, might have survived Gallipoli or Thermopylae.
Someone hits a fly deep enough to right that it will drive even brick-footed Triandos home and give the O’s the lead. Everyone knows it’s almost over. The ball rises like a howitzer shell, blurring white in its trajectory as it ascends, then falls, where Smith has lumbered into position. He takes it without much ceremony. He sets, he plants, he uncoils in the fluid hydraulics of will and muscle memory. Under his agency the ball is no longer a soft rainbow in the sky, it has been weaponized into a bazooka rocket, a panzer-buster, trailing exhaust. And the panzer it’s aimed to bust is Triandos. Did I tell you? Smith has a great arm.
The three forces — the lanky but immovable Lollar, the huffing and puffing Triandos, and the Smith-powered ball — converge in a home-plate detonation that unleashes the primal elements of flesh, blood, pain, and dust. The collision must sound like someone smashing Fritos while meat is being tenderized with sledge hammers. Legs and arms stab randomly through the floating grit, the mayhem is general, and somehow, mighty Gus has been called out.
I suppose I could look it up, but so clear is my memory 59 years later, I won’t bother. I know too that the game continues until the long-forgotten Earl Torgeson, Pale Hose first baseman until a late trade got them Ted Kluszewski, enjoys his one moment of glory in a journeyman’s career and sends everybody home in the 16th with a shot to 35th Street.
Maybe you had to be there. I’m sure glad I was. Root, root, root for the home team, and I think you know what I mean by “home team.”
This article appears as “Plays at the Plate ” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.