Hope amid failure: Baseball as biography

Closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams celebrates the Phillies' National League pennant in 1993.
Closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams celebrates the Phillies' National League pennant in 1993.

Like life, the game pits individuals against long odds.

Posted: April 08, 2011

By Drew Faust

Hope springs eternal, and spring brings hope eternal - for renewal and rebirth, but also for pennants and championships. "Next year" has come at last, with its sense of infinite possibility.

No wonder we love baseball. It's so congruent with the seasons, rhythms, and aspirations that shape our lives.

My particular path to baseball fandom had some other influences as well. I was first attracted to the game as a child growing up in rural Virginia, 60 miles west of Washington and its legendary - for their unrivaled losing record - Washington Senators. Washington, the saying went, was "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." But the Senators' near-permanent residence in the basement did not dampen my enthusiasm for collecting baseball cards and finding heroes like Harmon Killebrew, an all-star marooned in the team's lackluster lineup.

But after the 1960 season, the Senators, reinvented as the Minnesota Twins, abandoned me for Minneapolis. I became a teenager with new heroes, more likely to be rock stars than athletes. Paul McCartney replaced Harmon Killebrew in my pantheon, and I paid little attention to baseball for the next 30 years.

In the early 1990s, though, I was living in Philadelphia with a 9-year-old daughter who decided to join a softball team - the Wild Bunch, of the city's Fairmont league. To my great pride, she turned out to be a star - a perennial MVP all the way through high school - and I became transfixed not just by the Wild Bunch, but by the game in general. It was a good time and place to become a baseball fan, because the Phillies, who took last place in 1992 - a situation that converged with my childhood experience of fandom - rose to win an improbable pennant the following season.

Meanwhile, I spent completely indefensible amounts of time nervously watching little girls learn the game. I remember one play in which a fielder gloved a grounder and then chased the runner around the entire diamond. Soon I found myself glued to the television as well, checking on Daulton and Dykstra and Eisenreich and Kruk - who, unlike the 9-year-olds, deserved to be called a wild bunch and boasted a closer with control problems known as "Wild Thing."

What about baseball so captivated an academic historian? It was related to my love of history.

One of my favorite research and writing projects was a biography of a South Carolina planter and politician that I published early in my career. It allowed me to see the past through the lens of a human life, and to watch an individual risk, struggle, and sometimes triumph - but, far more often, fail.

That is what I discovered in baseball. It was in those earnest little girls' faces as they stood at the plate. It was in the eyes of Dykstra and Kruk as they batted with the game or even the season on the line. And it was in the expressions of Terry Mulholland and Curt Schilling as they read the catcher's signals, sized up the batters, and decided which weapon in their arsenals would yield a strike or an out. Baseball is a biographer's game: It's about the individual confronting challenge and all-but-unavoidable failure, exposing weakness as well as ambition.

Now I live outside Boston, where I have adjusted to the designated hitter and shared the city's delight at World Series triumph and the end of The Curse. But it wasn't until September that I personally faced the possibility of failure so inherent in the game in which (as is often observed) even Ted Williams succeeded far less than half the time.

I was chosen to throw a first pitch at Fenway, with my now-grown daughter in the stands, as nervous as I used to be when she stepped up to the plate or took the mound. Now, for just one inconsequential but dramatic moment, I was the subject of the story, not the writer or observer.

I hope I write another biography some day. In the meantime, I have baseball.

Drew Faust is president of Harvard University and a former University of Pennsylvania history professor. She got that pitch across the plate.

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