Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Night Game

There are many songs about baseball (although many more movies that come to mind), but this is likely the saddest.

I don't know what the official rule is for the death of a player during the game. It seems inappropriate to continue the game with a replacement player, yet unfair to call a winner. I do know that ties are not permitted, and that innings are simply added until one team wins. Perhaps the game is "scrubbed" and a new one scheduled in its stead.

But that is not what happens here. The pitcher and his team have handed two outs to their opponents, with one more to finish the 8th inning and start the 9th and final one. Then "the pitcher died."

It seems like a sudden incident. We do not see the pitcher fainting, clutching his head or chest, or giving any indication of injury or illness. It's just "when."

The pitcher's shoes are laid, it seems ceremoniously, on the pitcher's mound. But the rest of the uniform is handled differently. The jersey, with it's "number," is simply "left" on the turf...

After being "torn." Why was this item of clothing treated so roughly? Were they ripping it to be able to do a medical procedure on his chest, perhaps his heart?

The tearing of a garment often signifies evil tidings. In the Bible, Joesph's brothers tear his multi-colored coat to fabricate (no pun intended) evidence for their father that Joseph was mauled to death by a beast. King Saul tears his garment, and the prophet Samuel sees it as an omen. Many ancient people, hearing of a death, tore their clothes... and Jewish mourners still wear a torn shirt, jacket, or lapel-ribbon while grieving to this day.

That the jersey was "left on the ground" seems unlikely today. It would probably be kept as a memento, either by the team or the player's family. It must have been left in a rush, perhaps, to hurry the pitcher to the hospital.

It seems odd that the reaction of everyone else is absent from mention. What did the fans, the teammates, the opponents, the management and staff, the sportscasters do or say? Was their pandemonium? Did the medical professionals on hand leap in and prevent chaos? We are not told.

But we are told what happens to nature-- it grows "cold," as if in reaction. The stars, often described as yellow or golden, are now "white," and not just white, but "white as bones," which of course are only seen after death. It's as if nature's elements were reflecting the sudden chill and severity of the situation. Or signaling the humans as to the proper sentiment to be taken.

Why mention the age of the stadium? It has seen teams and fans come and go. It can no longer get excised about one death, more or less. But the "night," the "stars" are millennia older than the stadium, no? They are made by nature, or God, or something eternal, while the stadium was made by people... fickle people, who are gentle with shoes but harsh with shirts. Nature, at least, grows respectfully somber as it notes one more lost life.

Then comes a cruel pun. The song started with "two men down," in the sense that they had be standing "up" at the plate and now, having been gotten out, had to sit back "down" on their dugout bench. Now there are three men "down," except one is "down" in the ultimate sense: he has fallen down dead. Perhaps this comes to put the sport in perspective-- as sad as we might be that a player has been taken out of the game, how much sadder when one has been removed from all of life's activity altogether.

Much of the imagery, in fact, has to do with lowness. Consider these words: "down," "bottom," "laid," "on the ground," "cold," "down" (again). And now comes the tarpaulin, rolled-- like a shroud-- over the ground, over the frost on the ground. The song itself is set at "night," as well, when the Sun and light are down.

The music echoes this lowness. Aside from the guitar, which is played low-- and Simon's hushed voice, which is in a low register-- the only other instrument that plays the whole song is Tony Levin's bass.

The pitcher is gone, the game is done. And for some reason, the whole season is lost. I do not think this is meant in the sense of the sport. As discussed above, an individual game can be replayed (as happens when a game is called off due to bad weather). A team continues even if one of its members dies mid-season. Even if that team suffers a psychological blow that does, in fact, end its own season, the season as a whole continues for the other dozen-plus teams in the sport.

Yes, the song might mean that this team's season is effectively over. But it might also mean that the sport as a whole suffers and mourns so much from the loss of one player that, whatever the season might have meant before, and whatever comes after, it's now "the season when that pitcher died during the game." It's former momentum and meaning have been eclipsed by the shadow of this one profound incident.

With the humans still not responding appropriately, nature cues them again by spreading a white funeral shroud on the field, in the form of "frost." Finally, the humans take the hint, and add a synthetic shroud, the tarpaulin, over the field.

Much could be made of the repeated "and" throughout the piece. The story is related in a series of staccato statements, like someone trying to piece together a sequential narrative out of a memory of impressions. There is very little 'poetry' in the work. This is reserved for the statements that follow "then," which breaks the sequence of "ands," which pick back up in the final verse. The main effect is someone recounting something he experienced but can't quite believe.

Simon is a baseball fan. He plays it in the video to "Schoolyard," and more famously, name-checked DiMaggio in one of his biggest hit songs. Yet this is his only piece entirely set in the world of that sport.

I am unaware of an incident like the one described happening in baseball in 1975. So perhaps some sudden loss in Simon's life could only be likened to a pitcher dying while trying to break a tie in the bottom of the 8th. It is certainly one of the saddest songs in Simon's entire repertoire.

Musical Note: The mournful harmonica bridge is played by Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans of Belgium, better known as "Toots." He is one of the greatest harmonica players alive, and has been for decades. His work has largely been in the jazz arena. While he doesn't play long here, you can hear a lot more of him on the Billy Joel hit "Leave a Tender Moment Alone."

Next Song: Gone at Last


  1. I really enjoy your blog... what a cool idea! I am an absolute Paul obsessive so I'll try to keep checking in now that I've discovered you. I haven't seen yet if you have entries yet about his brand-new album but I will check... what do you think of it? I really like it, esp the song "The Afterlife" and the title song. Going to see him in 2 weeks with my wife and can't WAIT!~

    Check out the great article about him in the current Rolling Stone (Steven Tyler on the cover) -- great, great, deep article.

    Best regards - Leon

  2. Leon--
    Thanks for the verbal high-five. You don't have to keep checking back-- you can just "follow" the blog. I have not discussed the new album yet as I am doing this in chronological order and am still in the 1970s! I have heard the title track, though, and as usual it is fascinating material. I will check out the RS article, thanks.

  3. I see in this song an allegory:
    Sport and war.
    Men fight on fields in both cases.
    But maybe I think to much for my own good.

    It's wonderful to see, that other human beings think about Paul Simons Poetry.
    He's a great musician.
    But his words should be listened to more often.

  4. Thanks for your comment! I admit I do not readily see a war-based interpretation. But maybe that's because I am also a George Carlin fan, and if you don't know his "Baseball vs. football" routine, you should really find it on YouTube. Football is about war, not baseball, according to Carlin.

  5. I think PS just wanted to write a baseball song, being a fan

  6. Steven M-- It suppose it's possible, but this seems less about baseball than other things, and it's certainly no rip-roaring "Centerfield" or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

  7. I would suggest that you have entirely missed the metaphorical image of the end of a love relationship.

  8. Unknown-- I suppose that's possible, but not every song is about that.
    And if so, is the pitcher a metaphor for a participant in the relationship, or is the pitcher a metaphor for the entire relationship itself?

  9. Much of the value of art lies in its ambiguity. I nevertheless took the season being lost as a late reveal that this game was not a regular season game, but one that determined some thing more; a positive W/L record or a pennant.

  10. Brian-- Excellent point. This was a game with a lot on the line. It's good to have a knowledgeable sports fan chime in!

  11. OK, so this may not be a popular interpretation, but I come by it honestly. I've held this opinion since I first heard this mournful tune not long after it appeared on "Still Crazy..". First, it cannot be about baseball. Baseball is just a game. It's a metaphor for the crucifixion of Christ. The two men down are the thieves crucified with Christ. The spikes are a crown of thorns. The uniform torn are his clothes divided among the centurions. And, of course, a pitcher is the absolute central figure on any diamond. The stadium was old...older than the teams" is a reference to eternal plan set before the foundation of the world for man's redemption from sin. The tone of the song is a perfect reflection of the emotional state of the disciples before the resurrection...utter desolation. The inclusion of "Silent Eyes" on the same album (remember albums?) confirms my belief in my mind.

  12. Anon-- I'm curious to know what you thought about the line from "Obvious Child": "The cross is in the ballpark."

  13. What a great tune. I love the way you can almost but not quite determine his exact meaning. Certainly leaves ample room for interpretation. While I am inclined to make a connection between "...the cross is in the ballpark..." and "Night Game", I would admit there is plenty of room for other interpretations.

  14. Anon-- In an interview, Simon explains what he meant by the "cross/ballpark" line. I had always thought it was about the Pope coming to town, and the only place large enough to hold the crowd being the stadium. The idea of such a religious event in such a secular place I thought was an interesting contrast.
    I can tell you what Simon said, if you are interested... but I doubt he's ever been interviewed about "Night Game."

  15. Here's some food for thought about 'Night Game.' Whether or not it has any connection with reality is anyone's guess.

    Paul Simon is huge Yankees fan, and in 1964 CBS bought the team. The ownership was a disaster - the famed Yankees placed no better than 4th under CBS ownership. In 1973 Steinbrenner bought the team, but their fortunes didn't start changing until 1974 (the season before SCAATY was released.) On the morning of Oct 1, 1974, the NYY were one game out of first place behind the Orioles with 2 games to play. Baltimore had a day game, and won. NY had a night game against Milwaukee, one of the worst teams in baseball that year. With a 2 run lead in the 8th, the Yankees pitcher (Doc Medich, who led the team in wins) "died" giving up 2 runs. He gave up the losing run in the 10th inning, which ended the Yankees season. Season over, roll out the tarpaulin, trash the pitcher.

    Potentially devastating to a Yankees fan? Possibly. Some of these facts don't precisely "fit" the narrative of this song, but it seems close enough that it could have been an inspiration.

    Fun trivia: Doc Medich was a medical student (hence the "Doc") and at least three times in his baseball career went into the stands to help a fan in medical distress. He saved one fan's life.

  16. Ron Packer-- Thank you so much for your sports knowledge. It is true that Simon is a big baseball fan, as seen in his Me & Julio video, and that the word "died" is applied to a failed performer (comics are also said to "die" if they get no laughs... and to "kill" if they get many).
    If this particular game led to this, one of Simon's saddest songs, then Simon is a bigger, more serious fan that I had realized.
    By the way, I am from Cleveland and live in Chicago. So the idea of a team placing 4th being a "disaster" did make me laugh.

    1. You're welcome Paul - although I'm much more a lover of music trivia than sports trivia, I do like research and figuring out puzzles and mysteries.

      I'm from Kansas City, and I feel your pain on the sports end. Things are looking up, however!

    2. Ron-- I hesitate to comment on any current event, sports or otherwise, since this blog is up (potentially) forever and things can change quickly. And I'm in Chicago now, and our sports news only seem to be great or its complete opposite.