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The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.


ARDENT FANS OF THE
IMPERFECT BEAUTY OF BASEBALL

by Tomas Benitez

Keynote Address, Shrine of the Eternals Induction Day
July 22, 2007

            Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished inductees and representatives of those inductees, thank you for being here today and thank you for the honor of welcoming you to the annual induction ceremony of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, 2007.
            I was sitting with a group of friends a few nights back, excitedly talking to them about how I was so honored to be delivering the keynote address today, talking about the Baseball Reliquary and of the achievements of Jim Brosnan, Bill James, and Yogi Berra.
            They all knew Yogi Berra by name, in fact they even misquoted him to me a couple of times; a couple of them think they had heard of Bill James, somewhere; and – who was the other guy? A writer; a baseball player? And, of course, the usual question we all get, what the hell is a baseball reliquary?
            Maybe I was a little too enthusiastic, maybe I just went on too long as I am disposed to do, but I saw the familiar signs: the glazed over eyes, the condescending nods, and then the quick cut-off to another round of martinis. When the conversation resumed, we talked about reality TV, political sex scandals, no baseball. I cite this incident to underscore my pleasure at being here with you. I love my friends dearly, but there are times when we do not walk the same path. All of us here today, however, are from the same congregation, an open society yet a small but learned group of ardent fans of the game of imperfect beauty, the game of baseball.
            If you are lucky, you play the game as a child, out on the street, improvising a Chevy for a base and the sewer as an automatic out. Not unlike the ivy in Wrigley, the Green Monster at Fenway, the game adapts to its environs easily enough. In my generation, the sandlot was really an empty lot before the Barrington Towers were built, that is, on the weekends with Dad, or back in East LA, empty lots were gardens gone abandoned, land not yet claimed by urban renewal. We played tripleheaders where the 10 meets the 5 and the 60, the East Los Angeles Freeway Interchange.
            Sure, it was great to finally get a uniform from the park league or the YMCA and it was fun to finally play on a field that had grass where it was supposed to be, real bases and balls that did not have more tape than seam, but still, it is the improvised elements of the game which gave it its character, its improbability, and its imperfect beauty.
            The ardent fan played from sunup to sundown, boys and girls of any ability and various ages, so many games and configurations of teams, changing the field in accordance with who drove home and who drove off, that we lost track of the games won or lost, but never the vital statistics, that is, how many hits we made in a day, starting with homers and ending with hits we call hits that may have been ruled errors, but who’s counting?
            It was possible on occasion to overstep the boundary of acceptable devotion for the game. My mother’s lamp with the ceramic panther base and tropical floral shade will forever be the last thing I broke with a well-hit whiffle ball inside the living room one night. I got a double, however I got whiffle ball banned forever from inside my home.
            But the ardent fan plows on, and when he is not playing baseball, he is reading baseball, at least that is the way it was for our crew. We shared dog-eared editions of the Duane Decker series, fighting over who got the copy of Southpaw from the library next, or the ten-cent copy of World Series by John Tunis, rescued from the used book rack near the dirty magazines in the back of the Rexall on Wabash. Sure there were other writers well before my youth; no other team sport has inspired so much literature and art. My uncle gave me his copy of Jackson Scholz’ Batter Up, so hallowed, I didn’t put it into circulation with my pals and as a result I still have it. There were the biographies of our baseball heroes, always it seems written with or as told to Arnold Hano. And then, Along Came Brosnan.
            Jim Brosnan looked like one of us, that is, he did not look like a baseball player, rather he seemed suited to be a librarian, with his thick glasses and his reserved mien. He was surely quick-witted and well-spoken, his teammates called him Professor, and a few other names after he was published. But he did not appear to be a man who made a living tossing around a baseball. Yet he certainly did and that was the crux of his gift.
            I contend his appearance enhanced his role in the annals of the literature of the game, made him accessible, and thus edified the impact of his two famous books, The Long Season and Pennant Race. He made the game more tangible than it had ever been. He took us into the locker room, onto the bench and bullpen, and more so, he gave us an ear to hear the genuine vernacular, language certainly modified for the standards of those times, but real words spoken in real settings nonetheless.
            He was the precursor to Jim Bouton’s breakthrough expose, and unfortunately he took the first steps in a dastardly trail that led from The Bronx Zoo to the magnum opus of that great baseball scholar, Jose Canseco. But he is not to blame, for given his time, he managed to make the game more real while still holding fast to his own sense of dignity. He didn’t write two great American novels, he just wrote two great books about what he knew. There are better writers, such as Roger Angell, Thomas Boswell, and the dear friend we lost too soon, David Halberstam, but Brosnan played the game. He wrote about it, and he did it first.
            The base of knowledge of the ardent fan was found on the back of a baseball card, where all the inner secrets of the game were laid out for you to be decoded, as eventually, a genius among us, would indeed do that very thing. But we took that which was given to us at the time and we made it our currency, our measure of expertise, and our quest for Wisdom.
            I am told that mathematics has its own built-in musicality, to which I confess to being tone deaf. And as for statistics, at its core it is merely the act of building a compendium of numbers that can be molded to the vessel, which needs be served. But analysis, that requires the application of scientific and subjective thinking to otherwise plain facts.
            Thus, to do so gives impetus to the thing so often we fear, good or bad, change. To derive new methods of measure, amplify and endow a set of probabilities, and in doing so challenge the glacier of conventional wisdom, well you gotta know you’re just asking for trouble.
            When Bill James came upon the scene he was greeted with the kind of warmth from the baseball establishment that is usually reserved for favorites such as Marvin Miller or a gaggle of super agents who show up unannounced and uninvited at spring training. And I imagine for Mr. James looking at a game is a little like what it must have been for Galileo looking up at the sky and thinking to himself, boy I am in for it now. But nonetheless he persevered, made inroads, and, for the ardent fan, opened the game to a new vision that only served to make the game more vital. Thus, the more the information, the more we know what we do not know, and the divine mystery of baseball is intact.
            James did not divest the game of its charm or serendipity, rather he made it more so, he fed the ardent fans more fodder for debate, and gave baseball statistics a sense of musicality. For in the end, it is a game based upon a round object being hit by another round object, and what we know is that after all analysis of statistics and predictions, anything is possible.
            Speaking of imperfect beauty, let us speak of our final honoree, Yogi Berra. Could we have loved him any less if we knew him as Lawrence? I would hope so but I think not. Here is a man who took the gifts of his stumpy body and broad face and remarkable skill and turned them into the prototype expectation of what we want a catcher to look like.
            Oh your first baseman is a lanky left-handed fellow, and the shortstop is gonna be the team fireplug, but a catcher, he is the bulldog on the field. His nickname is Pudge or Smoky. His hands are ugly, and he can’t run worth a damn, but without him, you don’t have a game. The pitcher might be the captain of the ship, but you don’t go anywhere unless you have a chief down in the boiler room to keep the screws turning. Those guys are catchers. Here I have to disclose my own special prejudice because I was a catcher. I read The Catcher in the Rye the first time when I was 13 because I thought it was a book about a catcher. Well, it was, but it wasn’t about baseball. It was still a very good book.
            Imagine being the best at something, anything, better than anyone else? Yogi Berra is listed as number one in Bill James’ book, and Casey Stengel called him My Man long before that phrase became commonplace. He knew how much Yogi knew the game.
            He was the guy who caught the only perfect game ever thrown in a World Series. He was a three-time MVP during his tenure on all those remarkably talent-laden Yankee teams. He was a 15-time All Star over three decades, and yet, what is it that really brings us here today? What is it about this wonderful baseball player that makes this day necessary?
            I doubt you will find any other athlete in any other arena that has so influenced popular vernacular. He has been likened to Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, but what she did was use the wrong word at the wrong time – what Sheridan did was plot to get the laugh he wanted. With Yogi, he has made us laugh yet he has left us with a profound wisdom, a double take that I get. Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore, it’s too crowded – I get that. If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him, and my favorite, the one that took Yogi into the world of Zen: What time is it? You mean now? I get that. I get all of it, don’t you?

            I contend that we are here today to honor three inductees whose ability to influence the game of baseball is the least of their achievements. In their relative careers, they have not only enhanced the imperfect beauty of the game, but they have also certainly elevated our popular culture and American patrimony. Thus to this group of ardent fans, it is we who are honored to be honoring them. Thank you Jim Brosnan, thank you Bill James, and thank you Yogi Berra. Thank you Terry, Mary, and all the Baseball Reliquary, and let’s play ball. Muchos gracias.


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