Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule
Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Ever since I came up with the quizzical, whimsical (quizzimsical?) name for my blog way back in 2004, I’ve been asked how I settled on such an odd one. The answer is fairly simple: as originally envisioned, I supposed that I would split blog time between writing about movies and writing about baseball, therefore I wanted something that would effectively, fancifully evoke both worlds. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I was a much better baseball fan than I was a literary observer or analyst of the sport, and soon I stopped writing much about the game at all. Yet the name remained—it had become ingrained, and I liked it, yet I felt new readers might now find it puzzling, and for a while I flirted with the idea of changing it. Thankfully, one of those early readers of what I now often lazily referred to as SLIFR raised an eloquent objection to the idea. He wrote to me:
“The name reminds me of the long poem ‘Baseball,’ by our new poet laureate, Donald Hall. The poem opens by imagining what it would be like to sit in Fenway with the German modernist collage-maker Kurt Schwitters and explain the rules and spirit of the national pastime to him. It then wanders in a kind of stream-of-consciousness collage of materials from the poet’s life for nine ‘innings’ without ever accomplishing its express purpose – and not worrying much about its lack of accomplishment. This is what the title of your blog evoked when I first read it: a film buff sitting in the stands of Dodger Stadium explaining the arcane aspects of the game to his favorite director of spaghetti Westerns. It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”
So I didn’t. But the reader’s comment got me thinking about my own version of Hall’s scenario, one in which I could put myself in the seat next to one of my favorite directors and spend a carefree, strangely ethereal afternoon helping this America-obsessed European director to understand this most American of sports. The following story, which I wrote in March 2008, was the result.
I felt it was time to revisit this little fantasia not because I’m unusually focused on the films of Sergio Leone right now—it seems that in some way I’m almost always thinking about them in some fashion, for some purpose. No, I actually felt like bringing it out, shaking it off and giving it another look as a way of reconnecting, during a time of mediocre baseball being played by my favorite team, with the elements and qualities I’ve always loved about the game. Even my personal interest in my team is waning this summer, not because of that indifferent play, but because corporate machinations and the various forms of greed that grease those wheels have made it impossible for me to even follow my own team on television. For me, it’s radio or nothing, and though there’s a certain appeal to that, a sort of technological nostalgia factor harkening back to an age I’m too young to have actually lived through, I’d much rather watch my team win or lose than hear it described by announcers whose voices I have little admiration for. (The television simulcast of the much-beloved Vin Scully’s call of the game is heard on the radio here in Los Angeles for the first three innings only before giving way to the second-stringers.)
So let’s put all that away for a while and think about the game in a different way. It’s a warm afternoon at Dodger Stadium, during a time when league standings were of no concern, when even the importance of the outcome of the game paled in comparison to the matter at hand– a fantastical conversation in the stands, the day I argued with the great director, some 20 years after his death, about the infield fly rule.
The old man and I have cheap seats.
He’s been gone for nearly 20 years now, yet as we settle in I look at him and wonder if he still might be too big to fit in the remodeled little buckets in the top deck. Even if he was alive, even though he would still be interested in all things American, he’d be making movies and maybe he might not give much more than a passing glance at the game. Then again, maybe he might be initially curious, but he wouldn’t know from strikes and balls and strikes and astronomical salaries and steroids, and eventually he’d take his big cigar and lumber away back to the set.
Still, as I sit gazing out at the field as the players mill about, stretching, throwing, swinging, getting ready, the crowd still far from filling up the stands on Opening Day, I breathe in all the aromas, good, bad and ugly, that make up the advent of another year at the ballpark, I feel like gambling on his interest. I look over at him defiantly chomping on that cigar—they haven’t allowed smoking in the seats at Dodger Stadium in years– and I’m glad I have the old man’s undivided attention.
The stogie is part of him, at least as far as I know, the only nod to physicality he still enjoys, and I doubt it’ll be disturbing anyone this day. I try to explain to him the singular joys of hot dogs and beer, but he is clearly disinterested. He wouldn’t have been so blasé 20 years ago, when he could have easily earmarked three or four dogs for death. But not now. He has already settled in and concerned himself with something more ethereal, more spiritual— this American coliseum, its life, its collective heartbeat. His eyes barely move from the field, taking in its majesty, its epic quality. The gigantic center of gravity that is his abdomen ensures that there is for him precious little difference between leaning forward and leaning back; his interest in the game is not well betrayed by the sight of him perched rather imperially above it, giving little physical indication of being swept up by its fascinations.
As the afternoon wafts along at its own lilting pace and the ceremonies of the day begin to give way to the beautiful rituals of the game itself, he leans slightly toward me and grunts occasionally. The game itself begins, and he starts to speak more directly to me than he has since we arrived in the park hours ago, croaking questions and spinning observations and trying to make connections, all in that exaggerated Italian accent that would be laughed off any improv stage as absurdly overwrought. But it is the way he speaks as he begins to understand the structure of the game, to work it out for himself with my help.
As I watch him taking it all in, it’s almost as if I begin seeing the game anew, through his eyes. I am telling him all about each element as it unfolds, yet I cannot hear myself talking. The crowd, before an integral part of the atmosphere so important to grounding his understanding, has all but disappeared from his consciousness, and by extension mine, so focused is he on the lyrical, methodical movement on the field. All sound except what’s happening on the diamond has faded away, becoming a symphony of found noises that could only be heard here.
The flapping of the flags in center field. The umpire muttering not to himself, unintelligible.
Then a sharp release of air from the pitcher. The first pitch snapping into the catcher’s leather—strike one. The grunt of the catcher as the ball sails back from home to the pitcher, whose own glove snaps back as he catches it. The pitcher’s cleats shuffle on the rubber, catching red clay on the toes as he pushes off and delivers. The old man notices how the ball starts on one plane then dives down underneath the bat. The batter, fooled, swings and misses, the cut air ringing like it had been separated by a scythe. The catcher, who knew right where the ball was going, takes it in with ease. The old man hears the batter as he takes two steps out of the box, rubs his cleats in the dirt, takes a practice swing and steps back in. The tap-tap-tap of wood on hard plastic as the batter gives his helmet three knocks, the first obsessive-compulsive ritual of many the old man will witness today. Another hard expulsion of air from the pitcher. The ball sails toward the plate and is met with a hard crack of pine which drives it into center field.
The crowd is cheering, but the old man can’t hear it, and neither can I. We can only hear the grunting of the runner, the furious displacement of infield earth as his cleats kick up damp clouds and he makes the turn toward second. The throw comes in from center field toward second base, and the runner beats it there by a microsecond. The second baseman holds the ball up, pleading silently with the umpire, but to no avail. The hard breathing of the runner, on his back and now moving to his feet, is eclipsed by the loud bark of “Safe!” from the hefty man in the short black shirt. The sounds of this one play, separated from all the ambient noise that we should be hearing, have created a symphony of sorts, a gathering of organic noise that fits together for the old man, giving him a vivid picture, a bolt of feeling of what it all might mean, in much that same way that he once opened one of his movies, the insistent noises of a “quiet” railroad station that created a sense of dread and told a story of the film’s landscape without ever saying a word.
We continue all that afternoon blissful hostages to the game. Once he becomes more grounded in the basic rules, he begins to inquire about of the ins and outs and oddities—in between pitches I explained such strategic intricacies as tagging up, sacrifice flies and bunts, and even eventually, when the action called for it, the infield fly rule. With a runner on first and second base during the seventh inning of play, the batter pops up an infield fly. The old man is understandably confused when the umpire calls the batter out even before the ball is caught. I try to explain that the umpire is making a judgment about the effort it might take to catch the ball, that unexceptional effort would be enough, and if he deems the ball catchable under those circumstances the infield fly rule is invoked. The ball is in fact eventually caught on the outfield grass, and the old man becomes even more flustered, waving his arms in disbelief. How can an infield fly rule be invoked when the ball travels into the outfield? I try to explain that the rule is the province of the umpire, which makes no sense to him. A judgment call in a game of numbers and inches? But look, I press on, the rule is basically designed to keep crafty infielders from intentionally dropping easy flies, drawing runners off base and creating easy double and even triple plays. With the infield fly rule, the runners on first and second can still tag if they so choose, but with the batter automatically being called out the inevitability of a force play on the runners is removed.
He looks at me like I’m crazy. The old man has come to see, in this accelerated afternoon, a microcosm of the world on the field, in its orderly procedures and open-ended framework, a game that takes as long as it takes to play out to the end, sometimes nine innings, sometimes more. Does not the infield fly rule negate some of the possibility of unpredictability in a game that otherwise thrives on it, a game where any number of things can happen in any given moment, despite its apparently rigorous structure? If Tuco can shoot intruders with a gun half-submerged in a filthy bathtub, then why cannot a shortstop pretend to bobble a ball and lure a runner into a trap? The old man misses the opportunity for confrontation, for deception, for theater in the infielder selling his moment of ineptitude and turning it into a dazzling play for the crowd. I try to imagine one of his films without the dizzying highs of operatic style that send my emotions into the stratosphere, the inspired leaps of imagination that make every man’s face a landscape of the forgotten West and every street seem half a mile wide. And I think maybe he’s right.
Here is a man who has created some of the wildest, most passionate moments of revisionist American mythology I have ever seen, someone who I have brought here today, against all laws of spirit and metaphysics and religious belief and what have you, to introduce him to something as meaningful to me as his own films, and he has given me pause about an aspect of the this game I consider, in the essence, to be near perfect.
He shakes his head as play continues, more caught up than he ever thought possible before the first pitch was thrown, enthralled at the beauty of the game and riled by its seeming inconsistencies. He has come to view baseball with a love tempered by fury and passion and a critic’s eye, in much the same way he always viewed this country in his films. I imagine how much different the game would be if my friend, the old man, were alive, if he were allowed to examine it the way he did that other great American institution, the one that was never so purely American as is baseball, the Western. I imagine him down on the field calling balls and strikes and close plays at the plate. I imagine him a boisterous commissioner of baseball, leading a campaign to convince owners and players to exorcise the game of its vices and demons and silly rules. I imagine him bursting out of the dugout, a raging bull of a manager to make Vesuvian fellow Italian Lou Piniella look sedate and measured. He’s a natural.
As the crowd begins to file out on this opening day, I realize the man sitting next to me looks nothing like I thought he did when I first sat down. He is no giant bear; he is a smallish, youngish man, and he sits quietly with his wife, both of them attached to earpieces piping the precious sounds of Vin Scully into their brains. Maybe the old man was right; maybe I am crazy. I look around for him, but he’s nowhere. Nowhere except where he probably always was. And that’s good news for me, I guess. Baseball has always tended to bring out my susceptibility to bliss, and somehow, on this beautiful April day, so many years after his death, the old man, reaching back through my cluttered perceptions of his own legend, has managed to give me a final gift. He has allowed me an opportunity to give something back, to reciprocate joy to the architect of so many of my own most treasured cinematic moments, to communicate the essence of something I love and show me how to see it through his eyes, in Super Panavision, of course.
On this day the field at Dodger Stadium is as glorious as ever, yet somehow different. If I squint through the rays of the setting sun, I can almost see Angel Eyes at third, Blondie at second and Tuco at first, all holding down on each other, replaying that graveyard showdown across waves of heated grass, once upon a time around the horn. Ennio Morricone is faintly echoing behind the strains of Nancy Bea Hefley’s organ on the P.A. system. As I get up out of my seat I start to smile, and I know I’ll never be able to explain to anyone exactly why. Sergio Leone and I argued about the infield fly rule together today. What game, what film could ever match that?