“Pitchers are obviously not human.”i
Mid-century California poet Jack Spicer wrote this, referring more to poets themselves—who he conceived of as catchers, receiving dictation from an otherworldly muse—than to pitchers, in any kind of baseball sense. As a poet of the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1950s and ’60s, Spicer developed some idiosyncratic theories about poetry and writing, primarily his theory of dictation. He posited that the poet merely transmitted a message dictated to them from another world, rather than suggesting that the poet themselves are creators. (More fancifully, he suggested that poets received dictation from Martians, who might not actually be any smarter than the poet.)ii He also wrote a bit about baseball, not unlike more renowned poets of his era like Jack Kerouac, seeing it as an ideal communal experience, very important to him as a queer writer in search of community.
Yet, when I read Spicer’s supernatural baseball metaphors, I can’t help but think of baseball itself, and of Jake Arrieta as a conduit of history and conversation, the figure around which our collective memory coalesces and through whom that memory is brought to life. We derive much of that connection to the past from statistical achievement, and Arrieta’s numbers themselves elicit a chuckle. This season, Arrieta is a perfect 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA, a tick lower than last year’s Cy Young-winning 1.77. The Cubs have won his last 23 regular season starts, tying a major-league record set by the Braves and pedestrian starter Kris Medlen a few seasons ago, and Arrieta himself won his 20th straight decision. Last season, he dominated to the tune of a 0.75 second-half ERA, the best mark of the modern era. Seemingly every start inches him closer to some record, or ties him with a Hall of Fame hurler of halcyon days past.
Arrieta is the storyteller, however, not the numbers. Or, more correctly, Arrieta is Marlow in Heart of Darkness, the storyteller within the story, through whom the writer speaks. Spicer, in the poem quoted above, goes on about pitchers:
They have the ghosts of
dead people in them. You wait there while they glower, put
their hands to their mouths, fidget like puppets, while
you’re waiting to catch the ball.
Arrieta is perhaps fidget-less, but he certainly harbors the ghosts of dead people in his Pilates-sculpted body. When Arrieta no-hit the Reds last month, his second in less than a year, our lips came alive with stories of Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax, and, to a lesser extent, Hideo Nomo and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. We rhapsodized and romanticized and fawned, and Arrieta became a historical figure in that moment. “That is how we dead men write to each other,” Spicer wrote in his collection, After Lorca.iii This is how we connect with the past, and how we make narrative sense of a game made up of thrown balls hitting bats at strange angles and careening in directions unpredictable. Without correspondence with the past, a single is just a hit that places a runner on first, and Arrieta is just a man throwing baseballs at 95 miles-per-hour.
Sometimes, however, Arrieta is just a man throwing. Last Wednesday, in St. Louis, Arrieta got roughed up to the tune of four runs in five innings, striking out a season-low four batters, uncharacteristic of the right-hander. Our storyteller walked off the mound, defeated, in want of his “stuff.”
The ghosts of dead people find it mighty amusing. The
pitcher, in his sudden humanness looks toward the dugout
in either agony or triumph.
Between the white lines, angled ninety degrees, Arrieta is the pitcher, but in baseball’s long narrative arc (with lines that stretch seemingly forever), he is the poet and the catcher: he receives the words from the pitchers of the past, whether they be Pedro or Gibson or Koufax, or even Kris Medlen, and that is how he communicates with them, and to us as spectators. Every record he breaks and every win he tallies brings us closer to those who achieved excellence before. We marvel at his poetic genius, as he twirls no-hitters and baffles hitters with his “slutter.” And when Arrieta doffs his cap to the crowd in his final game, the message will have been communicated. Arrieta’s career, like that of the poet whose pen has gone silent, will be over, even as the game goes on.
i Spicer, Jack. “Four Poems for The St. Louis Sporting News,” in My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Works of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 414-416.
ii For more on Spicer, see Spicer, Jack. The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
iii Spicer, Jack. After Lorca, in My Vocabulary Did This to Me. 134.
Lead photo courtesy Billy Hurst—USA Today Sports.