Plating Sylvia Plath

Finding the true meaning of baseball in the Cosmic Baseball Association

Illustration by Bob AulI dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night. The labor leader and songwriter (1879-1915) was on the mound, pitching for the Armageddonia Anarchists, which is currently ranked sixth in the Underleague of the Cosmic Baseball Association (CBA). The big news with the Anarchists, though, isn't Hill's reappearance (says Joe, "I didn't die"); it's the signing of rookie right fielder and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose current incarceration is expected to have no significant impact on his promising career.

If you wish to redeem the holy game of baseball from its limits in this imperfect world—salary caps, cost overruns, the cruelties of linear time that prevent Sandy Koufax from facing Ken Griffey Jr.—there is fantasy baseball, predicated on the idea that statistics are the soul of the game. Even better, there is cosmic baseball (www.clark.net/pub/cosmic/cba1.html), which treats stats as part of the true matrix of the blessed quadrature: the numbers tell us stories about individual players, and we weave those stories and other facts into symbolic entities we call teams. (Example: the Motherland Mothers, who feature, among other stars, Lillian Farmer, Naomi Ginsberg, Lydia Lawrence and Joan Mapplethorpe, mothers of Frances, Allen, D.H. and Robert.)

Baseball as a metaphor for the life of the mind? You can almost smell the computer at the bottom of this.

The Cosmic Baseball Association began in 1981, when Andrew Lampert began pondering the glut of cultural, historical and biographical factoids he'd accumulated from years of living in the 20th century. How can anyone manage all that information? What's it all mean, anyway? Fifteen years later, he might have used a database to make sense of it; fortunately, he hit upon a far more engaging structural metaphor.

Since teams are a central structural concept, most CBA teams are chosen thematically. For example, the flagship Paradise Pisces squad (Anaïs Nin, field manager) includes only people born between Feb. 19 and March 20. However, nonhuman players are not excluded from competition: teams past and present include the Sweeptown Curveballs (mathematical formulae), the Ridertown Tarotians (major arcana Tarot cards), the Franklinton Zappas (the composer's first 25 albums) and the Martian Kinotypes (movies about the red planet).

Each team has at least 17 players, including a pitching staff of at least 5. Each prospect enters the league with a randomly generated Candidate Player Profile simulating 500 plate appearances. Prospects that score well in that Player Profile are assigned positions and given rookie profiles based on first-year data from 1952 to 1992. Prospects that don't score well are passed to the Candidate Pitcher Profile, which assigns each entity an ERA of 3.51 and simulates 175 innings pitched to determine their throwing potential.

All players accumulate stats over a lifetime of play, which takes place in a combination of off-the-shelf and homegrown software. (There are, nonetheless, regular requests for game tickets, a sign that the Net's irony level is dangerously low.) The software calculates player performance as well as random factors such as injuries and "eccentric behavior." Over time, players may retire, shift into management (the Pisces' Nin pitched for 12 years with a lifetime ERA of 3.52—Stan Williams, are you listening?—before ascending to manager), or move into the front office.

The teams may seem whimsical, but this is serious ball: recent debate over dropping the DH rule was lively, and player interactions include intraclub conflict and entrenched rivalries. "Memorial Cosmic Player Plates" (Web pages devoted to one player, giving biographical information, links and CBA stats) are also serious business for team creators. The beautiful part happens when you believe, when you can hold in your mind's eye both Hillary Rodham Clinton the first lady and Hillary Rodham Clinton the starting second baseman for the Vestal Virgins—not to mention her husband, Bill, who was suspended from the CBA's Washington Presidents team for unethical behavior. Baseball is life, and art apotheosizes it.

 
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