As I mentioned earlier, I’m re-reading Mark Helprin’s most recent collection of short stories, The Pacific. One of the stories is especially apt right now as baseball’s regular season and the history of Yankee Stadium — the House That Ruth Built — come to a close. Entitled “Perfection”, the story is set in 1956 and is about a teenage Hasidic boy, Roger, who is sent by a vision from God to save the season for New York Yankees. Call it the opposite of the classic play, “Damn Yankees.”
Roger, a surviving orphan of the Majdanek concentration camp, knows nothing of baseball, but quite a bit about faith. He goes to Yankee Stadium and finagles his way in on a pre-game summer morning, bringing the following tribute from the pages of the story:
After working for half an hour, Roger was in. Not only had he found the House of Ruth, he had breached its walls without slinging a single stone or slaying a single Boabite. Gliding up a ramp in search of June daylight, he came out on the first tier near left field. Looking east toward the bladder neck of the Bronx and into the vast right-field decks rising unto the crane of his neck and topped by rows of flags and formations of lights like the radars on a cruiser, he realized that although it did not fit Luba’s description exactly — gone were the purple hangings, the maidens, the grapes — it was close. You could fill it with every rabbi in the world and you would still have room for more. He looked at rows and rows of seats as neatly folded as laundry, lacquered hard and beerproof. Remembering the oceanic sounds on Schnaiper’s radio, he filled in the crowd. In his vision of what he heard, he saw whole steppes of people whose faces were like seeds peering from sunflowers, and whose changes of position and sudden cheers were like wind sweeping high grass. Legions disappeared in the shadows, from which a roar echoed like a hurricane. How many places like this, he thought, would it take to hold six million people, and his answer, quickly calculated, was one hundred twenty. Stadiums packed with fifty thousand people could be placed in a line from down both sides of Manhattan from Washington Heights to the Battery, with no space in between, and if the souls within could break their silence, the roar would be unlike anything ever heard.
“One foot at a time,” he said to himself, with no idea why he said it. “One foot at a time.” He sighed. If only his father and mother could see him, standing in Ruth’s house, about to save the Yenkiss. They would not know of either of these things, but if only they could see him.
A young Hasidic boy in black robes and a fur hat on a hot June day had no idea how to save the Yankees, but his moving feet carried him to the rail. At the elliptical center of the field a man in a white suit stood on a barrow of dirt and would periodically throw something at two men who faced him. One of the men was in turtlelike armor, squatting. The other stood, with a weapon.
When the thing that was thrown at the man with the staff would come at him almost faster than the eye could see, he would strike at it, and there would be a crack as in the breaking of a cable, after which the thing that was thrown would fly out into the air, along varying trajectories, and land in the grass. Then someone would throw the man on the dirt a new thing, and the process would continue. Sometimes the man who held the weapon missed, and the thing that was thrown was caught by the turtle, who threw it back. Who knew? But this was baseball.
On the back of the man with the weapon was the number 7. This meant, according to Schnaiper, that he was Mickey Mental. It was a good place to start. If you are going to help the needy, help those in most distress, and those in most distress are those who have fallen the furthest. Roger was sure that it was no accident that the only thing between him and Mickey Mental, the greatest baseball player of any age (according to Schnaiper), was a hundred feet of perfectly clear air through which sound could easily carry.
This was at a time in the morning when the field was most like what a field is supposed to be, swept clocklike by golden legs of sun stilting across it as time progressed, insects busy in flight against the huge foils of black shadow. A white blur that is not mist but a condition of the light, a lost and miscellaneous glare, covered the empty stands and bleachers in which, to Mantle’s delight, virtually no one had yet appeared. And those who had come early kept as respectful a distance as pilgrims in St. Peter’s who have stumbled upon the Pope in the dry runs of investiture. Fragrant breezes from the field alternated pleasingly with cool downdrafts of leftover night air rolling off the second level like a waterfall. It was the perfect time for the great player to concentrate on the attainment of perfection in hitting the ball. To allow his gifts free rein, he needed something like the flow of a river. In the mornings, when Yankee Stadium reminded him most of the field his forebears had farmed, that river flowed best. He was deep in concentration, and doing very well, when he became aware of a distraction.
From behind, from the left-field fence out toward third base, came a kind of squeak. At first he thought it was a bird or a cricket. Then he realized that it was an imploring voice. Once every great while, coarse people got into the stadium before a game and stood at the rail calling out his name, hoping for acknowledgment, a conversation, or an autographed baseball. This he had learned to ignore.
But though he tried, he could not ignore the squeak. He screwed up his face, rested the bat against his shoulder, and held up his left hand as a signal to the pitcher to hold off. What was this squeak? He lifted his head, hand still held out, and squinted, which was what he did when he wanted better to hear something behind him. He heard the calling of his own name, after a fashion. “What?” he said, as if asking why the perfect morning had to include this.
I’ve said how much Helprin’s writing simultaneously inspires and defeats me, and I typed those words out of the book in the way a young fan might fastidiously recreate the boxscore from a great World Series game, trying to make greatness feel familiar to his fingers. As for Roger and Mickey Mental, you’ll need to read the whole story to find out what Roger had to teach “the Yenkiss” (and us) about justice, redemption, miracles and redemption. They are lessons well worth absorbing.