Benchwarmers at the Bat
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere people shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville mighty Casey has Struck Out.
Casey at the Bat:Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888
At some time after my first reading of memorable Caseys memorable embarrassment when I was in the seventh grade at Chepachet Grammar School, I read two subsequent versions, neither by Thayer. In one, Casey didnt strike out. I believe it was called Caseys Revenge, and naturally the ball sailed out of the park. The author, I cant recall.
The other long rhyme told of an aged Casey, still hiding out since striking out at Mudville that day, coming to the plate from the stands as a replacement play in a tight ball game and naturally walloping the ball to Kingdom Come. After rounding the bases to wild applause, Casey doffed his cap to the fans to reveal gray hair, and fessed up to being the mighty Casey.
I cant remember who wrote that verse either, or what it was called, though I think it was titled Casey Some 20, 30 or 40 years later. I was an adult when I ran across the latter two poems in some obscure anthology, but how I wished at the time that I had read them before or immediately after reading the original Casey at the Bat.
It would have saved me so much sorrow. What was I then? Probably 12. And to this day I can vividly remember my introduction to Casey.
I was seated in the second row of grammar school, which was too close to Henry Hopkins, who taught seventh and eighth grades in a single classroom. I was close enough that stern Mr. Hopkins noted that instead of reading the assigned history lesson, I was instead absorbed with All Quiet on the Western Front, which was tucked inside the American History book.
Mr. Hopkins wasnt one to appreciate individual creativity. The agonizingly dull topic of the week was the War of 1812, and I knew all I wanted about it. A few days earlier, I had spotted the real action book about World War I in the tiny school library. It fascinated me, but not Mr. Hopkins.
When caught red-handed by Mr. Hopkins, who was known to put a switch to the legs of errant students, I mumbled something about liking to read different things, to which he responded something along the lines of Ill give you something different to read.
He went to his desk, returned with a fat volume of poetry and who needs to be reminded what reading poems is like to a restless boy who didnt want to be in school in the first place. I was to read a dozen poems, then write a report on each. But that wasnt the worst part.
Everyone heard Mr. Hopkins punishment. I knew what my schoolboy chums would think, and I
knew Id never hear the end of it: Billy Burton is reading poetry! Ha ha; ha ha!
It was within the book I was handed I found Casey at the Bat. Id never previously heard of the doings at Mudville that fateful day, so as I started to read the 53 long lines about the legendary slugger, my hopes were building up for an exciting climax with Casey tearing the hide off the ball.
If it werent for the other fellows in the seventh and eighth grades girding to razz me at afternoon recess, it wouldnt have been a bad assignment once Id found a verse about baseball.
Everyone who has ever played or even watched baseball on TV should read it. Its corny, but its an illustration of life and those who live it with a cocky attitude.
It isnt until the last five words that the reader has an inkling of Caseys downfall. Thayer was a master at suspense, but obviously the Mighty Casey was about to become the biggest hero Mudville ever had or would have.
When I read those last five words, I was devastated. How could Casey strike out? Mighty Casey and after Flynn let drive a single and Blake tore the cover off the ball. So there was Blake safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third, two outs, the last inning, and Casey at the Bat.
I knew better than to include Caseys non-exploits in my subsequent report for Mr. Hopkins, but I regaled my fellow students with the story at recess, and Im sure some later sneaked that book out of the library. I was vindicated, but for ages that poem haunted me. Poor Casey.
Striking out can be worse than having a big red pimple arise on the tip of the nose the evening of the prom; worse even than your mother kissing you goodbye as you board the school bus.
Pity the Kid
Thats why I thought of Casey the other day when I read in the Maryland Gazette that to keep their jobs, Anne Arundel County youth league coaches must now let everyone on a team play a specified length of time in every game. No full-time bench warmers.
In baseball and softball, every kids playing time is long enough for one time at bat, and three outs on the field. Horrors.
I got to thinking about some small and skinny kid, as I was in grammar and early high school, to satisfy the new edict, having to have his time at bat in late innings
and the bases are loaded, two outs and down a run or two.
Most of the good players who started have been benched to make room for the non-stars. Parents and siblings (maybe even a girlfriend) are looking on. The pitcher still throws at 90 mph. The team needs the win to get the crown. And there at the plate is the substitute kid who cant hit squat.
Tell me, now. What could be worse? With all that tension, with even his sister tossing the ball to him underhanded, he couldnt even foul the ball. Naturally, he strikes out, and he has to go to school the next day and face his chums. He, like Casey, cant hide forever.
Its as in W. W. Jacobs classic short story, The Monkeys Paw. Dont ask for something, for you might get it and what you get can be worse than if you didnt get it.
You want to play, not sit on the bench. The coach wants to keep his job. And the other team wants to win.
So after, youve whiffed, unless you promptly move to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, no matter how successful you become, for the remainder of your days, youll be called Strikeout Jones. Warming the bench would be better. Even so that smooch from your mother as you board the school bus.
But, seriously, the new county policy isnt all that bad. Its a start in getting away from the prevailing insidious thinking that everyone has to be a winner and that sports are played to win, not for fun. Theres enough of that in real life (and the pros) once play days are over.
Youth is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest; the real competition will come later. The parents of the gifted players who make asses of themselves cheering and jeering in the stands might not like it, nor teammates nor coaches. But lets face it. The purpose of youth leagues is or at least should be to have fun. Theyre not supposed to be intensive, no-nonsense training for a clean-up spot some day in Yankee Stadium.
And for the non-star kid who misses the ball by a country mile (and now the air is shattered by the force of Caseys blow), theres some consolation in what happened at Mudville the century before last. Even Mighty Casey has struck out. Enough said.