The Power of Sports Fiction (and the importance of being impeccable).
Language Magazine, 21,12, p. 23
Fiction can take what seem to be ordinary situations and can show us how important they can be are. This one definitely changed my life for the better. The novel was a baseball story, one of several written by John R. Tunis based on a mythical Brooklyn Dodgers team. The episode I describe and discuss here is from The Keystone Kids (1943).
Spike Russell had just been appointed manager of the team, a very unusual promotion because he was young and still a player. Spike took control immediately and confidently, and gave a lecture on impeccability to the entire team (“The Keystone Kids,” pp. 145-146.) First, some background. As some readers know, when a hitter hits an ordinary ground ball to an infielder, it is highly likely, especially when the players are professional, that the throw will reach the first baseman before the hitter will, and the hitter will be “out.” It is common practice for hitters to not run their fastest on the way to first base when it looks certain that they will not get there before the throw does.
But new manager Spike Russell made sure this would not happen on the Dodgers while he was manager: “I want everyone on this club to run out everything to first, whether they think they can beat the throw or not… You gotta presume the fielder is going to drop the ball … The other day over in Cinci we dropped an important game… ‘cause a pitcher started toward first base on a hard-hit ground ball with his bat in his hand. The shortstop muffed it and threw wild and he’d been safe if he’d hustled. He didn’t hustle and he was out, and we lost the winning run right there when Klein (the next batter) tripled.”
You get no credit when you run as fast as you can and the throw is perfect, but Spike was telling them that you put the entire team at risk when you don’t “hustle,” when you assume that the throw will be on target and the first baseman will catch the ball.
I discussed this with my then personal physician, Seymour Perl, after our regular appointment. Seymour, also an admirer of John R. Tunis, an avid fan of the real-life Dodgers, and a keen student of baseball, saw the meaning immediately and its implication for his profession as a medical doctor. You have a patient with apparently ordinary symptoms of a common disease, you prescribe medication that is uncontroversial, and expect success. But you have to “hustle” and be prepared for the worst: Make sure you got the diagnosis right, make sure there is nothing in the patient’s background that suggests the possibilities of side-effects, make sure the patient takes the proper dose, etc. It seems an ordinary, easy-to-handle ground ball to the shortstop, but the consequences of any error can be serious. You get no credit when the throw is on time and on target, and no credit when you make the ordinary diagnosis and prescribe the right medication. But the consequences of an error, of not hustling, can be profound.
I think about Spike’s sermon every day and think about the potential negative consequences of what seem to be small omissions. In other words, the importance of being impeccable. Spike was talking to me. The insight was brought to life by John R. Tunis in a baseball story, in a way that made it clear.
In my life, being impeccable means I do the boring tasks – e.g. make sure I check the mail and pay the bills on time, and not rely on my imperfect memory. In my professional life, it means carefully considering every potential supporting and counter argument to my hypotheses.
I have not been particularly interested in baseball since I was a teen-ager, but I have read all seven of John R. Tunis’ baseball novels: his first, The Kid from Tompkinsville (Tunis, 1940), was described by one reviewer as “The book of Job for boys” (Shiavone, 2004). I read it first when I was about 12, again in my 20’s, again in my 40’s, and again, more than 30 years later, eager to discuss it with Seymour Perl.
Schiavone, M., 2004. “The presence of John R. Tunis’ The Kid from Tompkinsville in Malamud’s The Natural and Roth’s American Pastoral.” Aethlon XXI;2, 79-85.
Tunis, J. R. 1940. The Kid from Tompkinsvillle. Harcourt Brace.
Turnis, J.R. 1943. The Keystone Kids. Harcourt Brace.