The Dimensions of Nostalgia: An Account of How It Is

Circa Baseball brings back memories of playing baseball growing up. (via Robert Taylor)

I write about baseball at an L-shaped desk on one side of a square room.

Before me, about 12 feet beyond my screen, are three vertical bookshelves crowded with books. One is about baseball, and I haven’t read it yet. To my left is an identical bookshelf. It, too, is crowded with books, but just two are about baseball. Point is, if you were to enter this office, you’d see scant evidence that I even enjoy the Pastime, let alone use language to describe it.

In time, though, you’d see on the far end of the L-shaped desk a wooden item measuring 12 inches in length, 12 in width and six in height. Per its box, it is called Original Circa Baseball: A Classic Pinball-Style Baseball Game.

The box cover itself is a study in deliberate nostalgia. On the bottom right are color reproductions of three old baseball cards — of Lefty Grove, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb — all evocative of baseball’s Golden Age, when the game’s lore and mystique rooted itself in today’s grainy images. On the upper left is a black-and-white photo of an anonymous youth baseball team in 1963, in Anywhere, America, posing before an outfield fence bearing an advertising sign for boys apparel. Just beside the photo is an image of a hardback book open to a black-and-white print of a long-ago baseball game, its male spectators wearing bowler hats and suit jackets. Beneath that horizontal photo, partially obscured, is the opening line of “Casey at the Bat.”

Centering the montage, beside a pristine baseball, is a photo of the pinball game itself, bordered by the sentimental tokens of the way things used to be.

***

I remember my first base hit.

I was, I guess, about eight years old. It happened a long time ago, understand, long before eager parents aimed Samsung phones at passing moments. I am alone in this. I was alone in that. There in the batter’s box, and here at the desk, I alone put my being at the center of the narrative, with no secondary source to provide support: no moving images, no still shots.

The day was hot and sunny. I guess it still is. I can see it, through a haze of decades, and in a way I can feel it. Heat doesn’t change. I looked out at the pitcher with the eyes I see through now; there he is, in his YMCA shirt, as relevant to the game as it is irrelevant to the narrative. Nervous, eager, I bent to scoop two handfuls of loose dirt. I rubbed it in my soft little hands. I had seen a kid named Rodney do it, and Rodney seemed like a man. He hit everything hard and he was frightening. If you were going to be like someone, you were going to be like Rodney. My hands were orange. I took my stance and waved the bat above my right shoulder just as Rodney had done.

You learn how you learn. This was our third or fourth game of the year and I had not gotten a hit. I had struck the ball, yes, had struck it many times, but I had yet to reach first base and stay there. You learn how you learn. Prior to the game, at our home on Rupley Lane, my older brother had told me to take a swing. I had. He had chuckled and said, “You don’t know how to swing?”

He had shown me how to turn the right foot as I drove into the ball, and to finish on my toes on the follow-through. Thus far in my short career, using the intuition nature gave me, I had swung flat-footed. Nobody had demonstrated otherwise or instructed differently. I don’t remember my coach’s name, and maybe there is a reason for that. I looked out at the pitcher and he at me. I can still see him, backlit by a scorching yellow sun — so bright I feared I might not see the ball at all. I see it. It comes sailing into the strike zone and I use my new swing, freshly reorganized, to drive it on a sharp line up the middle.

I see the ball now, hung on the line, stilled in space for eternity. It remains.

What remains, too, is the feel of it: soft, so contradictory to the solid ring of impact, a sort of incompatible tenderness that still runs through the hands and forearms, still occupies the same instruments I used to produce a tactile sensation as well as a vivid memory, a vision of the way things used to be.

***

What Is Supposed to Happen at the Winter Meetings?
What, exactly, are we all here for?

My wife bought the pinball game at Marshalls. She brought it home one day and said, “I have a surprise for you!” I was excited. I won’t lie. She handed the box to me and the first thing I saw on its cover was the image of the pristine white ball next to the game itself. When I first glimpsed that white cowhide, those red laces, that perfectly round shape, I got the same feeling I always get when I see a baseball. It is a feeling that, even for a writer, is awfully hard to articulate. How do you convey a Christmas kind of gladness? How do you “put into words,” as they say, what can’t even find all the letters? That fresh hide is an empty canvas, where all possibilities are poised. The round shape — what is it? It is a globe, I think, home of infinite potentials.

Box in hand, I turned it over. On one side it read:

  • 1 WOODEN PINBALL-STYLE GAME
  • 2 METAL BALLS
  • 1 BALL STORAGE FABRIC BAG
  • 1 RULE GUIDE

On the other it read:

“‘Play ball!’ Experience America’s greatest pastime with Circa Baseball. Small enough to display beautifully on a desk or shelf, this miniature pinball-style game is loaded with authentic details that evoke the grand old ballparks of yesteryear. Launch the pinball and swing the bat to hit singles, doubles, triples and home runs. Sure to delight the child in each of us!”

***

I remember my second hit, too. It arrived in what is now the endless space of the same game, with the sun yet lower in the afternoon sky, yellow, bold, eternally bright. Again I bent to scoop loose dirt. Again I rubbed it in my soft little hands. Confident, eager, I took my stance and waved the bat above my shoulder just as Rodney had done, just as I had done. You do learn.

Wedged against reminiscence, the passage of time will always elide the moments unnecessary to the memory they helped create. It will always compress events into a digest, fundamental to the stories we tell ourselves, of what actually advanced to the breach of recollection. Today, at my desk, I can’t say exactly what the count was — 1-0? 3-1? — when I hit that ball. I have to think it was a hitter’s count, though I knew no such term. But was it?

The ball erupted from the softness of contact, that strange contradiction in cause and effect, and quickly took on the trajectory the first hit had taken. It shot toward the gap between shortstop and second base, on a line toward center field. Poised in my follow-through, balanced on the flat of my left foot and the toes of my right, I dropped the bat and started toward first base for the second time today. It is still the second time today. Even now I see the ball in midsequence, just hung there, still as stillness, as I take my initial steps toward a second base hit. Then, suddenly, I stopped. Still, I’m stopped.

Launched for all time on a line to center field, the ball intersects with the shortstop’s outstretched glove. It is there now, in that cruel and unfair leather.

***

The rule guide puts it plainly.

Circa Baseball — How to Play

The Field

“Circa Baseball has six hole placements ranging from singles to home runs. The holes are positioned in such a way that singles are easiest, home runs the most difficult. For home runs, a ball must go up the ramp and through the hole to count.… There are also four ‘out’ holes placed strategically on the game surface.”

***

When I got home after the game, I told my brother I had gone two-for-two.

Somehow I knew the nomenclature. But it was a lie. I had gone one-for-two.

What had separated a hit from an out, however, seemed an arbitrary twist of circumstance and one that never should have inflicted itself on a little kid who’d gone gunning for his second base hit of the ballgame … and of his life.

It seemed a stark injustice, a violation of the arrangement we had made with consequence: Give a good effort, get a good reward. This ran counter to the cause-and-effect uniformities we had seen and experienced. No kid on TV, even on the Afternoon Specials that had made education of entertainment, would have been so abused by a chain of straight-line events. Those TV kids were always carried away on shoulders, showered with joyous attaboys.

But this — this, in simplest terms, did not seem right.

I had a reason for saying I’d gone two-for-two. It wasn’t to make my brother feel good about teaching me to properly swing a bat. It was to make me feel good — me, the guy whose story this was — for having properly swung a bat.

***

Circa Baseball — How to Play

Just like the Big Leagues

“Before stepping up to the plate it is advised a player take a few practice swings to get the feel for the bat. Using your left hand to steady the game, pull the lever located on the right side of the game towards you with your right hand. This is the lever that controls your bat swing. Once you’re comfortable with your swing, it’s time to put the ball in play.”

The lever, spring-loaded, boasts more than a bit of resistance. The attached bat — wooden, rounded, about an inch in length — has quite a lot of pop.

The Pitch

“Place the supplied ball in the spring-loaded plunger located on the right side of the game. Pull back on the plunger and release the ball into play. Pitch trajectory is controlled by the amount of force you use with the plunger.”

In time, with practice, I grew accustomed to the range of pitches. And in time, with experience, I grew accustomed to the swing itself: the swiftness, the strength, the way it arrived too early or came too late, and the way it could miss the ball entirely.

I grew accustomed, too, to the traps and inequities of the game, the way the four “out” holes lay strewn like ghastly landmines. You can strike the ball perfectly, right on the sweet spot, and en route to a certain double or triple it goes straight to the oblivion of an out. Indeed, as if obliged to statistical regression, I grew slightly less accustomed to the joys occasioned by a single, a double, a triple, their holes lying just beyond the “outs.” And I grew even less accustomed, alas, to the hard-to-reach home run.

***

I still remember my first home run — my first real home run.

In the early days, when I first learned to swing, the pasture-like outfields were absent fences of any kind. Home runs, such as they were, came whenever an overgrown kid launched a ball over the outfielder’s head and saw it roll to an adjoining field, there to befuddle some awkward outfielder engaged in a neighboring game, or whenever a smaller kid smoked a ball into a gap and raced around the bases while the outfielders chased it like panicked rats.

My own short history had included several of these fenceless homers, predicated less on power than on good old-fashioned foot speed. Still, on a ballfield, there is nothing so splendid as the moment the ball leaves the yard after striking your bat, nothing so exciting as the instant the ump raises a hand and twirls a finger to signal your induction into the society of men.

Mine came on a low and inside pitch. I dropped the barrel and sent the ball down the left field line on a fearsome trajectory, low, leftward-curving, launched toward the chain-link fence as if to outrace the ding! that had so recently spawned and announced it. I was thrilled — a sure double! As I raced toward second base, ready to slide through an orange cloud and into a too-late tag, I saw the ump raise his hand and twirl his meaningful finger.

His dispassion confused me. It seemed to me a neutrality that ran counter to the joy that his gesture should have triggered. Did he just not care? Or was it his job, written into the description, to conceal his happiness for me?

No matter —I circled the bases and touched home plate like I’d seen on TV. I still see it now, through a haze of decades, but somehow, no matter how I wish to touch it again, it remains separate, distant, caught in the psychic haze. Timelessness works only in memory, I think. Here in these hands, the sensations are only old ghosts, together a pretense of the way it used to be.

***

Nowadays, whenever I play Circa Baseball, I cheat.

As the rules clearly state, “Full swings must be made when swinging the bat. ‘Check swings’ or ‘trapping’ the ball with the bat constitute a strike.”

Truth be told — a far different tactic than I used with my brother — I have become an expert at “trapping.” By pulling the lever slightly and leaving the bat rigid in mid-arc, I’m able to catch the ball and stop its progress. Then, after positioning the ball at just the right place on the bat, I flip the lever and send the ball speeding toward the ramp.

Bam!

As often as not, it flies through the HOME RUN hole and — with a thud as satisfying as the crack of a bat — slams against the back wall before settling into a wooden box just above the 410-foot sign. Situated on both sides of that center field grandstand are triple-decker bleachers filled with what seems a capacity crowd, little painted figures of men and women enjoying the grand old game. Beneath them, hanging on the right- and left-field walls beside the 330-foot signs, are drapes of red-and-white bunting.

The whole thing, all of it, looks pretty realistic. Adding to the realism is that whenever I hit a home run, I make the usual crowd sound: “heahhhhhhhh!”

I don’t know how to spell it, but everybody knows how it sounds.

***

On the front cover of the Circa Baseball box, down in the bottom right corner beneath the trio of Golden Era baseball cards, is a key message: Ages 8 +.

I write about baseball at an L-shaped desk on one side of a square room.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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jarhead659
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jarhead659

Beautiful…thanks.

lilpudge
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lilpudge

I really enjoyed this. Thanks!

hopbitters
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hopbitters

If you orient yourself just right, it’s a diamond-shaped room. Maybe squint a little.