Dante and baseball (10/17/03)
[I love baseball. Or more accurately, I love the game as it used to be, before the likes of Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, and the steroid crowd came along to inflict their peculiar brand of horrors on the grand old game. I confess that I have not paid a great deal of attention to baseball in recent years, precisely for that reason; yet my love of the game continues to lurk just below the surface, and I know it would not take much to get me to feel the old magic again. I still exult in my occasional glimpses of it.
With that in mind, I submit this post in anticipation of Opening Day, which is just around the corner. Although slightly edited for purposes of being posted on this blog, the following was originally composed as a mass e-mail sent to co-workers at the Maricopa County Superior Court on October 17, 2003, the day before that year's World Series began, and two days after the infamous Cubs meltdown during their NLCS playoff game against the Florida Marlins, which is mentioned here.]
While I was watching last night's Red Sox-Yankees game with my 14-year-old son, it suddenly occurred to me that if Dante had lived in our time, he might have been an avid baseball fan. True, he was rather dour by nature, and thus, at first blush, it might be a little difficult to imagine him eating a hot dog and drinking a beer in the bleachers at Fenway. For a number of other reasons, however, the notion of Dante as a fan actually makes a good deal of sense.
First of all, he was fixated on the numbers three and nine, and multiples of them. In Vita Nova, for instance, he attaches a great deal of significance to the fact that he met Beatrice when she was entering her ninth year and he was ending his. The Divine Comedy is composed of three canticles -- two with 33 cantos and one with 34, for a total of 100 -- and consists entirely of a succession of three-line verses with a rhyme scheme of ABA BCB CDC, and so on, with very precise syllabification. (The scheme is known as terza rima. If I had a better command of Dante's 14th-century Italian, I might undertake to retell the story of "Casey at the Bat" in terza rima, imagining that Dante might have rendered it in this fashion.) The total of 100 cantos was no coincidence; it signifies the square of three, plus one (to denote the Trinity as three constituting one) with that number (10) in turn being squared. Thus, it is easy to imagine Dante being attracted to a game with nine players on each side, nine innings, three outs, three strikes, etc. In a perfect game, the pitcher faces exactly 27 batters, that number being, of course, a multiple of 9. The bases are precisely 90 feet apart. He would probably not like it that a batter walks on four balls rather than three (or nine), but in all other respects the numerical symmetry of the game would appeal to him.
Moreover, the game itself might be understood as having parallels to the Divine Comedy. The object of the game is, of course, to go home, and thus home plate might be likened to Paradise. The runner faces all manner of hazards in the journey between the batter's box and home plate; and of course, the Comedy is about a hazardous journey to Paradise, by way of Inferno and Purgatory, the former of which is infested by strange and hideous monsters and innumerable hazards and difficulties. When the runner takes signs from the dugout or one of the coaches, the individual flashing the signs thus assumes the role of Virgil, who in the poem guides Dante through Inferno and most of Purgatory, then turns him over to Beatrice. I'm not sure who would be the Beatrice figure in a baseball game; perhaps the home-plate umpire, if the runner makes it there safely. Otherwise, I suppose the home-plate umpire could assume the role of Minos, who, in Inferno, decides into which circle of hell each sinner is to be consigned.
It was perhaps not without significance that A. Bartlett Giamatti, the baseball commissioner whose life and tenure were tragically cut short by a heart attack (he was 51), was a Yale professor and a noted Dante scholar. He wrote a wonderful little book about baseball, titled Take Time for Paradise, which I read a number of years ago, and still have somewhere. If I find the book, I am going to reread it. This book is full of allusions to Dante, which I would appreciate far more today than I did then. And when I get to the afterlife, I plan to look up Mr. Giamatti, who I believe would have been one of the great baseball commissioners -- certainly far better than Bud Selig, whom I regard as one of the lower forms of life -- and perhaps we can discuss Dante while watching a doubleheader together. (Of course, I would imagine Dante himself being present to share the occasion with us.)
And finally, before the start of Wednesday night's game between the Marlins and the Cubs, it would have been altogether fitting if the famous marquee sign at Wrigley Field had flashed to the assembling multitudes these lines, from Canto III of Inferno:
Per me si va ne la citta' dolente,
Per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
. . . Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate.
("Through me the way to the doleful city,
Through me the way to eternal pain,
Through me the way to the people lost. . . .
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.")
I hope this bit of admittedly useless speculation has brightened everyone's Friday, and given you something to ponder as we enter the World Series.
Ciao a tutti voi,