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The Artist and His Audience

As many who follow baseball know, Jacob deGrom is an artist.

It’s not just that he’s likely to win the National League Cy Young Award. Or that his stats this season were off the charts: a 1.70 ERA; 29 consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer; 269 strike-outs in 217 innings.

DeGrom throws exceptionally hard. He is deceptive. He is a master of location. But the predominant impression, from the stands, is of Zen-like concentration, of a poetic fluency of self-possession uncanny and impregnable. The vicissitudes of the game seem not to intrude.

As I happened to be in DC on September 19, I was able to watch deGrom’s last two starts of the season, the second being a week later in New York. In both games, deGrom was a miracle of dispatch and efficiency. He worked quickly and rhythmically, easily, with long, lithe strides. He rarely fell behind in the count. Very few balls left the infield. Many dribbled between the mound and first base. I can’t remember seeing so many assists and put-outs by a pitcher (and DeGrom – a former shortstop — is a lyrically deft fielder). Against the Braves in New York, deGrom was brushed back three times by the opposing pitcher; he remained a picture of placidity.

Of the 15 innings deGrom pitched, 14 were scoreless. The exception – the third inning in DC – began with a rare walk; suddenly, deGrom couldn’t find the plate. He gave up to two runs, then shut the door. What accounted for this lapse I have no idea.

Might DC’s National Park, built in 2008, have been a factor? I refer not to the understandable DC allegiance of the Nationals’ fans, but of something far more distracting: the indifference of the ballpark itself.

Baseball stadiums behave differently than they used to. There was always an organ and an announcer. But over time it was generally assumed that baseball is insufficiently brisk and eventful to sustain the full attention of a mass of human beings. So new scoreboards exploded, and new sound systems did too. Also, something was done about those long breaks between innings – breaks greatly increased by the insertion of ever longer TV commercials.

At Nationals Stadium, not a single synapse was left unattended – we were treated to diversions of every description. The most elaborate was a “Presidents’ race” in the outfield, with George and Abe (but no Donald Trump). This event was included in the “Highlights of the Game,” recapitulated on a gargantuan screen. Meanwhile, the fortissimo stadium organ was rarely silent. In the late innings, when people began to leave (the Nationals were losing), it was deployed ever more insistently. The ambient crowd noise was also uncommonly loud: thousands talking rather than watching. And no wonder: the grace and tempo of the game were violated at every turn.

All of this was intrusively at odds with deGrom’s poetic composure.

In his many writings about performing symphonic music, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler harped on the significance of the audience. He insisted that, absent an engaged body of listeners, great music could not be made. Is baseball doomed by inattentive stadiums?

However: seven days later, in Queens, Citi Field listened to the game. Electronic musical intrusions were nearly absent except between innings. A spectator could pursue observations and think thoughts. The crowd gaped at Jeff McNeil’s airborne grab of a line drive far to his right. We absorbed the sweetness of Michael Conforto’s home run swing.

In the latter innings, when deGrom found an even deeper groove, the increased frequency of strike-outs was acknowledged.  When deGrom strode to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, there was shared understanding that he would therefore pitch the eighth. At the top of the ninth, the appearance of Seth Lugo emerging from the bullpen instantly registered widespread disappointment. After the game, deGrom was interviewed on the field. The crowd froze to watch and listen. The Mets’ losing season was forgotten in a surge of empathy and pride.

The most proactive sports audience I know is the Rangers’ at Madison Square Garden. The finer points of ice hockey are formally applauded en masse. Chants are invented and shared on the spot. Think now of the shrinking world of classical music. New York used to have such an audience for opera. Arias and duets are calibrated to ignite an immediate response. I am old enough to remember the Met when a full house registered informed expectation, keen arousal, delirious surprise. No longer. Cast a pair of equally certified celebrities in Eugene Onegin – I am thinking of Renee Fleming and the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky – and the approbation is equally generic. Never mind that Hvorostovsky was born to sing Onegin, and that Fleming was too self-conscious an artist to feign Tatyana’s innocence.

In a bygone era, I once heard Nicolai Gedda sing Lenski in the same Tchaikovsky opera. Was he the last tenor to deploy something like the floated half-tones once famously purveyed by Kozlovsky and Lemeshev? Perhaps. His second act aria detonated a sustained eruption of recognition. I will never forget how that 1979 audience sealed the occasion.

Jacob deGrom notwithstanding, we live in distracted times. No doubt baseball will suffer the same dilution as grand opera. But not yet.

Comments

  1. The comparison is indeed puzzling if not outright ridiculous.
    One reaction is to a ball being hit by a stick,the other a reaction
    to a person singing an aria reflecting the human condition, love , fear , hate etc.
    One would be hard pressed to equate hitting a ball with a stick
    to a tenor singing such an aria except in the case of some tenors getting together
    in concert and bellowing out high Cs’ to a cheering crowd ignorant to the operatic art
    but wanting to appear cultured to some degree.They cheer highCs the same way
    the baseball crowd cheers a home run.

  2. I disagree with Ariel. There’s a connection to be made between any field of endeavor that requires utmost mental concentration and physical prowess in performance, not to mention the control and harnessing of one’s emotions. There’s plenty of these demands in musical, dramatic and athletic performance. Analogies don’t have to be perfect to make some sense. And I don’t need to mention books by instrumentalists who have use sports analogies. In this regard I can bring up an anecdote; a spanking new soccer stadium had just been built in Philadelphia to house a new professional team. A radio interviewer asked a fan traveling to the first game whether attendance would be large enough to sustain a professional soccer league. The fan replied that he wasn’t sure, but as a former semi pro footballer himself, “when I see a pass travel 90 feet and settle obediently at the foot of a teammate I feel a rush; it’s a thing of beauty to me because I know what it takes to be able to do that. A spectator with no exposure to the game doesn’t see what I see because it doesn’t look so difficult; the players make it look so easy. So I don’t know whether this sport can become popular to those who haven’t experienced it.” A statement like this makes perfect sense and there is no reason that its logic can’t be extended to the experience of art.
    As for electronic music and video at ballgames, it’s one reason I rarely go anymore.

  3. One would like to know to what sort of connection Mr Dorfman refers.? since almost every human endeavor
    meets his requirements to varying degree, not being limited to musical,dramatic or athletic performance.
    Books by instrumentalists using sports analogies is old hat in presenting themselves as just the average
    “normal” being, it helps ticket and book sales.The great unwashed are most impressed that a star of a
    famous opera house is also be found enjoying a ball game .Undoubtedly there are also people who experience
    a “rush” in that a ball can travel 90 feet to its intended destination. How this sports connection can be extended to an art form is indeed the question…..Does Mr. Dorfman really believe hitting a ball with a stick or throwing it for 90
    feet can in any way be connected to let us say act 4 of Mozarts’ Marriage of Figaro.?

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