Baseball and Ballet: A Debate

I wrote this poem when I was 15 or 16. It was inspired, if that's the right word, by Bob White, a Press-Gazette reporter who was an ardent baseball fan. Bob was always comparing baseball to ballet and this poem was my reply to that attitude.


Baseball is ballet. The pitcher
with his clean motion, kicking high,
his arm whipping cleanly,
his whole body thrusting gracefully forward,
the quick white dart of the ball,
its clean flight, the perfect arc of the swing,
the clean crack, the ball poised motionless
for a breathless instant we can't comprehend
before turning.
The grace of the shortstop,
prima ballerina, meeting the ball
at precisely the perfect point
of interception. His flawless hands
cleanly come up with it, cleanly
make the throw.
The second baseman,
timing perfect, pirouettes, steps aside,
avoids the runner.
The first baseman,
in an impossible stretch, makes his body
longer than possible. We strain our muscles
in sympathy as he cleanly seizes the dart.
The umpire's pose, classic, feet slightly parted,
anchored, his right arm bent sharp at the elbow,
a clean angle sharply seen against green grass,
a clean streak of white next to him, marking
the exact line between fair and foul.
His thumb is pointing. A good call.
Double play. And we applaud, happy,
relaxing again, all tension relieved
by such grace, such perfection.

If Nijinsky had been born in America,
he would have become a shortstop.


If we liked baseball because it is ballet,
we would watch the games under shelter,
where the sun wouldn't blind those of us in the bleachers,
where clouds couldn't threaten.
It isn't the grace, the perfection, that draws us.
It is the struggle. By the seventh inning
the white lines are gone, kicked to pieces.
Tempers are short, no call an umpire makes is correct.
Everyone argues. The shortstop by then
has dirty fingernails. His knuckles
are swollen forever, his fingers bent
by old injuries, old struggles.
Errorless baseball is dull baseball.
We like to see the enemy shortstop bobble,
make a bad throw, curse himself, kicking at dirt.
We like to see the enemy pitcher sweating and straining,
his lips pulled back from his teeth in an ugly grimace.
He grows tired. The others are tired, too.
Dirt sticks to sweat on their uniforms.
They wish it were over, wish they were home,
this struggle ended. They are here, at our mercy,
because we paid for our tickets.
It comes down to this: Baseball
is nothing but errors. Every strike
is an error by the batter, every ball
an error by the pitcher. If the batter makes an out,
he misjudged the flight of the pitch, swung wrongly.
If he hits it, as you would say, cleanly,
the pitcher has erred.
It comes down to this: An error on every pitch,
And so we applaud and are happy.
We applaud blunders. Blunders relieve us
because we have blundered so often
but never so publicly.

If ballet were like baseball,
the prima ballerina would, occasionally,
fall into the orchestra pit and we would applaud.