The Tao of Crash

“I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones…but the only church that truly feeds the soul day in, day out is The Church of Baseball.”

From the eerie Southern gospel wailing that pierces the darkness before its beginning, to the unimaginably fulfilling joy found by its protagonist in the “afterlife” that he feared, Bull Durham is filled with references to baseball as religion.

Annie’s shrine

Annie’s devotion to her “church” is more than mere lip-service; she has set up an impressive shrine in her house where memorabilia from Thurman Munson to Fred Merkle is shown in the flickering light of dozens of candles.  The void created by her “rejection of most Judeo-Christian ethics” is filled instead with the canon:  “I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, unless he had a lot of RBI’s or was a great glove man up the middle.”  The real reason she sleeps with them, though, is the same reason many young men (and women) enter the seminary – her own sense of purpose comes from shepherding those naive young boys, reading poetry to them, giving them the spiritual fortitude they’ll need to make it in this great big world.  She is almost like an evangelist – enthusiastic, eager to proselytize, but projecting an image of herself that, when stripped away, reveals a much less confident, less profound core.

A Parable

The real apostle is journeyman minor league catcher Crash Davis, one of the most interesting characters in the history of fiction.  He too is very human, very flawed, and yet how many of us would “give our left nut” to be like him?  Even his peers quietly idolize him – the man who “was in The Show for 21 days once.”  Fans idolize what he represents – the old-school craftsman who reads “Baseball America” on the bus, who remembers a particular pitch thrown by a particular pitcher in a meaningless Texas League game five years earlier, who picks up a cardboard tube out of the trash can on an empty street corner just to feel the grip in his hands and to look at his swing in the reflection on a storefront window.  Crash reveres only the game itself, and the holy land of The Show.

What can we learn from Crash Davis?  Should we carry around a baseball to help prevent fights?  Should we, on occasion, howl at the moon?  The most important message is that of taking pride in oneself.  All day, every day, in everything you do.  I think this is the reason why people feel the need to believe in some higher power watching over us, taking notes, judging us, keeping karma in balance.  Do you do things the right way even when no one is watching?  (I don’t; I’ll be the first one to slack off and cut corners if I can get away with it.)  Crash’s whole career essentially occurred with no one watching.  Sure, there were a few hundred, sometimes a few thousand, people in the stands each night.  But they forgot the details of the game before they even got back home.  It doesn’t matter to Crash; he knows what he’s done.  He went to Asheville only for a few more at-bats to break the all-time homerun record.  When he broke it, nobody noticed.

This romance, the idea of the “flower born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air,” is at the very heart of minor league baseball.  In a game where failure is so frequent, and perfection unattainable, Nuke LaLoosh is likely the only member of the Bulls who will go on to have a successful major league career.  For the rest of them, their dreams will die in the manager’s office one day when “the organization decides to make a change.”  Crash may be the only one who understands this, and he has spent quite a bit of time pondering that razor-thin difference between glory and inadequacy.  Drunk, he tries to explain it to Nuke, but the closest he can get is “one more dying quail a week, and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”  Crash can feel the weight of his own career feebly falling farther down the ladder away from The Show, but in the manner of a true blue-collar professional, he continues to work and hone his craft and help the team win.

There is romance even in such honest pursuit of mediocrity.  In my wandering-in-the-wilderness period, after I dropped out of college but before I joined the Air Force, I worked the night shift at a newspaper.  Every night, the workers would arrive for another eight hours in the loud hum of the machinery, the grimy scent of the ink, and the maddening glow of the big overhead lights hanging from the high ceiling, piercing nature’s peaceful night.  They were eager, energetic immigrants, they were kids my age just getting a glimpse of the cold realities of life and maybe wishing we had paid a little more attention in school, and then the bulk of them were career workers.  They had been living this nocturnal life for decades; many had been smoking just as long and had the constant heavy cough to prove it.  Yet I’ll never forget the tremendous air of dignity that seemed to emanate from this unglamorous crew.  The longest-tenured among them was a gray-bearded man named Jeff, who would come out for a cigarette every night at the beginning of the shift, sigh, and observe “Well, another night.”  He would then proceed to stack and bundle and box the papers, and load them onto the trucks, always taking great care to lay them all face-up and to count the proper number because for some reason he took great pride in this pedestrian job.  He reminded me of someone; soon after I got fired I realized it was Crash Davis.

The Sage Dispenses Enlightenment

 Annie labeled Crash as a romantic after he got ejected for calling an ump a “coc—–er,” (which was shortly after he attempted to woo her with a note that said bluntly “let’s f—” – even the notoriously slutty Millie was embarrassed by the crudeness of it) but he is nevertheless a romantic in every classical sense of the word.  Annie realizes it the first time she meets him, when he rejects her silly babble about how “nobody on this planet really chooses each other, it’s all just quantum physics and pheromones….”  She was used to “boys” like Nuke eating up her every word.  But Crash is older, different, he actually has his own stash of world-wisdom and so his response – “I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart” shocks her.  Hoping to regain control of the situation, she asks Crash what he does believe in.  This sets him up for the monologue that defines the raw, indelicate romance of his character, the type of extemporaneous rant that I wish I could pull out of my hat at a moment’s notice.  “I believe in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curveball, high-fiver, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.  I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing astroturf and the designated hitter.  I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.  Good night.”

Because he’s so much more familiar with the inner circle of the “church” than Annie is, Crash understands its rituals and sacraments more completely.  Annie’s instructions to Nuke (to wear her garters on the mound and to breathe through his eyelids) are supposed to draw energy from the isolated regions of his mind and summon ancient Aztec spirits or something, but she knows it’s ridiculous.  Crash knows too, of course, but he encourages Nuke to keep believing in it.  (“Don’t think,” he commands Nuke at their first meeting, “it can only hurt the ballclub.”)  Crash doesn’t really believe in Jose’s weird voodoo superstitions either.  But he has him touch his bat with the bones anyway, because Crash knows the essence of all religions is not the literal truth of their dogma – they are all pretty ridiculous.  The point is just to believe in something.  “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you ARE!”  (He was right, of course – Jose made three errors with his “cursed” glove.)  The multitude of whacky superstitions exists because there is no hard and fast doctrine in baseball.  There is no ready answer for breaking out of a slump, and the “church” doesn’t pretend that there is.  As a sign in the Bulls’ clubhouse proclaims:  “In baseball, you don’t know nothing.”

“Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time,” narrates Annie (in a voice reserved for stating the obvious – the sun may rise in the East…), “but it’s also a job.”  For Crash, it’s more than that; it is a way of life, the only one he has ever followed.  In the heat of anger at being demoted from AAA to “the bus leagues,” Crash quits the game, only to return two seconds later.  Baseball is such a huge part of who he is; he cannot just quit.  That’s why Annie is so shocked when he returns from Asheville and tells her that he has done exactly that.  Crash has been so afraid of the unknown after retirement; he has clung to that life as long as he could, even as his ability and his significance have slowly left him.  When he ultimately comes to accept the fact that his career is over, he finds it blissfully relaxing.  His reward for a “life” well-lived could be his reincarnation as the “manager in Visalia next spring.”  Like Hemingway’s Santiago, Crash has little to show for his noble dedication, but the ideals that he embodied, which existed before him, will carry on after him.  He and Annie sit on the porch together, each inwardly exploring the possibility that they may begin a lasting relationship.  For the first time, Crash appears truly happy to “just be.”    He is satisfied with his career, with the fact that he never compromised his values, and he has found that elusive inner peace.

I believe in the church of baseball.  In this church there are no deities to worship, no scripture to follow.  There is only beauty and romance, the first appearance of the life force that regenerates the world every spring, the common experience that bridges cultures and generations, the comforting familiarity that anchors the soul adrift in a fog of grief, the receptiveness that makes us feel at home, and the tantalizing illusion of simplicity that inspires us to dream.

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