There's nothing like a new baseball season to help you forget life's little irritations -- like the war with Iraq.
Baseball is not only America's national pastime, it is also -- some say -- a metaphor for life. Too bad we can't settle this thing with Iraq over a good, old-fashioned baseball game -- complete with mustard-slathered hot dogs, as opposed to mustard gas-slathered battlefields. (Columnist's note: Don't try this with Cuba; they just might whip us.)
Anyway, the baseball season is here, so all is well with the world -- unless your name is Saddam or Casey. For Saddam it's the bottom of the ninth and he's hopelessly behind, while Casey has been banished to baseball infamy -- the opposite of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
Casey, for you baseball neophytes, is the subject of one of the most famous poems ever written -- "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer.
In the poem, the Mudville slugger comes to bat with two outs in the ninth and the game on the line.
After he arrogantly takes two called strikes, the last eight lines of the poem complete the tale:
"The sneer has fled from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out."
Saddam, of course, is beyond redemption. Once he strikes out, he's history.
But there's hope for Casey. One of my prize possessions is a book published in 1967 called "The Annotated Casey at the Bat."
It contains several versions of the original poem, plus a great number of sequels -- some starring members of Casey's family, including "Mrs. Casey at the Bat," and variations featuring Casey's sister, son and daughter. There's even a map of the Mudville area, complete with the Bugville Swamp and several towns whose baseball teams faced the Mudville nine -- towns like Slamtown, Centerville and, of course, Bugville.
But most interesting are the poems that continue the saga of Casey, including "Mudville's Fate" by Grantland Rice. In it, the author recalls that fateful day when he and a friend watched from the stands:
"O, how we used to cheer him, Tom, each time he came to bat!
And how we held our breath in awe when on the plate he spat;
And when he landed on the ball, how loud we yelped! But O
How loud we cursed when he struck out some twenty years ago!
The diamond is a corn patch now; the outfield's overgrown
With pumpkin vines and weedy plots; the rooters all have flown --
They couldn't bear to live on there, for nothing was the same
Where they had been so happy once before that fatal game."
But Rice also gives Casey a chance to redeem himself in "Casey's Revenge." Again, the slugger takes two strikes:
"No roasting for the umpire now -- his was an easy lot --
But here the pitcher whirled again -- was that a rifle shot?
A crash -- a smash -- and out through space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky -- a speck against the blue.
Above the fence in center field in rapid whirling flight
The ball sailed on -- the blot grew dim -- and then was lost to sight,
Ten thousand hats were thrown in air -- ten thousand threw a fit.
But no one ever found the ball that mighty Casey hit."