Casey At The Bat by Ernest Thayer is my all-time favorite poem. I find it a truly moving epic, complete with the flawed hero of the title and the Greek chorus of baseball spectators who are in evidence right from the first stanza (“a sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.”) to the last (“There is no joy in Mudville…)
In spite of the unsatisfying outcome, there’s a lovely sense of balance — Flynn (the “lulu”) and Blake (the “cake”) do more than is expected (“Flynn let drive a single to the wonderment of all/And Blake, the much despis-ed tore the cover off the ball.”) while “Mighty Casey” does less than expected.
What’s the deal with Casey? Is he a tragic flawed hero who comes up against unconquerable dark forces (the pitcher, the umpire) or is he just an insufferable, arrogant tool? Has he been blinded by the fans’ adoration or has his hubris been lurking since way back in Little League?
In one of our first glimpses of Casey, he rubs his hands with dirt then wipes them on his shirt. Is the dirt/shirt stuff mere showboating? Is it a way of getting into “the zone” sort of the way some players tug at their crotches or readjust their wristbands before stepping into the batter’s box? Is it a ritual that he feels compelled to go through to appease the gods of baseball? Does he resemble Antaeus, who got his strength from the earth? Does he just want to get a good grip on the bat since batting gloves won’t be invented until well into the next century?
Thayer doesn’t let his readers/listeners know if Casey is facing a pitcher unfamiliar to him. This would be a key to his behavior. He took that first pitch, which turned out to be a strike. Perhaps he wanted to check out this guy’s style. Perhaps he was trying to psych the guy out by projecting a wealth of confidence. There are those who feel that he should have been looking for the first pitch to be a fastball and swung at it, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Damn nice of him, too, to soothe the crowd and dissuade them from killing the umpire.
Pitch #2 is where things get a little iffy. Casey “ignores” that second pitch, which is right up the pipe, as noted by the eagle-eyed umpire. Does Casey think that the combination of being part of the visiting team, seeing the crowd’s response to Casey, observing Casey’s unafraid bearing and hearing the shouts of the volatile crowd is going to rattle the pitcher and make him lose his stuff? Perhaps Casey was gambling that the second pitch would be called a ball and he would have more time at the plate. If it’s a gamble it doesn’t pay off. One thing we must give Casey props for — even though he’s got his faults and foibles and a hatful of bad decisions, he never argues with the umpire. In fact, when his “maddened thousands” of fans yell again, Casey gives them such a big STFU look that they are properly awed into silence. He may go down swinging, but he’s sure as hell not going to get tossed from the game.
Casey is the one that’s rattled now. He hasn’t had a chance to see all of the tricks in the pitcher’s bag. His unrestrained body language says it all (his teeth are clenched in hate/he pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate). The pitcher might as well get comfortable and have himself a snack since he’s gotten up into Casey’s kitchen and Casey is preparing to whiff something up.
The lines leading up to Casey’s being caught looking have a compressed feel — the reader or listener can feel the tension: (And now the pitcher holds the ball and now he lets it go) Everyone in that long line all the way back to 1888 is holding his or her breath and then: “And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.” Such a delicate little diss, as far as disses go, but so potent. Ernest Thayer really knew how to hurt a guy. But he was a fan, and fans hurt, too.
So what about Casey? I decided to ask 3 people (one for each strike) what they thought:
Person #1: Casey’s a big prick! He went out there all cocky and wasted two strikes then whiffed. Serves him right. He’s no hero — he might be if he had swung at least once, but he didn’t even try.
Person #2: Casey did right to take that first strike because it signalled confidence to the pitcher. Should he have swung at the second one? Maybe he was acting a little Hollywood.
Person #3: I think Casey’s fans are responsible for his behavior. It’s a very co-dependent relationship.
I feel such a mixture of frustration and affection for the guy. Damn, Casey. The table was set. That’s the thing about a classic epic poem — the table is set and the spectators roar and Casey gives Mudville joy then no joy in quick succession for all of eternity.