The Devil's Snake Curve offers an alternative American history, in which colonialism, jingoism, capitalism, and faith are represented by baseball. Personal and political, it twines Japanese internment camps with the Yankees; Walmart with the Kansas City Royals; and facial hair patterns with militarism, Guantanamo, and the modern security state. An essay, a miscellany, and a passionate unsettling of Josh Ostergaard's relationship with our national pastime, it allows for both the clover of a childhood outfield and the persistence of the game's service to those in power. America and baseball are both hard to love or leave in this by turns coruscating and heartfelt debut.
Josh Ostergaard holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and an MA in cultural anthropology. He has been an urban anthropologist at the Field Museum and now works at Graywolf Press.
|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Josh Ostergaard: Josh Ostergaard holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and an MA in cultural anthropology. He has been an urban anthropologist at the Field Museum and now works at Graywolf Press.
Read an Excerpt
The Devil's Snake Curve
A Fan's Notes from Left Field
By Josh Ostergaard
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2014 Josh Ostergaard
All rights reserved.
Long Ago, in Kansas
The clover in deep left field was delicious. I crouched for a better look, laid my glove on the thick green grass. My shoe was untied. A cluster of purple flowers gleamed, each blossom a mid-inning snack. I picked the best one—not the biggest, because their nectar has usually dried, but the darkest purple bud. I stood, tucked my glove under my arm, plucked the long purple threads, placed their white stems between my teeth, and pulled. Sweet nectar spread across my tongue. Coach called my name. I looked. The inning was over. My teammates were already in the dugout.
It was the worst part of winter: the dark, dead stretch between the end of the World Series and the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. At eleven years old, it was my season in hell. Days were short and temperatures steadily dropped, nothing to do but throw snowball strikes. But one day was different—in the basement I conjured sunshine.
A few months before, during the hottest part of summer, I had spent my allowance on two blank cassette tapes and stolen my older sister's tape recorder—a black-and-silver machine the size of a shoe. She always taped songs off the radio, like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." We'd lie on the floor of her bedroom and listen. But I had a new plan. The Kansas City Royals played every night in our living room. The announcers kept us company, reciting the details of the games, sharing memories of past seasons. One sweltering evening, recorder in hand, I crept through the living room to our ancient family stereo and turned up the volume on the game. I placed the machine next to a speaker and pushed Record. The tape rolled slowly forward. I left the room to light the grill and ignored the game, hoping to remain ignorant of the score. I returned only to flip the tape.
Now it was winter, and even on a rare sunny day the light in Kansas was dim and thin, like air breathed through a heavy scarf. It was bitterly cold, and dirty snow was piled high on the edge of everyone's driveway. My older sister was busy with band practice, and my younger sister was busy reading Lord of the Flies. I could not take one more day of winter. I dug the tape from the nest of junk that was my bedroom, stole my sister's tape player, and darted down to our unfinished basement. It was dark, cold, and I was alone. Spring would never come. I settled in a corner, under a blanket, near a heat vent. I pushed play, the wheels turned slowly, and I heard announcer Denny Matthews say, "We'll be back in a few minutes with the lineup for today's game against the White Sox."
I sat and listened, and though I could hear the wind moaning outside our house as it whipped the branches of our giant cottonwood trees, the basement seemed to fill with sunlight and warmth. I listened to the announcers banter back and forth and call the play-by-play, and suddenly it was a hot July day, the peak of summer, with months still left in the baseball season. It was staying light until nine, the Kansas City Royals had hopes of winning, cared about winning, tried to win. In the emptiness of winter it seemed possible as I listened to Bret Saberhagen, Bo Jackson, Kevin Seitzer, and George Brett keep the Royals aloft in the league standings.
On my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I looked for the plaque awarded to Royals legend George Brett. While I was growing up in Royals country, Brett was one of the best players in the nation, keeping us in contention year after year, and he is the only player inducted wearing a Royals uniform. But his career is more than just a smattering of memories—it's a reminder of what became of the Royals after he retired. They lost 100 games in 2002, and in the year of this visit, 2004, they were on their way to losing 104.
Bronze plaques lined the wood-paneled walls. I did not see George Brett. I was surrounded by Yankees: Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and on and on, everywhere I looked. The Royals' rivalry with the Yankees—my rivalry with the Yankees—bloomed in the late seventies and eighties, when the Royals fielded contending teams and actually beat them in the playoffs. Years later, disgust for the Yankees lingered in the Kansas City air like a stench from a rendering plant. As I stood in the Hall of Fame, I looked at the Yankees enshrined on the wall and felt anger zipping along the nerves in my arms and legs.
And then I found Brett's plaque:
Played each game with ceaseless intensity and unbridled passion.... Hit .390 in 1980 MVP season and led Royals to first World Series title in 1985.... A clutch hitter whose profound respect for the game led to universal reverence
The next season, 2005, the Royals lost 106 games, and in 2006 they lost an even 100. Reading Brett's plaque and seeing it there with the other greats was a balm, and though it reminded me that Kansas City has a disadvantage by dint of geography and economics, it also proved that the system once allowed Podunk teams to compete.
Many baseball stories are about fathers and sons. This one is not, though it could have been. When I was a kid, my dad and I saw the Athletics, Dodgers, Padres, Twins, Cardinals, Mets, Royals, Cubs, White Sox, and Blue Jays play in their home stadiums. As father and son, we watched Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. play together in the Kingdome.
Every summer, my dad and I played catch in our backyard. When he was out of town, my mom wore his glove. We created our perfect little world and there is no downside to that story. They went to my little-league games and encouraged me when I struck out. My dad and I collected baseball cards, and he let me open his half of our shared box of 1987 Fleer. He even let me inscribe the value of the cards on their back side with a ballpoint pen, defacing the likes of Will Clark and Bobby Bonilla.
I could write much more about the side of baseball, and America, these stories represent. I've lived it. It's wonderful. The experiences my family and I had together through baseball were a magical part of my life as a kid. But as an adult, they turn my stomach sour. They don't reflect the world I live within and choose to see. The old way of seeing feels saccharine, though I realize it's more my feeling than hard fact.
I used to think baseball was a game of certainties. The pitcher and batter did their gritty work, and the blurred ball thudded into the catcher's mitt or bounced off the right field fence. The official scorekeeper recorded precisely what happened. Every pitch was tabulated, digested, and put to use in understanding what might come next. The hit-and-run. A double steal. A grand slam on a 2 and 0 count. The game was a controlled space of its own. Its boundaries were clear: foul lines, baselines, backstop, outfield walls, strike, ball, out, walk. A defined physical space where players played, and seemed to do what they wanted even as they followed rules. A space outside of time. There was no clock. The final inning could last an hour, or five minutes. The game was predictable, yet it birthed infinite stories about what happened in the past or could happen next. Even within these variations, it felt comforting to see the same pattern, game after game. It felt comforting to sing along before the first pitch with my hand over my heart and my eyes on our flag. It felt comforting to stand and stretch during the seventh inning, and sing again. It felt comforting to go to the ballpark and escape life for a while.
One of the great things about baseball is the breaks built into its flow. Three strikes are an out, pause. Four balls are a walk, pause. Every inning is split in half. Some innings are short, some are long, some are exciting, some are boring, but there is always an interlude. If the game is good, each pitch, each wipe of the brow between pitches, has drama and suspense. If not, there is time to let your mind wander while sitting in the bleachers.
Baseball rewards inattention. I eat a hot dog or two and drink a beer or two, and overhear snippets of lively conversation. The suburban couple in the row behind me have left their Doberman and their kitten home alone together. Will Kitty survive the game? I see a colleague in the next section, and wave, only to panic because I have just been caught faking a sick day. But so has she, and I relax and finish my third hot dog and enjoy the freedom of throwing the wrapper to the ground.
I can eat six hot dogs in nine innings.
There's time to sing and stretch during the seventh: Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and in some stadiums, God Bless America. The next inning begins. The game can change at any moment. What began as a pitchers' duel may end with a home run. This book is like a day at the ballpark. Its stories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history. Each of us should be an umpire.
He'll Save Children, But Not the British Children
George Washington had rotten teeth and wore a wig atop his natural hair. At the time of his death, the United States was twenty-three years old and ready to have its way with the world. The sport of baseball was little more than a homunculus lodged in the brains of cricket-weary Revolutionary War veterans.
Two hundred thirty-one years after our nation's founding, a company that specializes in making children's toys purchased three strands of Washington's hair. Corporate executives had the hairs embedded, one by one, into baseball cards. Alongside Ryan Braun or Josh Hamilton, a lucky boy or girl might find a card bearing the likeness of our dear leader, and the words: "This card contains an authentic hair of George Washington, first collected by his adopted daughter Eleanor Parke Custis."
Lest we believe George Washington's follicular trinity bestowed moral authority to the sport of baseball, it is wise to remember our first president as poet Dobby Gibson has:
This and the fact that George Washington's dentures weren't made of wood they were constructed from his slaves' teeth.
A man named Henry Chadwick is credited with inventing an improved baseball box score. He modified the system used by the English and their colonies to monitor cricket scores and statistics. The 1850s were the beginning of attempts to tabulate, in statistical form, what happened during baseball games. The accumulation of data. The hope of improvement. Science. Precision. Control.
Scorecards allowed the fans to participate in the game, and were first printed and made available to baseball throngs during the 1870s. One of the most vibrant of baseball's early entrepreneurs, Harry M. Stevens, helped popularize the use of scorecards among fans a decade later. As he hawked the cards, Stevens attracted attention in the grandstands by wearing a silk hat and a red coat while loudly reciting Shakespeare.
But statistics beg for subversion. Mark Twain served as an umpire for a baseball game in Elmira, New York, in 1887 between the Unions and the Alerts. Twain didn't suffer from nostalgia. Insanity, maybe. Vision, definitely. He had a knack for the absurd.
The teams were made up of local businessmen and politicians. The mayor pitched for the Unions, and the Alerts had the county judge in centerfield. Bankers, telephone company staffers, lumber executives, and other "leading citizens" filled out the lineups for both sides. It was a friendly match, and umpires were chosen by the teams. The Unions hired Reverend Thomas K. Beecher. Nobody invited Mark Twain, but he showed up anyway and demanded to be made a general umpire.
As the game progressed, Twain imposed his own commandments:
Any ball is a strike that passes within eight feet of the plate on either side of it.
To wait for good balls causes delay and public dissatisfaction and is not going to be allowed on this occasion. The batsman will strike at everything that comes, whether he can reach it or not. In waiting intervals, pecking at the plate with the bat to see if it is there will not be allowed. The batsman is denied all professional affectations; he must stand up straight and attend strictly to business.
The pitcher must not wipe the ball on his pants; neither must he keep inspecting it and squirming and twisting it and trying to rub the skin off it with his hands. He must not keep the public waiting while he makes allusory feints at reputable parties or first or second base. All these foolings delay the game and dull the excitement.
It was still only the first inning, and Twain's umpiring quickly grew more bizarre. He was irreverent. Rightly and blissfully so. The crowd and the teams turned on him when his proclamations skittered beyond reason.
No more than fifteen men at a time will be allowed to leave their places to chase a foul or a fly or a bluebottle, and prevent the capture of it. The catcher will keep his nose out of the batsman's pocket and stand fair. Cripples will be removed from the field at once and substitutes put into their places. No public rubbings and rollings and restorings will be allowed. They cause delay. Presentation speeches by dumb people not permitted. Persons arriving at bases on their stomachs do not score. Parties who guy the umpire will be killed.
After making these demands, Twain declared the Alerts' inning was over, and an argument ensued among players and spectators that lasted over a half hour. Twain finally allowed Reverend Beecher to take his place as umpire the next inning, and when the game resumed, the "Unions scored sixty-four home runs in succession."
When a reporter later visited Twain at home, the famous author said he preferred theology to baseball and would allow younger men to umpire in the future. A week later the paper reported anew on Twain's umpiring:
Realizing he was taking his life in his hands when he began to umpire a game at Elmira, he took with him also a dangerous-looking package which he carefully deposited near his post of duty. Before the game began he blandly informed the audience that he didn't propose to be mobbed by the aristocracy of Elmira, or any equally disreputable assemblage, and that he had written his obituary the night before. The mysterious package, he said, contained dynamite, and when his decisions gave dissatisfaction he coolly placed one foot upon it and the hubbub immediately ceased. To carry out his threat Mark Twain would have had to go up with the others in the explosion, but he was fully as anxious to go as anybody on the field.
It was early July, the best time to live in Chicago, and I was on a kickball team for adults called the Blackout Brigade. We played in a park in the north central part of the city on public diamonds after the kids were gone. The hour before sunset, the light was pink and gold. Our team arrived, one by one, some on foot, some in cars, most on bikes. We laughed and wondered whether we would score any runs that night. A duffel bag was unzipped, hands reached for cold cans of Old Style. A bottle of Jameson appeared.
The other team wore short yellow shorts and tight green shirts, did calisthenics, and blasted the Rolling Stones through a small, staticky, battery-operated tape deck. They had their own ball, and used it to run drills. They wanted to win. Two shabby men were drawn in by the music. The Rolling Stones are chum for burned-out ex-hippies. They stopped and slipped their fingers through the chain-link fence. They leaned in to watch, and stayed the whole game.
Our pitcher rolled wide of home plate. Smoke had forced him to close his eyes, a cigarette dangled from his lips. By day he was an engineer for a steel mill south of the city. Another roll, and the batter kicked the ball to our third baseman, who had not been looking, so it toppled the can of beer at her feet. Two runs scored. The other team was serious. They stretched doubles into triples. They had the lead. It grew and grew and grew. They tried, we laughed.
Not long after Mark Twain's turn as an umpire, a pitcher named Pud Galvin, whose face was bejeweled with a mustache more luxuriant than the emperor tamarin's, put his faith in science and delivered into his blood a potion made from the testicles of critters such as guinea pigs, monkeys, dogs, and sheep. The neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown Séquard invented the potion, which seemed to be able to restore vigor to men whose vim had withered. On August 12, 1889, Pud Galvin received his injection, and the next day pitched a 9–0 shutout over Boston. In his long career, Galvin won 361 games and lost 308. He was later elected to the Hall of Fame, despite his use of testicular elixirs.
Excerpted from The Devil's Snake Curve by Josh Ostergaard. Copyright © 2014 Josh Ostergaard. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
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