Baseball as a metaphor for life has been fairly well covered in print, cinema, probably in your office. For those who love our aged national pastime, virtually every episode in their lives outside the foul lines somehow derives meaning from, at times even in poetic verse, what goes on inside those lines.
If only our lives came with chalked lines to tell us foul from fair, or with precise distances attached to our goals, the way outfield fences are painted with footage markers to tell us the distance from home plate, making it easy to measure the length of home runs (with or without a cop in the bullpen to flash us the touchdown sign).
At this stage of my life, nothing kills a cocktail party faster than some guy who sidles up eager to wax poetic over the local ball team, how his life related to everything that is red stitches and horsehide. It is, after all, just baseball, a game invented to keep the grass from growing too fast in the pastures of 19th century US farms. Those farmers probably were too busy living and working to unroot the metaphor from that verdant pasture.
That said, I once loved baseball with great passion. I played it endlessly as a kid, in its many varieties, Little League, high school, and sandlot. If you dropped me blindfolded into the Kinneen family’s backyard right now, I absolutely could point to the trees, workshed, dog kennel, and stone wall that factored into our ground rules for what we called “sticky finger ball.’’ I honestly can’t remember why we called it sticky finger ball, but I’m pretty sure it was because the game was at least as much about cheating and arguing as it was about playing. But that’s just a guess.
During a small public speaking gig last week, the night before the World Series, I for the first time admitted to anyone other than myself that I chose to go to Boston University in 1971 in large part because it was so close to Fenway Park. I could earn a degree in journalism and go to Red Sox games. What, you got better than that? Mom and Dad must have been so proud that their 18-year-old son could make such considered decisions about his secondary education.
Jaded as much of the above surely sounds, however, I was inside Fenway Wednesday night for Game 1 of the World Series, and it took less than an inning for the game to serve up, lo and behold, a valuable life lesson, delivered not by the players, but by the umpires, the half-dozen guys charged with running the game correctly, fairly, and safely within the aforementioned lines.
It all started with a screw-up, as many best life lessons often do. Second base umpire Dana DeMuth flashed the “out’’ sign on a sliding Dustin Pedroia. It briefly stood as the second out of the inning and would have left runners at first (David Ortiz) and third (Jacoby Ellsbury).
What quickly ensued, though, was a rare example in owning up to a mistake, something we rarely see anymore, be it inside or outside those lines. Rarely do we see it from major league umpires, which is among the reasons MLB next year will include regular use of video replays to call the game.
DeMuth, as he soon would be made to realize, blew the call. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, in his eagerness to turn a double play, never gloved a relay from second baseman Matt Carpenter, who had just made neat work of scooping an Ortiz grounder to the right side. Kozma raised his glove hand high to accept the relay, but the ball clearly glanced off the top of his glove and dropped to the ground.
No doubt about it, bad call, as Sox manager John Farrell told DeMuth after trotting out to second base. At the same time, DeMuth’s five fellow umps, including crew chief John Hirschbeck, soon congregated. They all saw the play differently, the way everyone in the park other than DeMuth saw it. DeMuth was added to the discussion, and after a few minutes of deliberation, with everyone watching, the call was reversed. Pedroia was ruled safe, returned to second base, and three runs promptly came across when Mike Napoli followed with a double.
After the game, I was the lone pool reporter to speak with the umpires. They didn’t hedge whatsoever, quite unlike the way we dealt with such issues in sticky finger ball. The ruling on the field said they owned up to DeMuth’s miscue, of course, but it was refreshing to hear them verbalize it, essentially notarize their decision.
“It’s an awful feeling, yeah,’’ said DeMuth when I asked how he felt as the reversal evolved. “Especially when I’m sure [in the moment] I have the right call. But I’ve got to be part of a team here and get the right call . . . you know, definitely get the right call.’’
Standing next to DeMuth during the interview, Hirschbeck noted he was the one who had to explain the reversal to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
“I just explained to him — the same as I’ve said here — that five of us were 100 percent sure [that Pedroia was safe]. Our job is to . . . get . . . the . . . play . . . right. And that’s what we did.’’
It’s all they did, all they’re supposed to do. They owned up, made the correction, moved on. Umpires have done it before, but it’s rare, and there is perhaps no moment in baseball more intensely scrutinized as the opening inning of Game 1 of the World Series.
So, score one for the umps. They noted the mistake, owned up to it, made it right. I’m not sure that’s the game acting as a metaphor for life, but I am sure I should be as willing to do the same, be as honest, forthright, and self-forgiving about it, and then just get back to living. All of which is at least as hard as hitting the deuce.