The Game That Breaks Your Heart

A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball's late commissioner, wrote the following words about the game while he was still teaching at Yale University:

" . . . It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." We lost Giamatti this year.

We almost lost the World Series. But more important, we almost lost both Oakland and San Francisco to an earthquake.

Face the truth. There was no real reason to play the final two games. That was done merely to satisfy contractual commitments to ABC-TV.

The mere fact that those wealthy enough to purchase tickets stood up to sing about San Francisco to the television audience did not move one ounce of rubble or feed one person made homeless by the quake.

That was corporate do-goodism at its most cynical. There was another reason not to play. I was convinced that the San Francisco Giants had no chance. They had no pitching. Roger Craig, the gentle, long-suffering manager, appeared resigned to defeat from the last half of the first inning of game one. If Craig is the genius his supporters claim, he would have collected his players after the earthquake and hidden them for three months.

What always amazes me, though, is the grip the game of baseball has on us all.

Bill Veeck used to say it was the only game left for real people.
"To play basketball," he added, "you have to be seven foot six. To play football, you have to be the same width."

Baseball remains a great game because you can't sit on a lead and run plays into the line to kill the clock. Ultimately, in order to win, you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other guy a chance to hit his best shot.

Last week, while the World Series was on hold, I watched the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly one more time. The film was based on the novel of the same name written by Mark Harris, for some years now a member of the faculty at Arizona State University.

I think it's the best baseball movie ever made and this is one opinion in which I'm not alone. There are some who say it's too much of a tear-jerker. If so, what do you call The Natural and Field of Dreams?

The film provided Robert De Niro with one of his first important roles. He played Bruce Pearson, a catcher for a fictional New York team who is dying of Hodgkin's disease. Despite his illness, he continues to chew incredible amounts of tobacco and to play his heart out for the pennant which his team finally does win.

Ironically, though he is dying, he plays better than he ever has before in his career.

Michael Moriarty portrays Henry Wiggins, the team's star pitcher and Pearson's best friend. He accompanies Pearson to the Mayo Clinic to learn his awful secret. The characters played by De Niro and Moriarty in the film have been compared to Yogi Berra, who says things that are funny without knowing it, and pitcher Tom Seaver, always considered a closet intellectual because he was graduated from USC. This film has many intensely moving moments. The most heart-stopping comes when the terribly weakened Pearson staggers around home plate attempting to catch a foul ball in what turns out to be his last game.

What makes the film work is humor as well as pathos. Also, the thread of the pennant race is continuous and the playing scenes are convincing.

But the best acting performance actually comes from Vincent Gardenia, who plays Dutch, the team's manager. It is his growing sensitivity to the tragedy taking place on his club that makes the story work.

Gardenia received an Academy Award nomination for best-supporting actor. He lost out to John Houseman in The Paper Chase. De Niro won the award for best-supporting actor the very next year for his role in The Godfather, Part II. Each time a film is done about someone who is dying it gets compared to Brian's Song or Terms of Endearment.

But there's something real about this film that sets it apart. You realize that this is what baseball really is to those on the inside. The scenes in the dugout and the dressing room are totally believable and absorbing.

Moriarty, as the team's star, is determined to shield his dying friend from the abuse that is leveled at him by teammates who don't realize he's dying.

"There's something I want instead of money," he tells team officials before signing his contract.

"Nothing's instead of money," comes the answer.
"Bruce Pearson and I have to be tied up in a package. What happens to one, happens to the other. If you trade him or send him down, you have to do the same with me." "What are you, a couple of fairies?" Dutch, the team's outraged manager, demands.

Moriarty stares straight ahead.
"You caught him pissing in the sink in Pittsburgh," the manager growls.
"He was urinating . . . and it was Cleveland," the now irate pitcher replies.

The manager relents: "I've never made a deal like this before," he says, "except there's a look in your eye that tells me I've got to." Halfway through the season, Dutch finally learns that his catcher and pitcher went up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, during the winter.

"What kind of a place is that to build a hospital?" he bellows. "In the wilds of nowhere . . . where a man freezes his ass off before you can even get him into a car." Finally, the decision is made to bring back a retired catcher to finish the season. The manager is told the veteran catcher is now teaching English at San Diego State.

"What English? What's teaching English? People speak English already," he snorts, approaching apoplexy.

Toward the end of the film, the manager delivers a rousing pep talk in the clubhouse.

Then he turns around sly and says almost to himself: "When I die, the papers will say,`The son of a bitches of the world have lost their leader.'" Pearson, the catcher, is sent home to die just before the season ends. He is too weak to play anymore. He is used up. His life is over. Wiggins, the pitcher, takes him to the airport.

He promises to send the catcher the scorecard from what they both sense will be the last game the catcher will ever play.

In the final scene, winter has come. The catcher is being buried in his hometown. The pitcher stands over the catcher's grave. He remembers that he forgot to send the scorecard. He also notices that not a single member of the team or a representative from the front office has come to the funeral.

I remember baseball manager Chuck Tanner's line: "You can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral is going to depend on the weather." There is more to baseball than the World Series and the mawkish self-indulgence of announcer Al Michaels. In the end, it has an almost mythical quality. The great men reach the top and disappear: Lou Gehrig died of a disease that would be named for him; Grover Cleveland Alexander died of alcoholism in an alley with his World Series ring on his finger; the aging Casey Stengel slumped on the floor outside the men's room at an old timers' game.

Even Joe DiMaggio, at 73, was forced to stand in line near his earthquake-damaged home in San Francisco waiting for permission to cross the police line. In short, baseball is just like life. Only harder.