As we read and argue about predictions sabermetricians and others have made about the Halos this year based on varying statistical analyses, you have to wonder about, well, intangibles. When statistics and past performances dictate one logical eventuality, and yet we see Palmer win 10 games, Morales blow away all expectations, Vlad’s game-winning hit against Papelbon and the Sox in the playoffs, Mathis parking one against the Yanks, the Angels winning the division (again), or go back to Spezio’s lazy high fly somehow finding the seats in 2002—the list is enormous. Some would call it . . . magic. Whatever you call it, it’s certainly part of what makes baseball exciting and a big component of what we enjoy about watching films and reading books about the sport: the sense of the unknown, the sense that on any given day, anything can happen. Adam Kennedy can hit 3 bombs in one playoff game.
There is, of course, dramatic magic in many sports and in many sports movies. Perhaps the best sports film or text with this theme is not about baseball, but the hockey film Miracle. Second might be a basketball film, Hoosiers. But baseball films virtually corner the market on the the sense of preternatural magic that informs the story, that sets up the plot. From the goofy light-weight supernatural nature of Angels in the Outfield, to the magical realism of The Natural and Field of Dreams (both based on excellent novels), baseball texts/stories/films have become the legendary vehicles for conveying a magical sensibility inherent in a sport still intensely endemic to the American experience. In Field of Dreams, the ghosts of villified and legendary players return to redeem themselves in proving their love of the game—if you build it they will come…In The Natural, there is Roy Hobbs’ collosal game-winning smash that strikes the light tower, which erupts in a cascade of sparks, like a glittering electric snowstorm. But beyond the spectacular, what I enjoy about The Natural, is how it illuminates many of the sacred symbolic idioscyncrasies of the game, like (in the film) the connection the batboy has with Roy Hobbs, which testifies to the special connection between adult players, the youngsters who revere them, and the youngster those who love the game harbor inside. There is also a sense of magic in the way the artistic text itself conveys the iconic moment: Hobbs heroically and stoically rounding the bases framed in the fragments of falling light. But the novel of 1952 resonates the most with me, as when author Bernard Malamud poetically captures that which is magical in the most basic moment of baseball: the confrontation between pitcher and batter. It is early in the novel and the youthful unknown hayseed Roy Hobbs takes on the legendary Big Whammer in an impromtu duel to the delight of all attending a small hacktown carnival. With two strikes on the big man, and fueled by his anger over Whammer’s braggardry, Hobbs “raised his leg” and hurls:
“The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.
The crowd was silent as the violet evening fell on their shoulders.”(30)
More than just the intensity of this sort of uber confrontation, man vs.man, the almost Bushido code sensibility of the American warrior doing battle with bat and ball, there is the beauty and lyricism of the writing and how it conveys more than just the stark realism of the duel, but something that effects us in a deeper way about baseball, something . . . well . . . magical.