written and performed by John Fogerty, on the album of the same name, 1985, Warner Brothers.
What’s notable about this song is that it is not essentially about baseball: it’s about hope, angling from your soul for a chance to show what you can do. It’s about craving to desperation the acknowledgement we all need to sustain us.
The first verse puts it with surprising sophistication:
Well, beat the drum and hold the phone, the sun came out today.
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
Roundin’ third and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man.
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
While the music – bog-standard rockabilly – is unremarkable (I do love those low-high interval licks, descending sixths, a couple of times after “I’m ready to play [Dah-DEEEE] today [Dah-DEEEE],” reaching for the stars each Oliver Twistian chorus), the words are archetypally evocative. Sun, born again, new grass, heading for home, it’s the same conception as Easter and Passover, as e.e. cummings’s in Just-spring, when the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”: hope, renewal, another chance. And as Fogerty says, anyone – everyone – understands this. And so his protagonist is an ordinary Joe, an Everyperson: a former bench-warmer on the Mudville Nine (he watched heart-sick as Casey struck out), his glove is “beat-up,” his bat “home-made,” but he gamely pleads his case for his “moment in the sun”:
“Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play, today…”
And he’s not looking for a glamour spot or Alex Rodriguez’s salary. Centre field is where they put you if you’re not up to much except hitting the occasional long ball.
I was a ten-year-old New York Yankees fanatic, winding up and slinging tennis balls against the house for hours, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record – sixty-one in ’61, with Yogi Berra still at catcher and Mickey Mantle just a few homers behind his record-breaker teammate. We all wanted to be Mantle and Whitey Ford concatenated, homerun king and ace pitcher all at once. In those days this was possible but as rare as hen’s teeth: there was no designated hitter; pitchers batted ninth, where supposedly they could do the least damage. Mantle was handsomer, and more of an all-around player than Maris – more persistently, genetically charismatic. Also, yes, he played center field, Maris right – less respectable than centre, because only lefty batters pulled that way.
Denver had only a minor league team at the time, the Bears, who played under the scruffy viaduct near my grandmother’s house on the West Side. This was before there were playoffs after playoffs, when TV broadcasters had no choice but to show rain delays, even if they pissed on for an hour: you waited them out, watching the ground-crew roll out the tarps, just as though you were in the stands. Meanwhile, in the broadcast booth, former pitching ace Dizzy Dean hauled out his flat-top guitar to sing “The Wabash Cannonball,” killing time for us viewers in Denver and Saginaw as his sidekick (and former Dodger shortstop) Pee Wee Reese caught a break from calling the play-by-play. There was no Credence Clearwater blasting from stadium speakers. In those days, baseball was all peace and playing hooky, barely commercialized, the quiet and slow pace a delicious refuge from the rat race. You decompressed while you worked on your tan. (Yes, this was before 50-proof sunscreen, too.)
Pudge-bucket that I was, I was enthusiastically okay as a street player with my own team in my southwest Denver neighbourhood (Car!). I was older, after all, and bigger than the other kids. But I was useless among my actual peers, in right field against the tough guys in the orphanage, after I signed up for the poor-schlep’s league at the community center (green caps, no uniform), out of Cheltenham Elementary in that West Side barrio. Mind you, there’s a moment that resonates five decades later: The wiriest orphan, at shortstop, kept mouthing off at me fortissimo about what a no-hoper I was. Sure enough, my father was umping and had called me out on strikes during my first at-bat, and had laughed with my coach when I objected (fortissimo), “Da-ad!” But my next batter-out had its compensations. In a blind fury, which is to say by absolute dumb luck, I lined a drive really hard straight at this punk’s pie hole. You could hear the seams on the ball sizzle toward his head. He grabbed the drive before it took out his front teeth – Good reflexes, I had to admit, impressed if simultaneously disappointed by how poetic justice had been rendered yet not quite – but there was nary a peep from the punk after that.
As I say, while I have chosen the 2015 opening day for Major League Baseball* as “Centerfield” day, this song is not about baseball. It’s about all of us boys and girls of summer, after a long winter. May the coach give us the chance we deserve.
* The day I started working on this essay.