Last summer, the year that the Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series, I found myself sitting in their brand new Busche stadium, at seats A1 and A2 with my son Ty. I could smell the freshly cut grass, impeccably manicured in front of us, mixed with the rubber scent of a sparkling red dugout and seats. The Cards were playing the Dodgers that day, an unforgivably hot day in Missouri, and the American flag they foisted up got tangled up in the yellow arms of the crane, flailing about in the arcing symbol of St. Louis, seen behind center field. We watched Albert Pujols sway back and forth in front of us, with his massive arm resting on a giant’s bat. David Eckstein bounced around the bases, and I whispered to Bill DeWitt, the owner of the Cards, who had invited us, “He is one of my favorites.” Eckstein would go on, a diminutive player never expected to be a major leaguer, hustling about to win the MVP in the World Series. We got to enjoy two games in two days, the first day in the comforts of the box seats. It ended on a good note: as they swept the Dodgers, manager Tony LaRussa looked across from the dugout at us and winked.
I had come to know Kathy DeWitt as we served on the National Council on the Arts together. An ever-friendly lady, when we took cabs from the hotel to the Nancy Hanks building on Pennsylvania Avenue where the National Endowment for the Arts offices are located, she seemed to always end up chatting with a taxi driver in her affectionate raspy voice, her curious eyes darting about. “Baseball,” she would tell me as we discussed baseball, which was often, quoting the former commissioner Bert Giamatti, “is a game that’s designed to break your heart.” I had promised we would come and visit, and here we were, a last trip my son and I would take together before he became an NYU undergraduate.
Getting out of the taxi, as we headed up to our Council meetings, Kathy and I would often discuss the NEA’s longitudinal study on America’s reading habit, called Reading at Risk. What came out, as one can imagine, is a precipitous and alarming decline in reading at all levels. The Arts and Civic Engagement document resulted, giving hard data behind what we presumed to be true: readers are more engaged in all spheres of life. But what surprised us was that the data revealed a curious correlation between the act of reading and attendance of sports events. That fact intrigued both of us. Listed under #2 of the 10 key findings is “Literary readers and arts participants engage in sports more readily than non-readers and non-participants.” Literary readers are nearly two times as likely to attend sports events.
Dana Gioia, the visionary Chair of the NEA, then proposed to us an initiative called the Big Read, “designed to restore reading to the center of American culture.” Created was a network of cities and libraries to choose classics of American literature, like “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “My Antonia,” or “Their Eyes were Watching God.” We would ask the mayor of that city to call for the entire city to be its own book club, and the NEA would provide resources that include radio programs and comprehensive audio guides (Sandra Day O’Connor, Robert Redford and Robert Duvall would take the lead in narratives). Extensive teacher’s guides would be provided as well. Now in over one hundred communities, with over a dozen classics, The Big Read initiative has succeeded beyond even the Council’s expectations. The results indicate that people are hungry for responsible stewardship of culture, and right attention to the arts in education.
I had told Kathy that Ty and I became Yankee fans because they had brought the parade into our street. When the Yankees won the World Series against Atlanta in the fall of 1996, that was shortly after we moved into New York, and Ty got to attend the victory parade on Broadway right outside of our home. You could say that was the day we were baptized into the myth, that somehow, year after year, the Yanks would win again. For Ty, this parade and many to ensue, would enable him to play hooky from school (with the blessing of Mayor Giuliani), and this marked his childhood in New York City.
Kathy and I agreed that baseball seemed, of all the sports, to be the most subtle and art-filled (soccer would be a close second). I remember certain moments, like the infamous “flip” of Derek Jeter, against Oakland, in the playoffs of 2001. Our family was displaced in Chelsea, staying at a friend’s apartment after 9/11. That may be why I remember that moment, feeling that nothing could be so triumphant after all that we had gone through on those dark weeks, and the Yanks were about to see their first round series slip away in Oakland; but then Jeter came out of nowhere, a shortstop intercepting an errant throw by a rookie outfielder five feet from the home base, flipping the ball backhand to the catcher Posada, turning the series around, and turning my heart, for a brief moment, to the normalcy of that thrill. There was certain magic there: How did Jeter know that that ball was going to be thrown errant? The runner (Jeremy Giambi, not the slugger Jason, but his brother), certainly did not, even though the play was taking place in front of him, for he did not even slide into home base. He was, just with the rest of us, astonished that a shortstop would even be in that position to make that play. But Jeter did, and Posada simply had to catch the ball and tag out flat footed Giambi, and the Yanks came back to win the series. Baseball, it seemed, like in Malamud’s “The Natural,” filled my mind with the possibility of mystique, and as beautiful as art, like the stadium lights being turned on.
In reading great literature, the reader, too, can expect a “flip” in even a greater potency for change. Eudora Welty, in writing about another great southern master Katherine Mansfield, notes that at the end of one of her stories: “There is no collision. Rather, the forces meeting in the public gardens have, at the story’s end, passed through each other and come out at the other side; there has been not a collision, but a change – something more significant.” (Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story) Jeter’s instinct created no collision, but a simple re-direction of a baseball: an author can do the same, but words have power to re-direct powers and “come out at the other side.” Art and literature can capture the transformation of a character, depict unexpected outcomes, thereby moving us toward a new trajectory. If Jeter’s flip caused a baseball series to turn, an author’s words, a maestro’s baton or a painter’s brush can cause our lives to turn to a complete new direction. Thus artists have the power to re-direct, but to what end?
Jeter’s heroics did not end victorious in the World Series that year. In fact, the Yanks never won again after 2000. We haplessly watched the ball bounce over Jeter’s head in Arizona, as the Yanks lost the World Series in game seven, bottom of the ninth; we could echo Kathy’s words that it is indeed a game designed to break our hearts, especially in our post-9/11 depression. Literature, too, sinks deeper into the heart of the darkness, leading us to seek out with Gatsby, the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning ---
So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“No batting practice today,” the attendant told us as he checked our field passes, “too hot”. We hovered near the home plate, looking at the expanse of Bermuda grass, when we noticed Bill coming out of the dugout. “Sorry about that…the players decided to bat inside…come on, let’s go in, too.” Ty’s face flushed as we entered the blast of cool air, being blown out to the dugout with force defiant to the sun; he could not believe he was entering the inner sanctum of the baseball world, his sandals flapping behind me to echo inside the corridors.
Inside the sparkling clubhouse, we chatted with So Taguchi, their sole Japanese player. “It’s Brad Penny today,” he told me in polite Japanese as he stretched, “so I have a day off.” As a specialist that gets to hit only with left-handed pitchers, he would welcome a day off, and a conversation in his native tongue. Bill rushed off and disappeared for a moment, and returned with two balls, with a logo celebrating the new stadium, and a pen; “here…I figured you guys would want these signed.” Then, a visit to greet Pujols, and the young catcher Yadier Molina, would follow, and also an introduction to an friendly Jim Edmonds. “Hi, I’m Jim Edmonds!” he engulfed my hand with his, as if we did not recognize one of the best outfielders in the game today. Then we peeked in at the manager’s office, and chatted with Tony LaRussa about my painting at the St. Louis Art Museum. “My wife loves to go there,” he said, “next time, I have to stop by the Japanese section, then.”
Bill gave us a full tour of the stadium, taking us to each area of a huge entertainment complex. What astonished us, and Ty would comment on this repeatedly later, was the fact that Bill had to carry his own ID and had show it to get into each area. Many of the workers did not recognize him; but, of course, once they saw the identification, they hurried to make sure that their boss was well attended to. The first day, when we exited the box seats after we watched the game, we actually walked down with the fans, exiting down the ramps. No one recognized us.
“Steinbrenner would never do that.” Ty commented. “The Boss would have a helicopter landing on the top, and a secret entrance.”
So it was, for perhaps a day, we had become bona-fide fans of the Cards. So Taguchi even got to bat that day, dashing to right field as Brad Penny exited. Refracting in our conversations as Ty and I headed home were a wise owner and his creative wife whose zest and passion filled the box seats in St. Louis, as well as taxi rides in Washington D.C. As Council members, Kathy (her term was up this year) and I (a year left) do often get to sit in the front of the arts scene, observing and learning about the arts, and applauding the remarkable turnaround of the NEA. I am privileged to know other passionate advocates for the arts, and be invited into their journeys. But what would remain deeply etched in our hearts from our St. Louis experience may not be the clubhouse encounters, or balls signed by a remarkable group of players, but the opportunity to witness a humble owner who had to carry his ID in his own stadium. Rather than looking for that ultimate “green light” with Gatsby, and seek after an elusive crown, perhaps we should emulate an owner whose goal is to see the fans have a good time, and join them as they exit the stadium. Perhaps that is a parable of the responsible stewardship of culture that allows each gift to be most fruitful. We would never sit in A1 and A2 ever again, I am sure, especially in New York, but after those hot days in St. Louis, we decided to believe that a good team and a good owner could actually be victorious, and not break our hearts.