The title phrase of this post is from one of my three most favorite books, Shoeless Joe by W.P. (William Patrick) Kinsella. It is not the signature line from the book or the movie it inspired, Field of Dreams. That would be the oft-quoted “If you build it, he will come.”
The scene that proclaims that “the word is baseball” is from the book Shoeless Joe, which is, itself, based on a short story entitled “Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa.” In the scene, we are seated beside a young man named Ray Kinsella on the bleachers at a baseball diamond hacked out of a cornfield near Iowa City.
This is significant to me because it combines two things I love dearly: baseball diamonds and corn fields. I grew up surrounded by cornfields. There are few things that fill me with a sense of intense well-being like the whispering of corn on a warm August evening. And diamonds? They really are a girl’s best friend. Even Little League baseball diamonds bring tears of joy to my eyes—a Major League diamond like the Giants park in San Francisco? You don’t wanna know.
Anyway, here we are, on this homemade grandstand looking out on a baseball diamond whose outfield ends in rows of corn and on which the players are all wearing throwback unis from every age in the 130 years or so of organized baseball. Out in the middle of the diamond (a diamond that made Shoeless Joe exclaim “Is this heaven?”) a player named Eddie Scissons makes like a reverend on Sunday morning, preaching the word.
“I take the word of baseball and begin to talk it. I begin to speak it. I begin to live it. The word is baseball. Say it after me,” says Eddie Scissons, and raises his arms.
“The word is baseball,” we barely whisper
“Say it out loud,” exhorts Eddie.
“The word is baseball,” we say louder, but still self-consciously…
“The word is what?”
“Is what?” As his voice rises, so do ours.
He pauses dramatically. “Can you imagine? Can you imagine?” His voice is filled with evangelical fervor. “Can you imagine walking around with the very word of baseball enshrined inside you? Because the word of salvation is baseball. It gets inside you. Inside me. And the words that I speak are spirit, are baseball.”
My dad—Chief Master Sergeant Henry T. Harber, USAF—tried to teach me the word. He was a catcher in his youth, and played a little minor league ball before he blew out his knees and joined the Air Force. I think if my mom hadn’t been so adamant that he avoid treating me like a boy, he might have snuck me out to the school yard to play catch. But that didn’t happen, so I didn’t learn the word until many years later.
Now, I saw the movie Field of Dreams before I read either the short story or the book. Before I knew who W.P. Kinsella was. Before I knew, as Kinsella wrote in Shoeless Joe, that a baseball park at night is more like a church than a church. But baseball, I discover, is insidious. It sneaks up on you and looks for any point of entry.
Baseball’s point of entry with me, was Iowa … and cornfields.
I was raised in Iowa’s next-door-neighbor, Nebraska, close to the state border, and was enchanted by the whispers of cornfields. I mean that literally. Enchanted. So, when Shoeless Joe and his teammates emerged from that cornfield in Iowa onto a baseball diamond (that really does exist on a farm just outside of Iowa City), I was already drugged by the murmurs of the corn and willing to believe.
It didn’t hurt that Kinsella plays words like Yoyo Ma plays cello; when I finally read the book, I was even further mesmerized. And yet, I maintained my stoic, rational demeanor. I was not yet ready to accept that the word was baseball or that baseball was magic.
Like J.D. Salinger, who is abducted for and in Shoeless Joe, I asked some guy named Kinsella:
“What is this magic you keep talking about?”
“It’s the place and the time. The right place and right time. Iowa is the right place, and the time is right, too—a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens up for a few seconds, or hours, and shows you what is possible.”
“And what do you see? What do you feel?”
“Your mind stops, hangs suspended like a glowing Chinese lantern, and you feel a sensation of wonder, of awe, a tingling, a shortness of breath. . . ”
“And then you not only see, but hear, and smell, and taste, and touch whatever is closest to your heart’s desire. Your secret dreams that grow over the years like apple seeds sown in your belly, grow up through you in leafy wonder and finally sprout through your skin, gentle and soft and wondrous, and they breathe and have a life of their own. . .”
One day, after years of believing that baseball was a boring game played by overweight men in their jammies, the corn fields and the thrill of the grass and the brilliant sounds of the diamond gave me that sensation, just as Ray Kinsella describes it to Salinger.
As my husband tells it, we were driving home from a nursery, having purchased a trunk load of plants for our garden. I was pregnant with our second child. Jeff turned on the car radio to a Giants game and braced himself for a wisecrack from me. Instead, I said (and this is the Gospel truth), “You know, I just realized that I love baseball!”
And I did. And do. Because the word is baseball.
In his sermon, Eddie Scissons says that the cure for the insecure, the worried, the troubled, the anxious is “the word, and baseball is the word.” And I found that to be true, as well. Baseball, I discovered, was right up there with a good, hot cup of real honest-to-God English tea (none of that wimpy American stuff) as a cure for what ails you. A bad day at the ballpark, it has been observed, is better than a good day anywhere else. At the ballpark, the word of baseball is absorbed into the skin.
Reading W.P. Kinsella brought me to baseball and baseball has taught me to say, when faced with the minute and myriad hassles of life, “Well, it is what it is.” No matter what happens, there is always a game tomorrow, and there is always next season.
One of the hallmarks of great writing, I think, is the impact it has on the reader’s life. A great story uplifts, edifies, inspires. W.P. Kinsella is one of my three favorite writers because reading his prose does all of that for me. It has even inspired me to write in direct response to that inspiration. My novelette “Distance” was published first in Analog magazine, then anthologized in December 2012 in Future Games from Prime Books. W.P. Kinsella is a character in “Distance” because two can play that abduct-a-writer-in-fiction game.
I don’t know if my dad ever read Kinsella’s work, but I’m sure he would have loved knowing that all three of his grandchildren played the game and that his youngest granddaughter was a natural-born catcher. I’m also pretty sure he would have loved Eddie Scissons sermon.
“Can you say the word?”
“Baseball,” we chant, and our voices rise toward Eddie Scissons like doves on the warm Iowa wind.