Baseball has belonged to poets almost as long as star-crossed love, but who'd have thought Salt Lake City not exactly the center of the baseball universe would get its very own baseball poet laureate.
I'm admittedly being presumptuous here taking poetic license, as it were in claiming writer John Schulian as ours, but if you read through his just-released book, "Twilight of the Long-ball Gods," you'll see that we do have a case. While the subjects and locales of Schulian's "dispatches from the disappearing heart of baseball" range from coast-to-coast, the Salt Lake Valley gets more than its fair share. There are stories about the old Industrial League, about Bailey Santistevan's Eskimo Pie League when folks still lived in Bingham Canyon, about the Salt Lake Bees, about big-leaguer George "The Stork" Theodore and assorted other local baseball lore.
Clearly, the time Schulian spent as a Salt Laker after his parents uprooted him from Los Angeles during his teenage years and plopped him down a line-drive from Municipal Park on 7th East made quite an impact.
Also making an impact was the journalism department at the University of Utah, where John matriculated after graduating from East High School. The Utes gave Schulian a baseball scholarship, although he played but one season, choosing to concentrate on his studies, because, as he writes, "I had fallen under the spell of books."
He never could leave her alone, though we're talking about baseball and as a love of books turned John Schulian into a gifted writer, he naturally turned back to the game he loved."Twilight of the Long-ball Gods" is a collection of some of his best baseball prose, reprints of articles that ran originally in publications ranging from Sports Illustrated and the short-lived National Sports Daily to the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News. The anthology was released in April by the University of Nebraska Press.
As another baseball season works its way into our consciousness in the form of Stingers rainouts, more often than not Schulian's book is a fresh breeze to combat not only the rainouts, but the wave of steroid scandal that has the game currently cornered. Like all baseball poets, he brings a depth to the subject that transcends its shortcomings.
Consider the lead to a story about listening to baseball on the radio:
Rain was starting to fall, its drops spreading across the windshield of my rented car like fat, wet bugs. The sky to the west was as forbidding as a state trooper's scowl. "Snow tonight," said a voice on the radio. I punched up a different station and found something that didn't make a springtime Sunday afternoon seem like a bad joke baseball. . . .
Such is the mood throughout "Twilight," as Schulian focuses on the hold baseball has on America and vice versa.
None is more poignant in my biased opinion than the final dispatch, "Bailey's Boys," which ran originally in the July 5, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated:
The baseballs were hand-me-downs from the local semipro team, scuffed and sometimes lopsided, their seams torn so the leather flapped like the tongue on one of those dogs that were always slobbering happily at Bailey Santistevan's side. . . .
Thus we are introduced to a story about a remarkable man who built boys through baseball at the mouth of the world's largest open-pit copper mine "28 miles southwest of, and a world away from, Salt Lake City."
Who knew Bingham was such a poetic place?
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.