Sports and poetry


Major League Baseball’s honchos are together in Orlando now for their annual winter meetings. They are doing business, not making poetry. The National Football League’s professional managers are puzzling over whether the league would make as much money as it does, if it became a flag football league. Or if that is too drastic, maybe they could ban ankle, knee, and stomach hits the way they’ve banned head hits, leaving a narrow thoracic target for the tacklers. But, the big problem, these deep thinkers worry, is that the referees are blowing so many calls already, what sense does it make to make it harder for them to get things right. No poetry there.

The Patriots have found a new way to build a winning streak. They play only half of each game and, rested as they are, they pull it out in the last minute, ultimately winning by a point or three or four. Absolutely unpoetic, unmusical, unfun, and life threatening, if you factor in the anxiety factor for the fans. Can’t accuse the Pats of committing poetry.

There’s not a lot of music in the three-point shot. Poetry may be out of the question when the players are so big and often clumsy, and the blocking and tackling on the basketball court resembles the NFL’s version of marketable mayhem — whack the other guy, give a hard foul, celebrate yourself after you score.

But, after all, there is beauty and poetry in sports, not at the professional league office level, not even in the club offices, maybe not even on the Little League diamond or the high school basketball court — not yet anyway — because, after all, the poets I have in mind aren’t ordinary. They have complicated, practiced skill sets, and physical gifts that are not consigned to we run of the mill humans. These endowed performers make moments of grace and athletic meaning, moments that surprise and thrill we clods as we watch, moments that seem more important than they are, moments in which those who are not athletes, not even sports fans, share.

The double play in baseball, for example. Think Derek Jeter gathering up a sharply hit ground ball at the edge of the left field grass, flipping it to Dustin Pedroia (this is a fantasy), who touches the bag, launches himself into the air over the sliding runner and, nearly horizontal in flight, throws a torch to David Ortiz, filling in at first because it’s interleague play, for the out. The crowd lights up in a poetic afterglow.

The poet Robert Wallace made the double play call in his verse, The Double Play (2007). He wrote “… the leaning-out first baseman ends the dance/drawing it disappearing into his long brown glove/stretches./What is too swift for deception is final, lost,/ among the loosened figures jogging off the field/(the pitcher walks), casual in the space where the poem has happened.”

That last is important, because poetry in sports is not conceived, fussed over, written, and published. It’s not done alone. It happens among players and us, we are there, and it’s done.

Doug Flutie, the Boston College quarterback in 1984 — ESPN called him the “scrambling dynamo” — before he grew too small to play NFL football, the game all but lost, one second left, national champs the Miami Hurricanes in the driver’s seat. Flutie launched a 60-yard pass — the defense had chased him out of the crumbling pocket — to tight end Gerard Phelan who caught it in the end zone for the B.C. win, 47-45. It’s called the Hail Mary pass, and it’s a popular YouTube destination even today. Poetry, indeed. With a little luck. We use to chant “All the way with Yahweh,” and it worked.

Or, you might imagine the dressage rider, perfectly in tune with her light, expressive, cadenced mount, asking throughout for her horse to do athletic figures and transitions that he never thought of in his simply equine life, but she taught and encouraged him to master, finally completing a Grand Prix test, 90 percent of perfection for a team of human and animal, whose mutual trust and communication makes such verse possible.

I might have mentioned Ted Williams’s swing, or nearly every shot Michael Jordan ever made, or Usain Bolt, like lightning, or Greg Louganis, so precise, or, well, you name the performer. But, thrilling, heart-stopping, and astonishing as these athletes have been, they do not make poetry in sports. There must be a teammate, fellow performers, and us.

I might have mentioned David Ortiz, the fiercest, most brilliant and reliable hitter I have ever seen, but actually, David Ortiz made his poem in two verses, neither of them at the plate. And, we were part of the play.

You won’t have forgotten his few words, and his curse, standing alone in the infield at Fenway Park, right after the Marathon bombing, telling the evil-minded among us that Boston and its people were “Boston Strong.” And you won’t have forgotten the last game of the World Series, when the Sox won the crown, their third in a decade, just a few months after the bombing, a few months after David Ortiz’s “Boston Strong” anthem. And, of course, you won’t have forgotten the last stanza, that David Ortiz was the World Series Most Valuable Player, finishing a bit of sport poetry that began in May and ended in November and meant something beyond the ordinary to nearly every one of us.