OnBase: Homers & Haiku

Fog at Mission Creek, 6:30 p.m.

Fog at Mission Creek, 6:30 p.m.

Innings One Through Three: The Natural

By the time I make it over to Mission Creek, the fog has already begun to define the night. A sharp wind makes it seem a lot colder, but at least it’s not a strong sharp wind. “That comes later,” I think. Inside the ballpark, down on the field, the wind is lighter, mostly gusts. As the Cubs come warily out of their dugout, they have the look of a team that wants nothing more than to get out of here. I want to tell them it would be better if the ballpark was located further up Mission Creek, at Seals Stadium, where the “San Francisco” Giants first appeared in 1958. I get the impression the Cubs could care less. They won last night, but their season is lost. Professional athletes, their bodies will play on even though their minds are elsewhere. Where else? Somewhere warm.

The Giants are hot. Last night, leadoff hitter Andres Torres seemed to be swinging icicles. Tonight he’s got a bat, and his hands move as he cracks a line drive to left. Does he stop there? No. He steals second before Freddy Sanchez walks, and scores the Giants’ first run, thanks to Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey. Which brings up Pat Burrell, who continues his excellent series with a two-run single. The Cubs look shell-shocked. And just to make sure, in the top of the second, when Wellington Castillo doubles to left with second baseman Blake DeWitt heading home, Burrell finds the ball and fires to Uribe, who turns and zips the ball home to Posey, who waits to get run over by DeWitt, but holds onto the ball.

Barry Zito pitches like a Zen archer: cool, smooth, almost unconscious. The old Zito curve makes a rare appearance, but can still wow a crowd, as the ball dives gracefully under a swinging bat. He’s fluid, letting nature take its course as his ally, not his enemy. It’s not as cold as last night. Is it something Zito is doing, or has the wind died down? I’m sitting on the club level with a rabbi who knows the Mission. He ate at Foreign Cinema recently. I tell him what I do and he asks what I’m going to write about tonight’s game. “Haiku.”

Innings Four Through Six: The Language of Baseball

The rabbi, who remembers every player’s sabermetric stats, thinks I’m joking. He’s written Hebrew haiku secretly since he was 16. Haiku, he says, is the essence of writing, bringing man and nature together. But what does that have to do with baseball? (I bet he grew up a Dodgers fan.) “I just wrote a haiku,” he blurts out. “Do you want to hear it?” summer fog/ shadow crossing/ first base line.

Of all our popular sports, none have attracted more writers and more writing — and more different kinds of writing — than baseball. Within the universe of baseball writing, one galaxy stands out, not so much for its brilliance, but for its simplicity and natural power — like the home run Marlon Byrd just hit off one of Zito’s easygoing fastballs.

Baseball may no longer work as a “national pastime,” but it still retains a measure of natural beauty and physical grace. And how better expressed than in haiku?

In the book “Baseball Haiku,” Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura tell the story of Masaoka Shiki, the fourth pillar in Japan’s pantheon of great haiku masters, who wrote the first baseball haiku in 1890; one of which goes spring breeze/ this grassy field makes me/ want to play catch.

In the top of the sixth, Zito quickly gives up three hits and two runs. Tie ball game. Until Aaron Rowand hits a home run into the left-center-field bleachers. Another of Shiki’s nine known baseball haiku, with the Giants leading 4-3: like young cats/ still ignorant of love/ we play with a ball.

Innings Seven Through Nine: White Flight

The first American baseball haiku was written by Jack Kerouac, who van den Heuvel says was the first American writer to write haiku on any subject. Kerouac’s inaugural baseball haiku was recorded shortly after the Giants opened their first season in San Francisco: empty baseball field/ a robin/ hops along the bench.

Revealing the depths of his psychic attachment, Kerouac also made up an imaginary baseball league, elaborated in great detail, 40 years before the birth of the modern fantasy game.

Improbably, Barry Zito comes back on the mound for the seventh inning. His pitch count is not high, but he’s given up nine hits and his fastball is clocking around 85 mph. Manager Bruce Bochy is, as always, inscrutable. Zito’s fourth pitch of the inning gets parked on the promenade by Tyler Colvin; another home run and the game is tied again. Can a home run be a haiku or are they only linked through opposition? Shouldn’t a haiku be smaller — a wren, not an eagle? Home runs are powerful and go on and on like Whitman or Ginsberg. And another thing: Home runs make money, haiku don’t.

I am about to ask the rabbi when Pat Burrell unloads on a dying sinker from Jonathan Berg in the bottom of the eighth, driving the ball high into the night fog, headed our way. I watch it in slow motion: white, round, its long slow trajectory rising, flattening, falling now as the roar of the crowd rises; it drops 20 feet away, well over the left-field wall, just inside the foul pole. Even if it isn’t haiku, the cheer shakes these concrete stands. Though not as loud as the cheer for Brian Wilson for dispensing with his usual histrionics and striking out Starlin Castro to end the game. Giants win 5-4.

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