Digging in for the Pitch 

A Nashville writer celebrates the inspiration of baseball

A Nashville writer celebrates the inspiration of baseball

The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, A Love Affair With Baseball

By Robert Benson (Tarcher-Penguin, 183 pp., $12.95)

Even for people who aren't baseball fans, an evening at the ballpark can have a calming, centering effect. There's something about the crack of the bat, the expanse of green grass and the game's leisurely pace that can impart the most stressful day with a Zen-like peace. Robert Benson's The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, A Love Affair With Baseball, a meditative book about the life-lessons of baseball, produces a similar effect. By following the progress of an ordinary minor-league game between the Iowa Cubs and the Nashville Sounds, Benson draws comparisons between the action on the field—or lack thereof—and the hits, runs and errors of everyday life.

At its heart, The Game, which was first published in 2003 and is now available in paperback, is a confessional book. Benson, a Nashville resident who writes and speaks on prayer and spirituality, wears a love of baseball on his sleeve; it is, for all intents and purposes, an obsession. "Whenever you run into me," he writes in the book's introduction, "wherever it is that we are, and whatever it is that we're supposed to be doing, it is wise to remember that I would generally rather be at the ballpark." Fortunately, Benson's family, who figure prominently in the book, share his love of the game. Baseball assisted in the courtship of his wife, and Benson's son and daughter are avid players.

Benson frames his book with quotations from former Yale President and Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, the man who banned Pete Rose from baseball. Each chapter begins, meditation-like, with a passage from Giamatti, which sets the tone for the next section of the story as Benson weaves together the action from this particular Cubs-Sounds game in April 2000 with his observations about life and the sport he loves.

In a chapter titled "How Did Abraham Do Yesterday?" for example, Benson ruminates on the rewards of scorekeeping and the importance of paying attention. A Giamatti quote from the Yale Alumni Magazine starts things out: "I was counting on the game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, threes time three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and return home, to set the order of the day and to organize daylight." The chapter continues with Benson's description of the second inning. With the game tied and the Sounds at bat, he uses baseball's intricate box scoring system to demonstrate the contributions of Abraham Nunez, one of his favorite players. (Nunez has since been called up to the Sounds' parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates.) This particular night, Nunez's performance is subtle but significant, "just a series of little things done well that made the larger thing come out in favor of the team." Benson then draws an analogy between scorekeeping and journal-keeping, a practice that has helped him weather both personal and professional storms. "I am keeping track of all of these things only for myself," he writes. "And I keep going to the ballpark and practicing my little box making. And learning to pay attention to the little things and how they contribute to the larger things." It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between scorekeeping and journaling: The former is about tidy precision; the latter, as most folks who rant at their days in journals can attest, is about anything but precision.

If there's quibbling to be done here, it's with Benson's insistence on finding a reason for hopefulness and good cheer at the end of every chapter. Though the author's tone is occasionally melancholy—and though he does mention his struggle with depression and the deep sadness brought by the loss of a brother—such references are made in passing and not dealt with in any depth. Perhaps Benson's prevailing optimism is a byproduct of his secondary vocation; perhaps he just doesn't want to want to air his dirty laundry. In either case, statements such as "everything in life is about going home again" and "the only thing in life worth doing is the thing that you love to do" ignore life's harsher realities, which are often obscured by a suburban, middle-class frame of reference. A victim of child abuse, for example, wouldn't find much comfort in the notion of going home.

Baseball-is-like-life books such as The Game are nothing new, of course. Along with Giamatti, conservative commentator George Will is among the many writers who have noted that life's lessons are imbedded in the great American pastime. What distinguishes Benson's book is its narrow focus. The stars of The Game are not the marquee names, and their heroics are not, by and large, played out in major league parks or during World Series championships. Rather, Benson's attention is drawn to the game's more diminutive aspects: its minor leagues, the ordinary rituals of the players, and the positive effect the game has had on his family. The result is that, despite its platitudes, The Game doesn't contain the gratuitous character arcs or grand resolutions that typify many sports books. Instead, Benson is content to leave his readers with gentle advice and the hope that his family will, as he says, "remember the days when we sat in the sunshine, when we were young and strong, and the call to play ball was the best sound on earth."

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