There are two ways to hit a baseball. One is to put it where you want it; the other is to put it where it wants to go.
Babe Ruth, the story goes, could put it where he wanted it. He stepped to the plate, pointed to the left field bleachers, and dropped the ball there, like a child tossing a penny into a jar of water at a county fair. Perhaps the ball had ideas of its own—angle and spin—but Ruth was persuasive. The crowd gasped. Ruth rounded the bases smoking a cigarette, then ate two hotdogs in the dugout.
Most successful hitters listen to the ball, though. They collaborate with it. They find out where it will go, and they put it there. Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, the late Tony Gwynn—productive hitters know how to use what the ball brings with it.
You’re muscling it, I’ll tell my students sometimes. You had the idea when you stepped in that you wanted to knock the ball off the right field foul pole, and so you are attending to that pole and not the ball. You are trying to impose your will. That pole is distant and bright. It is an abstraction, no more real to you than someone else’s money. The ball is a spinning world, and it is coming for you, and you are looking past it. That’s why you hit a dribbler back to the pitcher. That’s why you swung out of your shoes.
This is the secret of writing and hitting: neither is a solo act. Each is collaborative. And your collaborator is powerful, willful, sometimes wily and capricious. Your collaborator may come in at your eyes, looking bigger than a grapefruit. How not to swing, even though you know you cannot reach it? Or it may fall as though through a hole in the air, leaving you leaning, frozen, as it sails sweetly past. Like the poet, the hitter responds. Like the successful hitter, the successful poet is patient, is quiet, attends.
When I was ten I played baseball with a boy named Billy Pekarski. Billy was taller than any other boy on the team, and heavier perhaps by half. The aluminum bat looked like a butter knife in his fists. When Billy got ahold of the ball, it would clear the far fence, the road beyond, the ditch beyond that, and it would land in the patch of woods that marked the line where the forest and our little town had called a truce. Every third game, Billy would park two. The rest of the time, he struck out. He struck out spectacularly, with a grunting effort, torquing a couple foul balls into the chain link backstop before his final swing twisted him to one knee in the dirt beside the batter’s box. What he wanted more than anything, I think—even more than the feeling in his own arms of the true strike of bat to ball—was the look of awe on the faces of the other boys as the ball rolled to a stop among the ferns and he galumphed around second and third.
For Billy to hit a home run, the ball had to be willing to go the only place he ever tried to put it. But most baseballs, like most subjects for art, will not submit so easily. They are powerful: they have mass, angle, velocity, spin. They want to have a say, and nothing exciting happens if you don’t give them one. To pretend that a baseball or a subject—or for that matter, any lover—is merely passive, merely to be acted upon, it to reduce yourself to a lunging, flailing strikeout.
We tend to mistake power for mastery. Part of us resents the hitters who work with the ball. We call them slap hitters, suggesting that they lack the kind of physical authority—the kind of power—we admire in others and long for in ourselves. The ability to put any pitch into the deep empty bleachers, into the endless highlight loop of overnight sports television. Major League Baseball’s All-Star weekend does not include a singles derby, a doubles-to-the-gap derby, a clean bunt derby. It’s a home run derby, and the pitches are fat and sweet. We tune in to watch ball after ball launched into the hot night, disappearing into our far dream of effortless perfection, numbing us.
Or we don’t tune in, preferring instead to watch the neighbor chop wood. We’ll know who hit in the derby, anyway—all those big swings at fat, sweet pitches can scramble their timing. Suddenly, the commentators tell us, they’re crossed up, they’re scuffling, they’re going back to the drawing board. They’re thinking too much, trying too hard. And their season will have culminated halfway through, with a baseball rattling the empty seats beyond center field, the announcer saying, just one more.
Shane Seely is the author of two books of poems: The Surface of the Lit World, winner of the 2014 Hollis Summers Prize from Ohio University Press, and The Snowbound House, winner of the 2008 Philip Levine Prize, published by Anhinga Press. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.