The Chance at Failure: Updike on Baseball

Tomorrow night you can catch the Red Sox for just 10 bucks as they face off against the Pirates in Fort Myers.

Book the flight now and you can get there easy.  

I think of this because last night with sleep eluding me I read John Updike’s last book, a collection of poems many of which he wrote from Massachusetts General Hospital where he was when he learned what would kill him; what did kill him very soon after.

If he could walk to the west-facing windows in those last weeks of 2008, he would have been able to see the ball park he wrote so memorably about the day of Ted Williams’ last game.

He would have been able to see funny-shaped Fenway Park, built a hundred years ago now, when Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox. 

Anyway this is Updike’s poem about baseball from his final collection Endpoint, from Alfred A. Knopf. It’s going to be 70 degrees out there today and the birds are just exulting.

I say let’s us exult a little too, in the spirit of spring peepers and line drives and those long, long summer games in the warm and velvety nights:


It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even, 
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside, 
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield 
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive, 
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s 
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath 
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance 
of failure is everybody’s right, 
beginning with baseball.

3 thoughts on “The Chance at Failure: Updike on Baseball

  1. Thank you Terry, Once again I am amazed at your style, your ability to draw feelings out of an unsuspecting, casual reader…. such as myself. CJH

    1. I don’t remember him Jan. I didn’t start going to baseball games until I was 19 those lovely summers in Boston and Cambridge in tiny rented apartments..

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