From Busch to Beinecke

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// WEEKEND

On Wednesday evening my beat reporting brought me to a lecture at the Beinecke in which Professor David Kastan, a renowned scholar and my Shakespeare professor this semester, introduced a guest lecturer in book history. Kastan joked about to what titan of another field he might compare the distinguished guest, suggesting that we might dub him the David Ortiz of literary analysis. The tweed-clad members of the audience laughed — how preposterous to compare a prominent scholar in the distinguished field of book history to the lumbering slugger at whose brute force they cheered from barstools last week.

I laughed, too, but for a different reason. Ortiz is a powerful player, preferring homers to the meticulous turning of a double play. The joke thus insinuated that the visiting lecturer is not a fastidious scholar but perhaps a manufacturer of popular essays on book history — it’s like calling the lecturer the Dan Brown of literary analysis.

Having spent eight of my childhood summers learning to play baseball, the game of symmetries, I see little methodological difference between crafting a sonnet and crafting a proper swing.

During weeklong hitting intensives in a kids’ baseball program in rural New Hampshire, the few dozen players — of whom nearly all were boys, mostly locals and under the age of thirteen — spent hours practicing just the stride a batter executes before he swings.

I remember standing with my feet in a wooden frame marked with metrics, meticulously lifting up one foot and placing it down an inch further to the left before replacing it and repeating the careful motion again and again. A hitter’s stride has to be short, soft, slow and straight — a careful alliteration that my coach, a retired college English professor, had us recite in unison.

During hitting intensives, dozens of wooden frames lined the baseball diamond, each occupied by a sedulous young ballplayer practicing his stride without a pitch coming, without a swing, without so much as a hint at a hip rotation: simply by moving his striding toe back and forth to the correct inch markers on the wooden frame.

The stride practice was only a small component of hitting week, only a subchapter in the 80-page manual our coach wrote for us and had us dissect. I imagine it was the same kind of work he assigned as a professor, asking for a careful reading of canonical texts in preparation for a senior thesis.

As I sat through the lecture at the Beinecke, surrounded in white marble and with a Gutenberg Bible in my line of vision, I wondered: must a practice be shrouded in erudition for us to recognize the craft in it? Are the ballfield and the Beinecke really so different?

In a way, it’s the same question that arises in these inane national debates on why studying the humanities matters. Careful, analytical thinking is the impetus of human progress, valuable independent of the content to which it is applied. Just as Chaucer executes symmetries and surprises us with his masterful manipulation of form, so does Mariano Rivera — albeit on a different kind of field.

I’ll forgive my professor for mocking David Ortiz as unworthy of comparison to a distinguished scholar, but that’s only because Ortiz’s footwork at first base is questionable at best; if the comparison were to the technically exquisite Rivera, we’d have a problem.

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