Bards of baseball dabble in verse
Some players write poetry, others read for escape
The great American poet Walt Whitman once said, "I see great things in baseball." Who knew that baseball could see great things in poetry as well?
It's not a marriage one would expect to see, is it, poetry and the professional athlete? But there isn't a truer adage in baseball than that you see something new every time you go to a game.
Some players like to read the classics; others prefer more modern works. There are those who not only read, but also craft their own prose. There's a lot of down time over the course of the long baseball season, and there's a group, small as it may be, that fills at least some of that time with poetry. They are the bards of baseball.
The pitcher laureate
No player-poet is more accomplished than Mariners reliever Miguel Batista. He is the only one who can say he has published a book of his own poetry, "Sentimientos en Blanco y Negro (Feelings in Black and White)." A sampling:
I would like the power to save
the souls in agony
who sustain the hope
of improving some day.
"With my writing, I didn't know it was poetry," said Batista, whose volume was published in 2002, after his D-backs won the 2001 World Series. "It was just my thoughts. Then someone told me that's what poetry was. Most people don't have an understanding what poetry is about. Most think it has to be romantic and mushy. Anything said at the right time at the right moment is poetry; anything that can move a man is poetry."
The first line on Batista's personal Web site pretty much sums him up: "Born a Dominican, a pitcher by profession, a poet by vocation." And he has to thank an old teammate for helping to complete that tagline.
Early in his career, Batista would write down his thoughts and ideas whenever he could. In 1997, he was in Spring Training with the Cubs, and his roommate was fellow Dominican pitcher Amaury Telemaco.
Telemaco was very religious and arose early each morning to give himself enough time to pray. Struck by this commitment, Batista put pen to paper about it and left it out on the table. It was Telemaco, after reading Batista's words, who pushed his friend to continue writing and to consider finding a way to publish his works one day.
"He told me I had to make a book," said Batista, who has also penned a novel. "Even if I just sold two copies: one for him and one for me."
Most poets have an inspiration, perhaps even more than one. The 38-year-old Batista has been influenced by many poets he has read but gives particular credit to 19th century Argentine poet Pedro Bonifacio Palacios, who was known as "Almafuerte," or "strong soul." Batista said Palacios inspired youths to try harder, to achieve, a message that particularly moved him.
Batista has been called "The Poet of Baseball" for his devotion to the genre. It's not a title he takes lightly, especially since it's not a vocation that is completely understood within baseball clubhouses, or in culture in general. He has now played for eight organizations, so he has gotten used to teammates trying to get a feel for what all of this is about.
"At the beginning, they look at you a little different because you're showing your soft side," Batista said. "As a pitcher, you're supposed to be a head-hunter type. I said it has nothing to do with the job at hand. When the time comes, I know what my job is, when we have to get tough. It has nothing to do with what we see or write as individuals."
He has seen plenty over the years and continues to see things that inspire him to write. Being able to find the internal strength to let your emotions flow on the page, in some ways, is more challenging than facing a bases-loaded, no-outs situation.
"It helped me understand a lot of things in and out of the game and the person you are after the last out you made," Batista said. "I think poetry, reading it, and especially writing it, is the evolution of the mind and the spirit. You have to get the soul and your heart elevated to a certain degree of understanding to write it. To read, you're reading someone who did that. The poem is to elevate the understanding of the human being to a higher level."
The speedy poet
Rays outfielder Fernando Perez might be one of the fastest men in baseball. He's nearly as quick to record his thoughts in poem or personal essay form. None of his poems have been published, but he did have an essay run in September's issue of Poetry magazine. A graduate of Columbia University who completed the school's creative writing program, he got turned on to modern poets like Langston Hughes, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery because the required reading actually turned him off.
"I was interested in anything that was relevant now," said Perez, who points to E.E. Cummings as the first poet to inspire him. "I was reaching for the modern thing. That would explain why I didn't like the core curriculum in college. I was just more interested in more modern stuff."
In his featured essay, titled "Para Rumbiar," Perez wrote, "Like poetry, baseball is a kind of counter culture." He goes on to write eloquently about the power of words and the need to separate one's self from the game of baseball. "I turn to poetry because it is less susceptible to circumstance," he wrote.
But it is that first excerpt that might be the most telling. Especially since Perez arrived in the big leagues late last year to create a spark for a World Series-bound team, he has done countless interviews as "the smart guy," the one really into academics. Ironically, it's that counter-culture feel he gets from poetry that keeps him reading and writing.
"It's funny, I've always been in baseball doing these interviews about my supposed brilliance," Perez said with a laugh. "I was a cultural studies person. That is almost anti-academic in a sense, too. It's just being thoughtful and never letting things go, always considering implications.
Farewell Father (excerpt)
|By Marcus Lemon, 2006|
| My brother Tupac|
Wrote a song for his mother
Now I'm here
To say farewell to my father
Trying to love him at times
But that's now in my past
That's far behind
When I started writing this
I was filled with rage
But I'm past that stage
I've turned the page
To a new chapter
A new form of literature
Let me give you a better picture
I want to hate, sometimes run away
Just peace between us, I pray
Then maybe his death bed wouldn't appear
"Between that and poetry, I don't see how I fit that bill. It's been a little bit odd to always be in the position of always doing those sorts of interviews. The way I really look at it, it's a little bit anti-academic. It's a little different breed of folks in those classes as opposed to, say, biochemical engineering."
Perez said his teammates either don't know that much about his penchant for poetry, or they don't bring it up all that much. Sometimes, he admitted, he overcompensates to fit in more, but for the most part, it hasn't been an issue.
And unlike Batista, he hasn't published much of his work. The essay in Poetry magazine was one of the only times he has let his two worlds collide.
"I'm really pleased with this hobby status, doing something entirely for me," Perez said. "It's something that just comes, and I want to keep it separate. Everyone feels it's a release, and I find solace in the verses. I don't feel that way. It's just a way I like to experience the world."
The Minor League veteran bard
Giants Minor League hurler Garrett Broshuis had a Twitter post that read:
"Biggest dork in professional baseball. Started the morning off with pancakes, strawberries, a glass of milk and a couple of Kipling poems."
Broshuis is 27 and just finished his fifth full season in the Giants organization. He has gotten as high as Triple-A, and spent parts of four seasons with Connecticut in the Double-A Eastern League. He has seen the ups and downs of this game as much as anyone. Reading poetry allows him to get away from that simply by opening a book.
"This game can be such an emotional game, whether you're in the big leagues or in the Minors," said Broshuis, who writes his own blog as well as a journal for Baseball America, but hasn't dabbled in writing poetry. "No matter how good a person is, he's not going to succeed all the time. There will be days you'll come home, be all alone and need to get away from the game. For a lot of guys, it's video games, for some it's poetry."
Broshuis was introduced to the form in another language. A Spanish minor at the University of Missouri, he studied a bit of Spanish literature, and he found he truly enjoyed the poetry part. He counts Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda and Ruben Dario among his favorites.
"In another language, you had to explore the meaning a little more," Broshuis explained. "It was harder, but it was more fruitful."
Broshuis sees his interest in poetry in the same light as some of his teammates' love of music lyrics. It provides the same kind of outlet, a similar escape. It's possible some of his teammates wouldn't see it the same way, but it's not something he feels most in the clubhouse know about.
"I definitely don't read any poetry in the clubhouse," Broshuis said. "With Metallica blaring in the background, they usually don't go together too much. It's something you do more when you're by yourself. I don't think too many people know I like poetry."
Now that it's out in the open?
"I'll probably suffer in kangaroo court because of it," Broshuis joked. "It's OK. I'm an older guy. It can't be too hard."
The poet blogger
Broshuis isn't the only Minor League pitcher with a blog who also enjoys poetry. Neil Wagner is a reliever in the Indians system, currently playing with the Akron Aeros in the Eastern League playoffs. All season, he has been writing in an MLBlog titled Wagner's Compositions. The right-hander writes about life in the Minors, on the field and off.
For him, that means walking tours of new cities he visits, art museums he checks out and yes, poetry. His trademark has become ending most of his posts with a poem. The most recent was by Ann Pierson Wiese, a work called "Tell Me."
Like Broshuis, he's a reader and not a writer, claiming that the "creative spark" when he's tried hasn't really flowed. Remember that Whitman fellow quoted at the top? Wagner picked up his volume, "Leaves of Grass," in college and that's when he caught the bug. He counts Stephen Dunn as one of his favorites.
"It does pass the time, and it's so completely different than anything I'm doing at any point," Wagner said. "Even if I'm reading fiction or nonfiction, it's all linear stuff, really, almost too structured. Poetry can be so nonstructural, a nice change of pace from baseball, from everything. It's a different way of viewing your life and your experiences."
His fondness for poetry is more public than Broshuis and even Perez because of the blog. He has had some teammates ask him about it, and they will even occasionally pick up one of the books he has with him and thumb through it. Whatever ribbing he gets is of the very gentle nature and the idea that perhaps he's exposing people -- players and readers of the blogs alike -- to something new, intrigues him.
"That'd be nice," Wagner said. "I started putting it on there, and it forced me to go back and read some poetry I hadn't read in a while. If I expose people to new stuff, that's cool. If not, I've enjoyed it. I'm satisfied with it overall."
The son of a big leaguer
When Marcus Lemon meets people, he often doesn't tell people he's a baseball player. He'll describe himself as an artist -- he's an accomplished one who often does portraits of teammates' families -- or someone who likes to write. It allows him to be free of any pigeonholing someone might instinctively do when they hear he's a professional athlete.
"I like it because it makes me feel like I'm not just a baseball player," said Lemon, the son of Chet Lemon. "It's not just about baseball. It's a whole other side of me I can do."
Wherever Lemon goes, he brings books with him, so he can record his thoughts whenever he needs to. It's something that began when his high school teacher gave him a book while he was playing on a high school travel team. He has filled volumes since, talking about achievements as well as sadness.
It provided great solace for him when his father was gravely ill a few years ago. Lemon wrote about his feelings during that time in a powerful 710-word piece he called "Farewell Father," an excerpt of which he has allowed to run with this story.
"It's a proactive way to express myself," said Lemon, who was truly touched that those he showed this poem felt they could understand his emotions. "It's an outlet."
He's written about Hurricane Katrina and even about the travails of trying to fulfill a dream of making it to the big leagues. It's not often these bards use the game itself as inspiration, instead choosing poetry as a means to show a different side of themselves. But sometimes, at least for Lemon, it's a way to get out his frustrations from a game where getting a hit 30 percent of the time is deemed successful.
"You fail more than you succeed and still be one of the best," Lemon said. "It's an outlet to not do something you'd regret. I travel a lot. Sometimes it's hard to find a person to talk to, so it's easier to just jot down things."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.