I confess I’m not a sports fan. The spectacle of muscular males smashing into each other has never had much appeal and I certainly can’t wrap my head around statistics. But I feel baseball. I feel the weight of the bat, the arc of a pitch, the dust in the eyes and the lungs of a player as he slides into third.
I come by it honestly: my grandfather was the treasurer for the Boston Red Sox. In the attic of my childhood home was a shoebox full of yellowing baseballs signed by the likes of Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. The soundtrack of my youth was the sound of a summer afternoon game on the radio—a soothing counterpoint to world weariness, cynicism, and a dysfunctional family.
Baseball has always made me feel both sad and safe, and Peterborough author Andrew Forbes has written a book about that. He writes, “The Utility of Boredom is a book about finding respite and comfort in the order, traditions, and rituals of baseball.” As George Carlin pointed out, the object of baseball is to go home.
The Utility of Boredom isn’t just for jocks. Forbes writes lovingly and philosophically about the culture of baseball. That satisfying crack of a bat; the flat, husky twang of the broadcaster (man on first … ball one … aaaaaannnnd it’s a high fly to centre field); the sudden rustle and swell of the crowd. Forbes understands this perfectly when he writes “this was baseball as devised by Tom Stoppard. It was boring and beautiful, and radio was the perfect medium to convey it, allowing me to futz absentmindedly around the house.”
He takes the reader on reverent but authentic tours of “The Ballparks of America”—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium—replete with the fulsome historical romance of mid-century America, notwithstanding the false notes of the segregated Negro League and “the stranglehold on the conversation surrounding the game held by a small group of likeminded white men.”
“Ballparks are host to something so spiritually, aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating as to elevate them, whatever their architectural shortcomings,” Forbes writes. “They, by dint of the proceedings they host, are redolent of beauty.”
He points to the visuals, like the classic font used on a stolen pack of baseball cards (“The 163 Games of José Oquendo”), and collects baseball caps from now extinct teams, like the St. Louis Browns or the Habana Leones. He gets the ballet, the poetry, the sacred architecture (“impeccable green diamonds situated in the midst of post-industrial cities of glass and concrete and soured hope”), and the lingo (“it sounds like fresh-cut grass smells”), ripe with delicious solemnity and corn as high as an elephant’s eye.
“Pitchers are touched in some way,” he tells us. With a style that has an easy gait, he discusses the role of pitchers as alchemists, curators, high priests of precarity, and the heartbreak of lesser-known heroes and hopefuls. “The unraveling was long and gradual and came very quickly to seem final. But when he was on Romero was something: a four-seamer that could touch 95 mph and a changeup that worked when the fastball was sharp, making hitters look off-balance and goofy.”
Forbes is generous with his in-depth knowledge of the game and its history—enough to satisfy any baseball fanatic—yet he remains an engaging storyteller.
Discovering this gem of a book also uncovered a rich vein of culture in its small, excellent publishing house, Invisible Publishing, which answers the question, how do you bring a small press into a world that seems hellbent on eliminating print? Their books are chosen and designed with the same degree of refinement as Coach House Books or BookThug.
As in his previous book of short fiction, What You Need, Forbes’ essays unfold spring-loaded or in slow-motion. “Up on the north side at Wrigley they got the game in without a delay, but it was soupy,” he writes. He can tell a whole story in an opening sentence that leaves me cheering in the stands.
Forbes understands that baseball is retro even in its promise. “What we’re dealing with here is the longing for a feeling we’ve glimpsed or known before, a pastoral contentment wrapped up in a sense of community, as well as that slippery notion of authenticity—the desire for something real and honest and unstaged, unsullied by irony or commerce,” he writes. “The heart aches sweetly for things long lost and never to return.”
Sportswriter Roger Angell called baseball a way to defeat time. So grab a beer. Sit on a porch. Put your feet up. Listen to a ball game on the radio. Or read The Utility of Boredom cover to cover. As Andrew Forbes says, “Boredom is fertile.” Rest assured, The Utility of Boredom is far from boring. It’s a book to savour, like summer.
Come to the hometown launch of Andrew Forbes’ The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays this Friday, April 22 at the Garnet (more info).
Book cover © Invisible Publishing, used with permission. Author photo © Alice Winchester 2015.