NO JOY IN MUDVILLE—BUT A RAY OF HOPE
As I endure the unrelenting heat wave of a North Carolina June, I stay indoors as much as possible, but still keep my finger on the pulse of my favorite sport: baseball. My St. Louis Cardinals pretty much own in the National League Central Division, and that makes me smile. However, I remember just four years ago, I had no smiles at the end of a baseball game, despite my team’s fantastic season. The NJCAA Baseball Play-Offs in Burlington probably missed most of Franklin County, NC population’s radar, that year, but for me, at least, it served as a metaphor for how that year at Louisburg College had evolved.
I began my fourth year teaching English Composition and Literature classes at Louisburg, feeling optimistic and comfortable. Things looked bright for the school, but within weeks one hard knock after another hit both the faculty and student body. Despite an interesting group of incoming freshman, a stable, well-adjusted returning class, and peers with whom I enjoyed working and interacting, that year turned into a grim scratch and dig time for all of us.
As obstacles mounted, ranging from financial issues to searching for a new president, and the tenor of each week became tighter and harder, I realized how much I’d come to love the college. Since I live in Raleigh, attending the many athletic and extra-curricular events after school was hard. Yet, I realized amid the college’s difficulties, I wanted to be as involved as possible with my students and the institution I had come to care about so much. I started paying more attention to the activities in which my students were involved. How could I connect outside the classroom? The answer presented itself through baseball.
I’ve always loved baseball. My husband and I grew up in the Ohio Valley near Pittsburgh during the thrilling years of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and my “hometown” hero, Bill Mazeroski, playing gritty baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Many years later, due to my husband’s re-assignment to the St. Louis area in the summer of 1984, we began to follow the baseball Cardinals for several years of magic base stealing, the wonder of watching “the Wizard”, Ozzie Smith, making miracles at short stop, and the audacious managing of “White Rat” Whitey Herzog. When we relocated to North Carolina, my only hope lay in what I’d seen of the Carolina League in Bull Durham. Instead of the Bulls, we found the Mudcats. Our son re-created Five-County Stadium in an eight year-old’s bedroom and had a lead story written about it in the Clarion Times. After I accepted the teaching position at LC, I discovered its baseball program’s almost legendary status, so it seemed only right to hang my small gallery of baseball write-ups from the Martins Ferry Times Leader about Mazeroski, my few Cardinal pictures, and the write up of my son’s artistic accomplishment on the walls of the very first office I’d had in my fourteen-year teaching career. Many students noticed the baseball related items on my office walls, and I talked baseball with the students, but I’d never attended any sporting event—not even a baseball game.
Then, as the spring term of the difficult year rolled toward graduation, one of my students, a pitcher, Paul Clemens, invited me to come and see him throw that afternoon. Since the game started right after classes, I could go directly to the field and not have to make the round trip to Raleigh. I went and I loved it. The kids played amazing ball. Fans and parents offered genuine friendliness and were pleased to see a faculty member at a game. I decided to reach out some more. Because of that one baseball game, I attended poetry readings, art shows, recitals, and Spring Open House.
The experiences I enjoyed at Open House came about because of baseball. My husband,Cliff, a former collegiate scholarship football player for Virginia Military Institute, had begun attending weekend games with me, bringing his scorebook and helping me keep the minutia of rules straight. He had played baseball throughout his youth, and through high school, lettering in that sport as well as a couple of others. He admired the level of play the Hurricanes put together, and it became a fun way for us to spend time together. Some of the football players attended a baseball game when we were there; I introduced them to Cliff and they immediately asked if I would come and see them play in the spring game.
My husband, told them, “Of course we’ll come.”
Following the college’s spring Open House, we attended the football team’s scrimmage, mingling with perspective students and parents. We also saw the Varsity versus Alumni soccer game where we chatted with former soccer players I’d taught in previous years, as well as with several of the women’s soccer players. We caught the second game of a double-header that the baseball team held. There we met some of the women’s softball players who we who were currently in my classes had seen play a couple of times. I’d never attended an Open House, but because of baseball, I did that year, and I ended up coming together and mixing with people I would never have met otherwise.
During the next weeks of classes, basketball players checked to make sure I would attend their games in the up-coming year. Football players who hadn’t seen us at the scrimmage were pleased that I’d been there and wanted to know if I’d come see them play in the fall. Class attendance improved, assignments suddenly came in on time, and it wasn’t just from the athletes. The people whose art I’d seen perked up; the ones whose poetry I’d praised, smiled more, and I’ve never seen such high grades on a literature final in my career. I had photos taken with many graduating students, met their families and sincerely knew I belonged at Louisburg College.
Although classes were over and grades handed in, not everything had culminated. The Louisburg Hurricanes baseball team entered the regional play-offs feeling just as I had back in August: this was their year. They had every right to feel that. Their record amazed me; they had a bye in the opening game because of their fine season. As my husband and I joined their parents, grandparents, siblings, girlfriends, other coaches and classmates to watch them play their first game, I felt such pride to be part of Louisburg College. This team of young men, half of whom had taken classes with me, had come together to play beautiful baseball. They brought me more than that, though. Sitting in the Burlington Royals’ stadium, I watched moms and dads whose sons had spent two full years at Louisburg support and encourage other parents whose kids had come to LC after a year at another college, just for the opportunity to play in this program, with these two coaches. I saw folks hug a guy who was from Oklahoma because his parents could not come so far to see him play. I talked to a dad who drove 400 miles to watch his brilliant son play left field. As I told him what a wonderful student that young man was, he just stared in disbelief.
I noticed a spectator had a St Louis Cardinals pin on his hat.
I exclaimed, “That’s a birds-on-bat!” (We loyal fans recognize this symbol for the St Louis Cardinals at forty paces.)
He grinned, “Yeah, when I moved down here, I thought I’d have to go without baseball, but here are these kids—ain’t they something?” and we two Cardinal fans smiled like idiots.
An incredible come-from-behind win thrilled the Hurricane’s crowd as the team used wily base running to put them in place to take advantage of, and score the winning run on, an improbable wild pitch: a very wild pitch since the catcher had called for a pitch out in order to walk a potentially dangerous batter. Everyone grinned like idiots. I kept trying to get in my car, but excited player after excited player ran over to thank me for coming and to ask, “Are you coming tomorrow?”
The Louisburg players acted like gentlemen. They cheered each other; they encouraged the guy who sagged and pumped up the slugger who popped out. They filled me with admiration for their class and style. Our boys shone like they knew how they would behave in the Bigs, and I could see where they’d learned it: from dignified and friendly upbringing. They had warmhearted parents like the mother who had taken hundreds of photos and developed at her own cost, then gave copies to other parents, and some to me when I mentioned how many of the guys I’d taught. Other moms helped her sort them into envelopes so she could distribute them. That kind of open hearted generosity and caring stands out and these qualities had obviously rubbed off on those parents’ sons.
Still, on a cold, wet Mother’s Day, they had to accept a runner’s up trophy. Through tears of immense gratification, I watched that left fielder show poise as he alone seemed to hear the announcement to present the trophy. Head a bit bowed, he walked briskly over, accepted the round disk, and got his team mates’ attention so they could pose for a final picture of that Louisburg College Hurricanes baseball team. I’m certain there were no smiles in that photo. Those guys had really thought their final photo would be in Colorado where the NJCAA College World Series takes place. Many of those in the stands looked bemused. Half the team would go on to other schools. A few expected offers in the draft come June. Several would come back to classes in August. That’s where I found my hope.
Even folks who are not baseball fans know the poem “Casey at the Bat” and its melancholy last line, “There is no joy in Mudville–Mighty Casey has struck out”. Baseball demands that we hang tough. Most people think The Natural has a happy ending because of the film starring Robert Redford. The author of the original book, Bernard Malamud, however, chose to have Roy Hobbs strike out, just like Casey. In the tightly written novella, Hobbs goes down swinging, doesn’t get the girl, never meets his son, and is forgotten: he is not “the best who ever played the game”.
As I think back over that year and the punch after punch the college took and yet, still hurting, began again in the fall, I also see the players, parents, fans, and coaches heads down, tired, confused making their way out of Burlington’s stadium on Mother’s Day and remember several players who came up and hugged me hard saying, “See you next year, Mrs. B.” Yeah. In baseball and college, there is always next year—not the same year, but a new year fresh and filled with hope.
And the kid who invited me to that first game? Paul Clemens is pitching as closer for the Houston Astros. That makes me smile.