Heaven and Earth
Thoughts on Baseball, Art, and Other Altered States

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Heaven and Earth: Thoughts on Baseball, Art, and Other Altered States
The war drags on, markets crash, the artic melts, world leaders rise and fall, yet there remains a constant: another glorious beginning to a season of baseball. To commemorate this sublime pastime in the year, 2332 — a contemporary group art exhibition demonstrating the correlation between art and baseball — exhibited at the Huntington Beach Art Center in the fall of 2008. On display were works by Stuart Allen Travis Collinson, Dean De Cocker, Matthew Furmanski, Jimi Gleason, Robert Jacka, Ian M. Kennelly, Juan Thorp and Michael Woodcock. The multimedia exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (PDF here) with original essays contributed by Albert Wachtel, Richard Chang and the following by Nathan Callahan:

Thoughts on Baseball, Art and Other Altered States


The nameless is the beginning of art and baseball. While the named is the mother of statistics, the nameless is the gateway to the mystery of everlasting hardball truth.

After an impossibly difficult catch in a field position he rarely plays, the Dodger’s Nomar Garciaparra said, "That's baseball. You can't explain it. You can't figure it out. You find somebody who does and I'll call him a liar."

After several bad canvasses, artist Edgar Degas said, "Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things."

I asked 2332 artist Travis Collinson for some coaching about the mysterious spirit of the game. He suggested I see “Bull Durham.” At one point in this baseball movie classic, Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, philosophizes. “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.”

Although clear about the metaphysics, Annie was mistaken about the statistics. There are 59 beads in a Catholic rosary, not 108. Sister Peggy of the Orange County Diocese confirmed it. She even counted her own rosary with me. “59 beads,” she said. “That’s all.” For Annie’s sake (and for Collinson’s, too), Sister Peggy and I tried to reach the number 108 (subtract three Lord’s prayers and a Gloria—multiply by two), but Annie Savoy’s 108-bead rosary was nowhere to be found in the catechism. That’s the problem with statistics. They rarely embody the truth of the game or the canvas.

There is, however, mystery remaining in a baseball’s 108 stitches.

108 suitors coveted Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, in Homer's Odyssey.

108 sacred stars shine in Chinese astrology and Tao philosophy.

108 minutes is the duration of the first manned space flight.

108 holy temples enshrine Vishnu.

108 is the name of the Italian artist who paints huge otherworldly figures in public spaces.

108 Joya-no-kane chimes ring in Japan’s New Year.

108 human sins are avoided in Buddhist belief.

108 poses are danced by Shiva.

108 is one to the first times two to the second times three to the third. One, two, three strikes, you’re out.

It could have been the mysterious precision of circumstance or even a revealing of the unnamed. In any case, on the 108th game of the 1963 season, Dodger outfielder Frank Howard walked. A basketball and baseball All-American at Ohio State, Howard was initially drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors of the National Basketball Association. At a mondo six foot eight inches 275 pounds, he chose baseball and the Dodgers instead—his teammates dubbing him “Hondo” after John Wayne’s mythological big-ass cowboy character from the movie of the same name. Hondo was big, but he was slow. Earlier in 1963, Howard was the designated Dodger Stadium photo-op prop at Nun’s Day, where he slowly scrawled autographs and grinned as the Nuns looked skyward in amazement at his hebetudinous immensity. You can bet they had their 59 beads with them.

Be that as it may, in the 108th game of the season, Howard, the biggest and tallest man in baseball, worked a walk on a 3 and 2 pitch and hovered over first base, standing tall and wide against the baseball canvas. No one could have expected what happened next.

“Bennett looks in for his sign. The windup.”

Suddenly Howard broke with the pitch. The stadium was silent. Even Vin Scully was at a loss. No one had ever witnessed a man so big trying to go so fast. The cadence of his stride was hypnotically slow. Time became eternity in the universe of Chavez Ravine. When Hondo kicked feet first into the air and slid, all 42,108 in attendance audibly gasped. As the umpire spread his arms to signal safe, a human sound of awe-inspired joy reverberated from the stands and swept across the field. Frank Howard had stolen second. Let the mind rest at peace.

“It's a long season and you gotta trust,” Annie Savoy said still trying to convey the mystery. “I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”


Like the Hindu sadhus, the holy men dedicated to achieving liberation through rituals of meditation and contemplation of God, I believe that heaven is more dangerous for a living soul than hell, as its highs are more illusory. A heavenly inspiration can be misplayed into the error of overconfidence, or worse yet invulnerability. While it may make its appearance as a fifth inning grand slam, heaven can exit in the ninth as the limp tail of a losing rally monkey. Heaven is not ours to own, but rather a frozen point of divine visitation: a hallucination, a dream. In baseball and art, an altered state of consciousness is the pathway for arriving at that point. The danger is in the illusion. Even so, unless art or baseball moves its audience into an altered state, it hasn’t been successful. Without rituals, we would have neither access nor escape from that state.

Disciples of baseball rejoice in many rituals — batting stance dances, rally cap origami, pitching delivery poses, rosin bag bounces, strikes of the umpire’s brush, deciphering batting average numerology — to find a path to heaven.

“Baseball still has more ritual than the Methodist church,” 2332 artist Robert Jacka told me, “as evidenced by the team that shares women's thong bikinis.”

And so it came to pass that the Angels’ wives gave me the stink eye—their monkeys limp, their team losing, and my team for the night, the Oakland Athletics, clubbing the Angels big time at the Big A. As a minor league political payback, Anaheim Mayor Tom Daley had gifted his club level suite to my friend Tim Carpenter, who at the time was a partisan batboy for Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, the newly elected Mayor of Oakland. Tim and I, along with some friends from "The Tell" mural project in Laguna Canyon, were sitting in the stadium’s most expensive, if not elite, seating. We were not there as Angel fans, but rather to sing the praises of Moonbeam’s team, the Oakland A’s, whose holy charisma had been established two decades earlier by the most artfully-named pitching staff in baseball, ever — Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Blue Moon Odom. Amen.

By an act of Autry, the Angel’s wives sat in the suite next to us. Out of respect, we tried to stifle our more colorful pro-Oakland ritualistic cheers. But when the A’s Jason Giambi rocketed a Tim Belcher sixth-inning slider into the “Outfield Extravaganza” (the California coastline tidepool simulacra bubbling on a fiberglass rockpile that serves as the stadium’s bogus signature piece and center field homerun depository), we erupted. Pounding the balustrade, speaking in tongues, and howling to the heavens, we chanted in faux Hindu reverence "Mekka-lekka hi mekka hiney ho", bowing like a mini-wave. “Long live Giambi.”

Hence, the stare.

Giambi, for the record, later admitted to a federal grand jury that he took steroids and human growth hormone. That home run we watched was juiced. Like Basquiat on junk or Pollock on bourbon, Giambi was in an altered state. To his credit, he was wearing his lucky codpiece to break out of a batting slump — a gold lamé woman’s thong with a flame-line waistband. Giambi continues this baseball ritual to this day, even going so far as to share the undergarment with teammates when they are in need.

By the middle of the seventh inning at Anaheim, the A’s were leading 5-1. Yet, when “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played, our group and the Angels’ wives (Mrs. Belcher included) stood together, singing, smiling, rocking and exchanging knowing glances. That ritual transformed us into a congregation, not a club. Hallelujah.

As 2332 artist Robert Jacka told me, “At a game, you can observe small vignettes of people performing, or bits of historical information about little-known or unknown moments, then you will join together and sing. If that is not church than I don't what is.”

It is the closest we can get to heaven.

The Angels won 7-5.


Somewhere between mystery and ritual lies transcendence: the place that exists untethered to the material universe and the confines of time. Art, like baseball, gives us a window to this altered state.

“In your life, you work and you wait and you work and you wait,” 2332 artist Michael Woodcock tells me, “and then something connects. The art-making is what gets the artist to that connection — when something happens that’s so magical you say ‘Alllll right, there’s hope.’”

Like an artistic revelation, baseball's action hinges on that connecting instant — an exchange from defense to offense where only instinct survives.

It takes less than one-quarter of a second for a rising fastball to cross home plate. On June 12, 1970, a sculptor of that slice of time, Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates, pitched a no-hitter under the influence of Lysergic acid diethylamide.

"I was in Los Angeles, and the team was playing in San Diego, but I didn't know it. I had taken LSD,” Ellis said. “I thought it was an off-day, that's how come I had it in me.”

In a psychedelically ecstatic trance, Ellis flew to San Diego for his twilight start.

“I was zeroed in on the glove, “Ellis said, his concentration in the game sublimely focused on the trails of the ball and the tunnel to the plate where the foul lines became a vanishing point at the center of a 90-degree perspective.

Ellis’ heightened state highlights what 2332 artist Stuart Allen calls, “the mind-body disconnect.” Currently training for a marathon, Allen says, “When I stopped thinking about running while running, things changed. It's a matter of the body performing the function without the conscious mind. It becomes a form of meditation. In baseball, this disconnect is critical because, like other reaction-based sports, there is no time to consciously process the events. Your body has to just ‘know’ what to do, without you telling it.”

Artists, like ballplayers, develop their senses to unconsciously transcend the moment — zeroing in beyond body and mind to a territory transcending the confines of personal involvement. The audience is invited to experience this territory in an immediate, simple, and direct fashion with a gasp, an awe, or a cheer that connects to a unified consciousness released from the tyranny of the day-to-day. It is a consciousness that travels beyond the confines of the gallery or the stadium.

“As a child, even though TV was everywhere, my dad still listened to the world series on the radio,” 2332 artist Matthew Furmanski tells me. “Although it would have been easy to flip on the tube, and watch the game, we listened to it,” he continues. “We used our imaginations to ‘watch’ the game.”


“Two outs. Ninth inning. Ed Spiezio is batting for Ron Herbel. Ellis working on the veteran Spiezio. The game, right now, is at the plate. Dock looks in. Into his windup. The pitch. Spiezio swings. It’s a high fly ball deep to left center. Alou back to the warning track. He leaps. I don’t believe what I just saw.”

There, from the players’ perspective, in that artistic state of transcendence, it’s the ball and the heavens and the possibilities.

— Nathan Callahan, September 27, 2008



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