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The Carnival of Kid Baseball
It’s springtime in Georgia, which means the hot pink azaleas are blooming, all gorgeous and tacky. The temperature hovers in the mid-70s, with no humidity yet, and a thin blanket of pollen turns everything kind of yellow. Youth baseball, which slows down a bit in the colder months, is in full swing by the time the calendar declares it’s April. Scores of baseball fields across Cobb County, where we live, get even busier; boys in clean white pants get dirtier, their coaches get louder, parents lean into the fence. For my son, whose young life seems organized by the rhythms of three distinct, overlapping sports seasons, this is his favorite—and the one that claims most of our time and money. From February through July, he’ll play in a baseball tournament almost every weekend. We’ll travel to Georgian towns with names like Ball Ground or Euharlee or Locust Grove. Like thousands of other baseball families, we’ll begin the season huddled under thick stadium blankets, welcome spring and then summer at a ballpark amid acres of green fescue and red clay, hemmed in by miles of chain-link fence. With a cheap folding camp chair and hours to kill, I’ll read books or grade essays or score my son’s games on an iPhone app. We’ll eat family meals out of a Igloo cooler or from a snack bar staffed by bored teenagers.
As I stroll around the ballpark on a big tournament Saturday, past rows of tents piled with t-shirts, baseball cards, fake Oakley sunglasses, and the arm sleeves all the boys seem to be wearing this year, I think about my own overlapping lives—teacher, writer, mother, baseball fan—and how they converge in this rowdy, familiar space. Something in the scene takes me back to a half-forgotten college lecture on literary theory. Picture it sort of like this: a fool dressed in motley steps out from the throngs of players and spectators, waves back the smoke from a concession stand barrel grill, and, with a flourish, presents me with a fancy word that perfectly describes the scene: carnivalesque.
As it turns out, the source of the word carnivalesque is Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and his ideas connect the sights and sounds of this modern version of the carnival to its medieval antecedents, to the rowdier, frolicking affairs that served a more important social function than their latter-day suburban successors. Carnivals took up, in total, as much as three months of a year in a large medieval city and were—here’s the best part—accepted subversions of authority (crown or church). In medieval carnivals, hierarchies were dismantled, second, parallel lives were lived, and all manner of creative debauchery reigned. The carnivalesque, as literary mode, signifies “a world inside out,” where fools are wise men and wise men are fools, where low culture and high culture swap masks, where class, gender, and economic distinctions fall away.
Looking around the ballpark, I’d say most of that seems about right.
A big tournament can take up most of a weekend—from the 7 a.m. call time for warm-ups in the batting cages to the stretch of hours between an 8 a.m. game and a 2 p.m. game–so there’s plenty of time to watch the minor spectacles of this particular carnival, to look around at the crowd of Georgians in this makeshift village that we create every weekend. Remove the business suits or tracksuits or steel-toed boots, put all the villagers in team spirit-wear and flip-flops, and you have the workaday world turned inside out, a scene with its own time-honored rituals that borrow from folk culture (chants and songs and oft-repeated baseball cheers) and high church baseball (what goes on at any major league ballpark).
When I listen for it, the ballpark is a feast of noise: the steady hum of spectator chatter, the brief bursts of applause, the ebb of sound as the pitcher goes into the wind-up, the swell of screams that follows the sharp plink of a ball colliding with an aluminum bat, the shouts of “HEADS UP!” when a ball rockets skyward and plummets foul, the grunts of umpires calling strikes, the louder, longer grunts of umpires calling strikeouts, the pulse of music from distant boom-boxes—Ozzy Osbourne’s “ay, ay, ay” or Taio Cruz’s “dance, dance, dance” or DJ Khaled’s “win, win, win,” the scrape of wheels on concrete as some kid’s little sister spins boredom into the spirals of a Razor scooter.
Closer to the dugout, I hear the noisy ritualistic chanting that marks one stage in the boys’ passage through the life cycle of baseball. At nine, my son and his teammates are still pretty attached to the chants that most of them learned when they were five or six. Smart coaches lead the littlest ballplayers in cheers as a way to teach them the game and keep them focused during its dull bits, like when nine or ten other kids get to bat while you sit on the bench and wait. And wait some more. (“We need a single, just a little single/ We need a double, just a little double…”). As they play other teams, the boys pick up new chants; they spread like playground rhymes (or taunts), from one player to the next, from older boy to younger boy. In a decade or two, the chants will still be around—learned, passed on, left behind for the next age to learn, pass on, and leave behind. By the time the boys are ten or eleven the chanting fades out, but by then they’re used to the slower rhythms of the game, and coaches need fewer tricks to keep them focused.
On my son’s team, the first baseman takes on the role of caller in these call and response performances. He has a loud, high-pitched voice, and when he decides it’s time to rally the boys, they join in automatically. Kids may be rummaging in bat bags, or pounding fists into gloves, or just hanging on the chain-link fence chewing sunflower seeds, but when First starts in, loud and fast, with the first line of the call, “MynameisJoeandyouknowwhatIgot?” the boys around him respond reflexively: “Whattayagot?”
FIRST BASE: I got a team that’s hotter than hot!
TEAM: How hot is hot?
FIRST BASE: Grand slams and home-runs, too!
TEAM: Let’s see what [insert name of kid at bat] can do!
For these kids, chanting is still as much a part of playing baseball as the pre-game stretch or the mandatory jog from the field back to the dugout or the catcher’s call of “coming down,” which echoes from the infield to the outfield, as he practices the throw to second. For me, the chants are as familiar and predictable as the coach’s shouts to “back up” or “creep in” or “swing the bat”—any of the necessary, useless things coaches must say. I’ll admit that, at times, the boys’ chants get badly on my nerves. I hear them when I am miles from a ballpark. I hear them when I lie in bed at night. I hear them when I’m trying to score a game and remember the pinball-like-route of the baseball or how many errors it took to score the two runs that just appeared on the scoreboard in left field. Sometimes, when the boys are losing badly, I find myself muttering my own answers to First Base’s call.
Whattayagot? I got a team with collective batting average of .230.
Whattayagot? I got a team whose hits and errors are inversely proportional to the hits and errors of the teams they lose to.
Whattayagot? I got a team whose coach may or may not come unglued when a kid gets picked off, drops a popup, or strikes out looking.
There are dozens of chants, many probably borrowed from girls’ softball (they are the real masters of the dugout chant), but these boys have their favorites. When I listen closely, I sometimes hear bits of the history of their sport, its current of competitiveness crafted into nonchalance or sneering or menace. I hear pop music and the blues and Madison Avenue and Alan Lomax recordings. I hear poetry. Or at least stuff that rhymes.
Mostly the verses tend toward the banal (“Three and two/Whatcha gonna do? Walk him! Walk him!”), but there are times when I tune in, when my mind goes all Helen Vendler on a handful of lines that I’ve heard a million times and never really listened to. Take this chant that the boys roll out again and again. Their innocent-sounding voices belie a sketchy plot about a rather sinister-sounding meeting. It has a bluesy repetitive quality, rarely captured by the boys, who holler instead of lingering over each repeated line. First Base really needs a harmonica to do it justice.
Down by the river (2X)
Took a little walk (2X)
Met with the other team (2X)
Had a little talk (2X)
Pushed ‘em in the water (2X)
Hung ‘em out to dry (2X)
The narrative reminds me a bit of a broadside ballad with its suggestion of murder that may or may not be honor-related. As metaphor, murder is all over baseball—it’s what you do to the ball, to another team when you run up the score. It’s a theme in the chants as well. The boys sing another one with a more explicitly murderous threat:
Down by the baseball cemetery
That’s where the other team’s gonna get buried
Six feet wide and seven feet under
When we hit, we hit like thunder.
I guess the lesson in those lines is that losing is death, and, when you’re nine, death is a kind of losing.
Here’s another favorite of First Base. For a better sense of its rhythm, imagine it in I-don’t-know-but-I’ve-been-told military cadence:
We don’t drink no lemonade (2X)
All we drink is Powerade (2X)
We don’t play with Barbie dolls (2X)
All we play is baseball (2X)
While the boys are sounding off, I think about the reach of the Coca-Cola Corporation—how it may be to blame for this one—we’re in the sprawl of Atlanta after all. Note the product placement of “Powerade,” a Coke product that competes with Pepsi’s (70% market share) Gatorade, which would rhyme just as well. “Barbie dolls” is occasionally recast as “baby dolls” but the idea is the same. We’re not girls. We don’t play with dolls. We play sports. We drink sports drinks. (We’re unfamiliar with Title IX.) Sometimes I wonder whether these young boys are being shaped by a particular version of masculinity without their even knowing it. Isn’t that the work of ritual chanting (or pledging or creed-ing or jingle-ing)? Embed the idea in rhythm and rhyme before the words themselves come to have any distinct meaning. And soon, before you know it, your kid is asking for blue Powerade and all things Nike and Under Armor, and telling you that there are precisely three girls in his third grade class who do not suck at P.E.
Sometimes the chants invoke what I can only think of as complex principles of physics, even metaphysics. In this example, it’s all about seeing an absence, seeing something that lacks substance but is known to exist, i.e. a place where an outfielder is not standing. And a few helpful spelling drills get thrown in too.
I see a hole out there (2X)
I see an H-O-L-E hole out there
So hit the ball out there (2X)
So hit the B-A-L-L ball out there
So we can win this game (2X)
So we can W-I-N win this game
So we can celebrate (2X)
So we can C-E-L-E-B-R-A-T-E celebrate
The kids always spell that last line S-E-L-E-B-R-A-T-E. It’s kind of cute. They didn’t learn to read all that long ago, but there’s always at least one kid who knows his phonics rules: The letter c represents /s/ before the letters e, i or y; otherwise it represents /c/. He corrects their spelling. “Hey guys! Hey guys!—it’s ‘c’ not ‘s’!”
Finally, there are chants that evoke what Bahktin might call “grotesque realism,” (bodies doing bodily things). Here’s one that combines several things a nine-year-old boy holds dear: stealing; taunting another kid for screwing up; nose-picking.
We stole a base from you (2X)
While you were picking your nose
We were up on our toes
We stole a base from you.
The boys trot it out when the opposing pitcher is up on the mound—usually right as he goes into the wind-up. It kind of bugs me when the boys try to mess with another team’s pitcher. It just feels shady, a bit like bad sportsmanship. But, generally, they’re able to take what they dish out. They don’t complain when other teams taunt their pitchers, (they just shift their sights to the batters). Often the boys keep adding on variants, trying to hit the sensitive nerve that will shake the young pitcher’s confidence:
While you were brushing your hair
We were already there
Again, they find an insult that’s likely to burrow into a psyche of a nine-year-old. They’re calling his nascent masculinity into question. In a few years, I imagine there’s a single word (starts with a ‘p’) that will do all this work, but for now the chant provides plenty of opportunities for riffing on similar themes (“While you were out at the mall/We were here playing ball”). Once I heard one of the boys say, “while you were drinking a beer/ we were already here…”
As folklorists will tell you, rituals associated with the life cycle are transformative, and these baseball chants steer the boys through a particular stage in life and sport. They seem, however, completely oblivious to their own growing up, to the ways in which this world of ours ushers them into the carnival and gives them a mask to wear. In the late afternoon, with another three hours to kill before bracket play begins, the boys stage their own subversive baseball game, a carnival within a carnival—far from the watchful authority of parents and coaches, who are, anyway, stretched out in low-slung chairs under open tents, sapped by the sun and the sheer noise of it all.
In a pack, the boys retreat to the edge of the park, to the borderland between the tame, green diamond and the darkening woods. Using a stick, a tennis ball and gloves for bases, they play their own rowdy game of stickball. When I look over, the boys are dirty, sweaty and nearing exhaustion. My son’s cheek is bloodied, but he’s laughing. They’re all laughing. Their version of the game is far different here, more violent and raucous—nothing like the game of baseball the grown-ups expect them to play on the other side of the fence. In this moment, this brief moment, the boys make up their own rules.
Lynn Murray lives with her husband and two sons in Marietta, Georgia, where, for the last nine years, she has cheered for a succession of their baseball teams, including the Outlaws, the Shock, the Prowlers, and the Hawks. She’s at work on a memoir about her family’s tragi-comic rambles through the land of competitive travel baseball in the South.