Thomas Boswell's 1989 collection of Baseball essays The Heart of the Order fortuitously fell into my hands recently. The introduction has some of the most profound philosophy that I've had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Here are a few excerpts that I would like to remember.
On good journalism (which echoes my fantasies about this ^zhurnal):
Talent writes with coffee. Genius writes with wine. That's how Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the transcendental grape types, put it. I've never seen a wine bottle in a baseball press box, but I've thrown some ugly fits when the coffee ran out on deadline, so I know where I stand. Still, the daily sportswriter, the lifer on the beat, has consolations. After twenty years, even coffee grounds pile up.
Newspaper work can be a sort of writer's diary, a raw notebook to himself: This Is How It Seems Today. Only with time, and the variety of perspectives that it's bound to create, are we allowed to step back and see people and institutions as they transform before us. That's the fun of being in the trenches. It makes up for a hundred nights a year on the road and too much mediocre work. You imagine that you can outwait anybody or anything. Sooner or later, the picture will come into focus. Then you have a shot at figuring out how it got that way.
That's one difference between a reality writer and a fiction writer. The beat journalist's ultimate goal isn't a dramatic or poetic effect, much as any writer lusts after such moments of luck. Rather, you seek a final portrait --- or a small gallery of related and refracted portraits --- which can be held beside the living face of your subject in the light of day without the work losing its integrity. "That's right" is what we're after, more than "That's beautiful."
In a sense, a daily sportswriter is like one of those monkeys chained to a keyboard trying to write Shakespeare by accident. It's not a bad methodology for those prone to coffee and facts, rather than wine and imagination. You hang around until the details, the telling episodes, the quotes and your own various best efforts at synthesis begin to make their own compelling case. "Collecting string," reporters call it.
On seeing real human beings grow and evolve in real life:
During the seasons this book covers, 1983 to 1988, I collected a million words' worth of string --- a thousand thousand-word stories, roughly speaking. Out of all that, one thread of an idea grew so strong that it now seems like a battleship chain to me. People change. And a lot more radically than we imagine. Either you change yourself or things change you. That's the choice.
The lasting power of baseball for me --- beyond the tactical and technical fascinations of the game itself, even beyond the excitement of pennant races and World Series --- is watching how the game illuminates and probes the faces of its changing people.
An English prof once wrote on a paper of mine, by way of critiquing my naïve notion that people were pretty much fully formed by voting age, "The biggest shock in life is watching how much your peers change. In twenty years, you won't believe it." Like anyone past forty, I believe now. ...
And finally, on that which is Most Important, some Stoic-ish thought re excellence, what the Greeks might call areté:
If baseball in the eighties, with its bewildering succession of one-season winners and dethroned champions, has taught us one distinction, it's the difference between success and excellence. Many in sports think they are the same. They're not. There's no substitute for excellence --- not even success.
Success is tricky, perishable and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and for itself, is the best of foundations. If the distinction between success and excellence were easy to grasp, we wouldn't have found so many players, managers and teams in disarray in the eighties --- particularly in baseball, but in all sports actually.
Whenever bad news hits the sports page, look for a "success story" gone wrong. ... [L]ook for people who wanted, more than anything else, to be known as "winners." Look, in other words, for people who saw a game as a way to fame. Look for people who judge themselves by what others think of them. ...
Whenever we see a player whose performance seems to guide us like a lodestar from decade to decade ... we always find a guiding passion for quality and a profound respect for the game. Over the long haul of a whole career, baseball selects for diligent craftsmen. In the end, the plodding ... pass the fly-by-nights.
Let's emphasize here that nobody ... is all one way or the other. Desire for success and love of excellence coexist in all of us. The question is: Where does the balance lie? In a pinch, what guides us?
To illustrate, listen to the best managers of recent times when they analyze a game. ... They seldom look at the final score. Instead, they discuss how the game should have been played. Usually they shrug off defeats and will discuss what theoretical threads, what possibilities for improvements lay within that game. The win or loss, except in September or October, does not obsess them. Sometimes, not even then.
The second-rate manager, by contrast, is often fixated on the result. His teams, especially under pressure, seem burdened by his absorption with success when they should be focusing on the sort of quality play that would produce victory.
In sports, poise often is nothing more than the ability to row backward toward a goal, focusing on each stroke so intently that we ignore the finish line until we are past it. ...
Success can burn up the person who achieves it. Excellence usually feeds whoever has it. For impatient, compulsive men, success may come quickly. But it doesn't tend to last very long. The pressure constantly to remain successful, especially in others' eyes, is exhausting, even killing. ...
An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he's such a competitor that he is threatened by the success of others and resents real excellence. The person fascinated by quality is invigorated when he finds it in others; he can cope with being surpassed, since he respects the nature of the work itself. Don Sutton said of Sandy Koufax, "A lot of people get on top and try to keep others down. Koufax tried to help everybody else get up there with him."
Sports reaffirms that, amid the pale pleasure of watching many good losers and bad winners, it is still possible to find good winners ....
As a group they tend to be inordinately patient because they believe that, in the long run, they won't lose. If they are a bit uncomfortable and testy in the spotlight, it may be because they wish to hide how little our opinions of them matter in their eyes. At times they even seem to hum with a kind of suppressed but powerful inner arrogance that can taste like piety and make them a little hard to swallow.
Of whom do they remind us?
Perhaps the best and most rigorous teacher we ever had.
The math professor who taught us that it wasn't the answer to a specific problem that was important but, rather, learning to appreciate the interlocking coherence of the whole scientific view of the world. The English teacher who showed us the agonies of patience that went into crafting a poem so precise in its choice of words that we could read it a hundred times over fifty years and always find it powerfully true. The teachers, in other words, who taught us that love of learning --- for itself --- not love of grades, was the beating, enduring heart of education.
So too in games, the guiding principle that most often keeps people oriented through all their passages and changes is a governing passion for excellence. In baseball, that's what you discover at the heart of the order.
Splendid words ... and that's only the preface to this collection of Thomas Boswell writings about baseball and the people who live it. The pieces themselves tend to be less broad-brush philosophical, but through the specific day-to-day prose the same knife-sharp thought and humor shine. Good writing....
(see also WorldSeriesLines (22 June 2002)