Why Baseball Fiction Is Magical, Literally
The following is a guest post by Jon Reed. Learn more about him at the end of this post.
If you’re a fan of magical literature, imagine these storylines:
Some famous people’s deaths can be reversed if their pre-selected non-famous doubles step in for them as a sacrifice.
An almost-albino man is certain that history has intentionally forgotten a major event from decades before, knowledge he magically inherited upon his father’s death, knowledge his father learned after being struck by lightning.
An Iowa farmer gets to see his father and his childhood hero again after a mysterious voice tells him to plow under his cornfield.
That last one might sound familiar if you’ve seen enough Kevin Costner movies, but all three of those tales are tied together by the same thread: baseball. The first is the short story “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record” from the collection The Thrill of the Grass. The second is the novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. The third is the novel Shoeless Joe, upon which "Field of Dreams" was based.
They’re all stories from the weird and wonderful baseball-obsessed mind of author W.P. Kinsella.
Today is Opening Day. The day winter’s doldrums are replaced by the constant bombardment of stats and box scores of the absurdly long 162-game Major League Baseball season. It marks the end of the dreaded off-season and the start of weather designed for sitting in the sun with a hot dog and a cold beer. A true holiday.
Baseball is weird. Opening Day doesn’t mark the start of baseball, because it’s got its age-old and not-quite-so-old traditions that have already passed: pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in February, and the teams have been playing meaningless exhibition games in Florida and Arizona for a month. Then there’s Opening Night, the day before Opening Day, when the games really start counting.
But that’s what makes baseball great: it’s both logical and illogical. It’s so rooted in traditions that the traditions don’t even have have to be meaningful anymore. It’s a game played entirely in the moment, but forever looking back at its past.
It’s this culture of traditions and contradictions that makes the perfect target for weird, fantastical fiction, and W.P. Kinsella is the master of it.
I’ve been re-reading The Iowa Baseball Confederacy lately, after first reading it years ago. I’d call it a weird book, but that doesn’t really do its weirdness justice. Every sentence is weird. Leonardo Da Vinci shows up in a hot air balloon in 1908 Iowa, watches a few plays, claims he invented the sport and disappears, with nobody batting an eye as to what happened. In the book, this unravels in the span of a couple pages. Compared to the rest of the story, it seems almost normal.
But baseball lends itself to the strange. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy focuses on a 2,000-plus inning game between the Chicago Cubs and a bunch of Iowa farm boys, though there are a whole lot of other forces at play. The great thing about baseball is that this game, for all its quirky mysticism, is played pretty much according to the rulebook.
That’s the thing about baseball. There’s no time limit. It’s over when it’s over; when it’s decided. In the case of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, that’s when one mystical force finally overpowers another after forty days.
Baseball is one of the few things that survives the main character’s 70 years of time travel into the past. He plays songs that won’t be written for decades (not unlike in "Back to the Future") and even the town he’s in has changed its name. But, he notes, the rules of baseball are basically the same. The strategy, the way the game is played, are timeless.
Perhaps that’s why baseball lends itself so easily to the mystical and fantastic. It transcends time.
So when you think about baseball, look beyond the facts and figures. There’s a reason it has a magic unlike any other, and a literature to match.
Jon Reed is a writer and journalist who covers state politics in Ohio. He lives in Columbus with his fiancée (who runs this blog), three cats, and memorabilia for a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series since Truman was president. You can follow him on Twitter at @JonDReed.