What We’ll Do Till Spring: Baseball as the Dream of Democracy in Take Me Out

“Take Me Out” reminds us there’s always another chance to do it better, whatever “it” may be.

In the opening soliloquy of Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out, wise and even-tempered New York Empires player Kippy tries to prepare the audience for the play they’re about to see. After half-heartedly describing the motivations of a few of the characters, Kippy takes it back to the beginning: “The whole mess started in eighteen something-something when Abner Doubleday (this never happened) gathered a group of friends into a sylvan vale and mapped out a diamond made of four bases set ninety feet apart and…”

But retelling the fairy tale of baseball’s invention doesn’t capture it either. So Kippy takes it way back, to the very, very beginning: “The whole mess started with a really beautiful park. And in the park were a man, a woman, a serpent, and this tree. And…”

He trails off. Even the Fall of Man itself can’t account for what is about to unfold.

Kippy’s struggle to describe the story to come stems in part from the fact that he can’t blame the play’s tragic outcome on protagonist Darren Lemming. Based on Derek Jeter, Darren is not just an outstanding athlete, “a five-tool player of such incredible grace, he made you suspect there was a sixth tool.” He’s the American Dream embodied, a mixed-race, middle-class man who transcends all prejudices. As Kippy succinctly puts it, “mess does not flow forth from Darren Lemming.”

And yet the play’s plot—the mess—does flow forth from Darren. The play’s action begins when Darren casually reveals that he’s gay. The fact means little to him. He shrugs the whole thing off, reasoning, “[i]f I’m gonna have sex…I’d rather do it with a guy,” before making clear, “when all is said and done…I’d rather just play ball.” But despite his apathy, the revelation sparks concern from his well-meaning fans, from his self-righteous best friend and rival all-star Davey Battle, and from the aggressively homophobic Shane Mungitt, an uncouth pitcher modeled loosely after John Rocker.

But the conflict and tragedy that follow Darren’s coming-out, though proceeding from him, can’t be blamed on him. He’s not at fault. He just wanted to play ball. And so, with no one bad guy to blame, Kippy goes first to the beginning of baseball, and then to the beginning of everything, suggesting that “mess” is inherent to the sport and to humanity.

As the play unfolds, though, Greenberg’s vision becomes more specific—the mess is inherent to America. With its melting-pot dugout, myths of greatness, and alleged meritocracy, baseball in the play stands in for America. And like America, it’s a place of confusion, expectation, and struggle.

***

As one would expect from a writer, Greenberg finds these qualities most prominently in language. Characters in Take Me Out constantly try to explain themselves to one another in simple terms, only to fail to be understood. Sometimes it’s simply because they speak a different language, as in the case of fielders Martinez and Rodriguez or Japanese pitcher Kawabata, whose dialogue is presented in their mother tongues and often translated with comical brevity by Kippy. Sometimes it’s because they lack articulation, as with the aggressively small-minded Toddy and with Shane’s incomprehensible drawl.

The alleged “smartest man in baseball,” Kippy does a lot of explaining to and for players. As one of Darren’s few confidants, Kippy takes time to listen and sympathize with Darren while also working to calm tensions among those uncomfortable with a gay ballplayer, especially Shane. A man of few graces and fewer words, Shane doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want to give his opinions on Darren or Davey or anyone else. He doesn’t want to think about what baseball means. He just wants to throw.

But as a Double-A call-up who brought the slumping Empires back into playoff contention, Shane can’t dodge the press, especially those with questions about Darren. When a homophobic slur during a postgame interview gets Shane suspended, thereby setting the team back on a losing streak, Kippy takes it upon himself to translate for the pitcher and return him to the sport’s good graces. Unbeknownst to his teammates, Kippy writes for Shane a press statement that portrays him as a simple-minded hillbilly, who uses words like “onliest” and claims, “I didn’t know mosta those words meant bad stuff.” The letter gets Shane back onto the team and the Empires into the playoffs, but it also increases hostilities between him and Darren, which leads, ultimately, to the pitch that kills Davey.

Why did Kippy write the letter? To get Shane back, sure, but why did he think this was the way to go about it? Because he thought he could. The letter felt “authentic,” Kippy tells the audience, before he admits to us that he wrote it. When his duplicity gets exposed, Kippy defends himself by saying, “I thought…I knew who he really was…I thought I was the only one who did.” As much as Kippy presents himself as the sympathetic go-between for all the various characters, he ultimately reveals himself to be just one more bad interpreter, one person who sees the signs and can’t make sense of them.

Kippy’s hardly the only one in the play with this problem. In fact, nearly everyone misunderstands one another. Darren comes out only after he takes Davey’s admonition to make his “whole self known” to be acceptance of his orientation. Likewise, Davey gives Darren this advice only because he thinks he knows Darren is straight. Darren intentionally assaults Shane in the shower, pretending Shane flirted with him, while Shane takes the fallout of Darren’s climactic argument with Davey as a desire to see Davey killed.

To answer Kippy’s opening questions, the source from which the mess flows forth is just good old-fashioned misunderstanding. Darren thinks Davey told him to come out of the closet, so he does. Kippy thinks Shane is well-intentioned but ignorant, so he writes that into the letter. The reinstated Shane thinks Darren wanted his friend dead, so he kills Davey with a baseball.

Baseball Coding with Rust – Intro
Getting into the nitty gritty of baseball action via a new(er) programming language.

Such a mess doesn’t flow forth from any one person. It flows forth from the point where humanity started, and it continues flowing through America.

***

There’s an American arrogance to the ballplayers of the New York Empires, even those not from America. The Japanese-born Kawabata, whose first act in the major leagues was “to dismiss [his] translator” and who refuses to speak English, asks in a monologue (spoken to the audience in English, ironically), “Why must things have meanings?” For Kawabata, to be American is to be meaningless. “This is how I try to be an American,” he tells us. “I make my mind a prairie. I think nothing. I think of great flat stretches of nothing.”

Of course, it’s hard to think of anything more symbolically American than a great prairie, but many characters invoke their American-ness as the right not to interpret. Born in Tennessee or Arkansas or Mississippi, raised in a group home because his parents may have died in a murder-suicide, Shane feels like a living stereotype of the American South, complete with the tragic background. But he refuses to recognize the significance of his biography, or of the words he uses, insisting instead, “I’M NOT S’POSE TA TALK! I’M S’POSE TA THROW!”

And it’s hard to imagine a character in fiction who exemplifies American exceptionalism better than Darren. Throughout the play, he explicitly claims he’s above nearly everyone else in the world, or at least everyone else on the field—though to him, the two might as well be the same thing. When belligerent teammate Toddy tries to put him in his place, arguing that “God doesn’t spare ballplayers” and reminding him that “God got Munson. God got Clemente,” Darren concedes only by insisting, “short’a God, there’s nobody.” It’s this same arrogance that inspires Darren to reveal himself. “I’m Darren Lemming, and that’s a very good thing,” he thinks. Fans surely would be grateful to learn the truth about him—any truth about him.

While some people resent Darren for failing to consider them when he comes out, and others, like Davey, feel misled by his behavior, those who sympathize with Darren annoy him most. When Kippy tries to explain that sympathy is better for him because it makes him more likable and more human, Darren asks, “What was I before?” Kippy answers, “Sort of…godly,” and Darren makes his point with a question: “Isn’t that a demotion?”

***

Darren might see it as a demotion, but the play sees it as a natural part of living in a community. Although he considers himself to be “invested” by God with “godlike attributes,” the gift comes from other people who watch him hit and catch and consider his abilities to hit and catch monumentally important. By his own admission, Darren is “an amateur of narcissism,” who assumes “everybody in the world is just a version of me.” But as he contends with interpretations of language, actions, and symbols, he has to accept that other people differ from him and other people matter.

Greenberg underscores the difficulty of living with other people who interpret differently with the portrayal of conversations between Darren and Davey. A fellow athlete of exceptional caliber, Davey lives a “well-rounded” life because he has his wife and his children, and he worries because Darren lacks the same. “[Y]ou’re all sly, all quick-witted and mysterious,” he tells Darren. “But until you love somebody…[y]ou’ll never know your true nature.” Davey tells Darren that he knows him, that he sees his true nature. When he later confronts Darren over the revelation of his sexuality, Davey is offended that Darren “hid” his orientation but refuses to believe he made a mistake. “How can things go badly when two people speak their truth?” he asks Darren.

It’s a ridiculous statement to make about a conversation about misunderstanding. Like Kippy, Davey wants to believe messes don’t flow forth from people like him and Darren. But here they are, in a mess. The whole play is full of messes: a messy season and messy pennant race, a mess in the clubhouse, a mess in the news. To be a ballplayer is to be in a mess. To be a human is to be in a mess. To be an American is to be in a mess.

The play never shies away from the illogical homophobia Darren endures. Nor does it ignore the privilege that shields Darren from the worst consequences racism and homophobia can bring—even as it ultimately illustrates those with Davey’s violent on-field death, hit in the head by Shane’s intentional beanball.

But Take Me Out also insists there’s a hope in community. That community looks a lot like democracy, and democracy looks a lot like baseball.

***

This there becomes particularly clear through Mason Marzac, an accountant assigned to Darren’s assets. Mason knows nothing about baseball but begins watching the sport out of due diligence. Initially intrigued by the game’s numerical symbolism, Mason comes to believe “baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society.”

Greenberg devotes significant time in the middle of the first act to Mason’s soliloquy, the longest in a piece filled with speeches. It’s a speech about the dignity of baseball. Baseball has a noble equality that gives everyone the same opportunity to strike, hit, or walk. Baseball takes its time, letting each person play at their own pace. Baseball has justices distributed throughout the field to ensure fairness. Mason knows baseball isn’t perfect and the umpires make mistakes, but he loves that players can make appeals. And even though the appeal always fails, for Mason, “that’s part of what makes the metaphor so right.”

Of course, that’s an overly simplified, overly idealized version of baseball, and the play reminds us that Mason is new to sport. It’s also a simplified version of democracy, one at odds with what we’ve seen even in the play. There’s no justice for Darren’s lifestyle, no chance for him to define himself, nor does he treat others justly. No one expresses themselves successfully. Misunderstandings always occur, often with disastrous, deadly results.

But in the same way the inefficacy of umpire appeals makes the practice of appeals a good metaphor for democracy, the difference between actual baseball and actual democracy makes the latter more important. Mason rhapsodizes about baseball more than any of the actual players precisely because he knows so little about it. Shielded from the disappointments experience brings, Mason can see baseball for what it could be, what it should be, and pushes toward that.

So when he declares “baseball is better than democracy…because, unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss,” he’s calling on baseball to guide democracy. Baseball, with its rules and its symbols and its customs—Mason spends a third of soliloquy praising the gratuitous celebrations that follow home runs—helps us push past the disappoints with democracy and strive to make it better. In baseball, Mason contends, we see “the tragic vision democracy evades. Evades and embodies.” The struggles against one another; the customs interpreted by each other; the celebrations shared together.

Mason gives Darren the opportunity to be around someone who knows him neither as a baseball god nor as a symbol of a race or orientation. Sure, Mason has some ideas about his new client, mostly from a marshmallow commercial Darren once did, but he knows so little about the specifics of the sport or about living on Darren’s level that it’s all new and open for interpretation for him. Darren introduces Mason to the game of baseball, and Mason allows Darren to see the game anew.

They are completely different and yet connected in their outsider status. The exceptional Darren, too good to relate to most ballplayers and too single and gay to relate to Davey, cannot join a community. Not even the gay community knows what to do with him. Mason would like to join that community but laments, “the community won’t really have me.” Darren is outside communities because he’s above them; Mason is outside communities because he is “[p]ossibly beneath them.”

And yet, by virtue of their being together on the periphery of, as Mason puts it, “a community to which neither of us belongs but with which we will both inevitably be associated,” they form a community. A messy place with rules that must be transgressed and chances given in excess. A democracy that looks like a ballgame.

As messy as Darren’s revelation is, it opens the fandom to people like Mason, others who thought themselves outside the game but now see it as theirs. Mason describes a gay couple in his apartment to whom “two months earlier, Darren Lemming would have meant nothing.” Now, though, he means something. What exactly he means to them is not clear. But because he means something, they are able to interpret him, to make sense of him. They get to use his playing as a way to make sense of their life, to participate in the pageantry of the sport.

As the play’s lover of baseball and democracy, Mason best articulates the new community it forms. Describing the first game he attended in person, the one-time sports agnostic tells with pride about a vocal crowd, “full of scholars” and “historians” in the subject of baseball. And because the subject was baseball and because he now loves baseball, Mason finds himself “engaged in learned debate with all these…strangers, these…guys.” During a baseball game, Mason has memories about “[p]laying catch with Dad” and “[g]oing to games over summer vacation.” They aren’t “my memories,” Mason exclaims, “but I’m having them.”

The outsider who, despite mess upon mess, gets caught up in the sport, Mason is the only character with whom this play could end. After the shockwaves of Darren’s revelation, after Shane’s entrance and departure and return and ejection from the major leagues, after Davey’s death, the Empires win the World Series. Darren looks on his championship rings as if they are meaningless—“I already have two others,” he blithely observes—but they become transformed when he slips one onto Mason’s finger. A marriage of sorts.

With a championship ring on his finger, about to go as Darren’s date into “a roomful of jocks,” Mason is transformed. He once again sees the game differently from everyone else. So when Darren walks offstage saying, “What a fuck of a season,” Mason has to agree. But he also has to ask, “What will we do till spring?”

Because no matter how messy it got, this season expanded the people in the community. With diversity comes misunderstanding, and with misunderstanding comes mess and even tragedy. But they’re still there together, and there’s always next season.

Democracy in the U.S. has always been fraught, and with its bullpen of bigots, blowhards, and buffoons trying to figure one another out, Take Me Out reminds us why. But it also reminds us that no matter how many times we blow it, there’s always another game, another season, another chance to do it better.


Joe George's writing about movies, literature, comics, and theology has appeared at sites such as Think Christian, Tor.com, Bloody Disgusting, and Fathom Magazine. He collects his work at joewriteswords.com and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.
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JTMart
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JTMart

I saw this play at TheatreWorks in Hartford, Connecticut several years ago. The play was mostly remembered for it’s frequent, full, frontal nudity.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

This was a pretty interesting review of a play I would never want to see or even read. Thanks for the insights. I’m just surprised that you didn’t say anything about Darren’s obviously symbolic last name. Every ballplayer has an end of career in which he often continues marching into the water where he doesn’t belong and then drowns. The number of ex-pro-athletes who end up with a life-crash after the dream is over is legion. Even those who parlay their former stardom into some kind of second career find it to be a pale shadow of what once was.… Read more »

BobDD
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BobDD

Yuck!

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

What’s the purpose of this asinine comment?