Writing About Baseball Heaven: 'Elysian Fields' On opening day of Major League Baseball's season, host John Ydstie shares his own childhood memories of the game and finds out why baseball has generated so much more literature than other sports. He interviews Tom Goldstein, editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly, a journal of baseball literature.
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Writing About Baseball Heaven: 'Elysian Fields'

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Writing About Baseball Heaven: 'Elysian Fields'

Writing About Baseball Heaven: 'Elysian Fields'

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

It's an opening day White Sox fans have been longing for. Tonight, for the first time in almost a century, their team takes the field as the reigning champions, the 2005 World Series banner fluttering overhead. Finally, the past has stopped haunting the White Sox.

Baseball is a game where the past is almost as vivid as the present. For me, opening day brings back memories of the first major league game I ever saw. It was a summer back in the mid-1960s. My family packed into our powder blue Mercury Comet and drove 1,500 miles from our tiny North Dakota town to the nation's capital.

My Aunt Evie, Uncle Lorne and their kids lived there, and one steamy Washington evening they took us to the ballpark to watch the old Washington Senators play the Minnesota Twins. Our seats were right behind home plate. I didn't realize at the time just how special those seats were. Back home, at the modest ball fields and in the small gyms, there were no nosebleed seats. Everyone sat a couple rows from the action. On the mound that night was the Twin's ace, Camilo Pasquale. He had a great fastball, but his wicked curve was his signature pitch. From our seats, we had an idea of what a major league hitter sees. The ball sped toward the plate, then dropped like it was falling off a table as it passed through the strike zone. The stout Twin slugger, Harmon Killebrew, hit a home run that night. It arced high through the misty outfield and disappeared into the stands.

There are countless stories like mine, baseball reveries sweetened by time. Tom Goldstein sees plenty of them, he's the editor and publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly, a journal of baseball literature. He joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public radio in St. Paul. Welcome.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Editor and Publisher, Elysian Fields Quarterly): Hi, How are you?

YDSTIE: I'm well, thank you. You know, it occurs to me that there isn't much literature about football or hockey or basketball. Whey are people compelled to write about baseball?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: You know, that's an age-old question that I get asked a lot and I think the reason is that sort of the movements that baseball stimulates, when you go to a game, it's basically kind of a reverie in itself. It takes two and half, three hours, there are all these long pauses. You tend to drift off and it just makes connections that the other sports don't, it doesn't really happen because the action is before you and if you look away, you're likely to miss an important basket or a goal and not the same in baseball, that you might look away and you hear the crack of the bat and you turn back to watch the ball, you know, flying out into left field and the left fielder racing back. And so there's these constant coming forward and back and this ebb and flow.

YDSTIE: Yeah, you know, the other thing that occurs to me is that you also have time to talk so the people around you matter. So the memories of these relationships are intertwined with the game.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: It is for me.

YDSTIE: Give us a sample of the kind of thing that folks might find in your quarterly journal.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: You know, the variety is amazing. Take the current issue, there's stories about a man whose wife has a better fastball than he does and then a wonderful story about the last home run ever hit in Ebbets field in Brooklyn, which was not during a major league game, but was in a city high school championship game.

YDSTIE: Could you read for us some examples from the magazine?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: I think the first I'll start with is a poem that's appropriate for opening day. And this is called Another April Will Come by Gene Fehler, who hails from South Carolina.

(reading poem) April is a beginning, my dad used to tell me, teams finally up north from spring training, settling in on Opening Day in one of the fourteen ballparks. Now there is no beginning, he says, only a bleeding of one sport into another. I try to recapture it, but it's dying, he says, just like I am, and I move closer to him, reach for his hand, limp on the hospital sheet. His thin fingers seem fragile, almost delicate. It hasn't been that long ago that those fingers inside his old, beaten-up catcher's mitt caught my fastest pitch with ease. Not that long ago his fingers tossed the ball back to me straight and true. April is a beginning, he used to say, and on this afternoon in late March I wonder how much time he has, how much time we both have. I know Opening Day is a little over a week away. I know how much it will mean to him to look up at that now dark screen and see that first pitch one last time, even though it will come from someone who hadn't even been born yet when Don Larsen pitched that perfect game Dad told me about so many times, and I lean over and say, Hang in there, Dad. Hang tough. April is almost here.

YDSTIE: What a lovely, lovely poem.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Isn't that wonderful?

YDSTIE: Really wonderful.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: And it's true, there are really no beginnings any more. I mean opening day this year essentially falls right in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament, which probably eclipsed, certainly eclipsed opening day as a sporting event.

YDSTIE: I think so, yeah. You've got some other things to read for us?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: I do. I'm gonna read a short excerpt of a fiction piece. This is by Tom Snee and the title of the piece is called How I Began My Career in Real Estate, and he lives in Iowa City, Iowa. And this is a batter who is in his final at bat in the minor leagues and his career is over and it's the last pitch. And he's looking at the pitcher and he says...

(Reading) The genetic mutant is another two inches taller and is in his wind up now. He's going to strike me out, get me to reach for another one of those wicked curves like a drunk reaches for another gin and tonic during the free bar at a wedding reception. He can do that. He's better than I am. I can admit that now. I don't need to artificially inflate my ego anymore with positive reinforcement so as to advance my career, because my career is over in a few seconds. I suck. I know that. Why prolong the agony, just strike me out so I can get on with my life. It's a curveball.

I can tell by the spin and the tumble and by it's direction. I can see it's headed for the low outside part of the plate and as the ball descends from the high point of it's parabola, the routine begins. My weight shifts and my arms start forward even though I know it will be a curveball low and away and I tell myself, don't swing, don't do it. And even though I am screaming at myself, don't swing, it's a curveball low and away, my grip involuntarily tightens and the bat moves forward towards the ball that's diving across my body to a landing point well outside the strike zone. I expect once again the smooth, easy swing of a bat meeting no resistance. No buzzing in my palms, no thwack echoing in my ears. Only the voice of the ump yelling, strike three, and the long final march back to the dugout.

But this time, the bat struggles through the swing, like it has met resistance, like it has actually hit something. My palms go numb from impact and I watch the ball fly farther and farther away, rising higher as it goes, getting smaller and smaller until it looks like a shooting star darting across the darkening sky and the right fielder runs futilely after it, not giving up until the ball disappears behind an ad on that outfield wall that proclaims, Slam and Sammy Boyd, your number one ReMax Real Estate Agent.

YDSTIE: That is terrific. One more thing before we let you go. Your journal is called Elysian Fields Quarterly. Remind us why.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1846 is the place where the modern game of baseball is said to develop and it was on the grounds called the Elysian Fields where the New York rules prevailed and two teams played in what is very equivalent to the modern game.

YDSTIE: And of course in Greek Mythology, Elysian Fields is paradise.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

YDSTIE: Tom Goldstein is Editor and Publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

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