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Talking Baseball

So, you want to see Take Me Out but don't know much about baseball? Don't worry; Mister Filichia explains it all for you. logo

Filichia wrote the book on baseball
On Broadway, Take Me Out remains as terrific a show as it was last fall Off-Broadway. It's no longer a three-act play, though, but has morphed into a two-acter. I'm surprised at where playwright Richard Greenberg and director Joe Mantello decided to put the intermission. They have it at the end of what used to be Act I -- less than an hour into the play -- instead of putting it at what used to be end the of Act II. That now makes for a long second act.

I suspect that Greenberg originally wrote the play as a three-acter because he makes the point that baseball is structured in threes and multiples thereof. If this doesn't strike a chord in you, that may be because you're not a baseball fan. If you're not, I hope your lack of interest in the sport doesn't keep you away from Take Me Out, for you will find it rewarding anyway. If you are inclined to skip it because you don't know baseball, allow me to help.

I became a rabid baseball fan seven full years before I became a rabid theater fan, and (honest!) I've even had a book about baseball published. I do believe that your getting a little background information on the sport could help you to enjoy Take Me Out even if you don't commit everything to memory. Before I attended The Invention of Love on Broadway, I read the 28-page glossary that the University of Chicago had published online. Having even a slight familiarity with such words as Napthali, Baehrens, and Oxoniensis made hearing them spoken from the Lyceum stage far less off-putting, so maybe the explanations below will do the same for those who don't know third base from the third inning.

"Choking-up on a bat" means holding your hands too far up on the wood, as we musical theater enthusiasts were inclined to do when our gym teachers made us play. "A short fly on a bounce" refers to a ball that should have been caught -- and would have therefore been a sure out -- but isn't caught and therefore becomes a sure hit. "Rookie of the Year" is baseball's version of the Theatre World Award, given to an outstanding newcomer. "Three-peat" means that a team has repeated its winning of the World Championship for the third straight year. "The infield fly rule" means -- well, never mind. That one's awfully complicated. Don't panic when you hear it.

There's talk of a pitcher hurling "a perfect game." That's when a pitcher gets three outs for nine consecutive innings without allowing any of the 27 batters to reach base, but it does not mean that an opposing player hasn't hit the ball against him. In fact, all 27 might have hit the ball; it's just that the ball may be caught on the fly or thrown to first base before the player gets there on the run -- and those count as "outs." (I daresay that there's never been a game where no opposing players actually hit the ball.)

Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
There's no question that Greenberg's New York Empires are actually the New York Yankees. (While there's never been a major-league team called the Empires, there was a minor-league outfit by that name in 1924: The Albany Empires. The next year, though, they changed their named to The Albany Senators.) You can tell that the Empires in Take Me Out are the Yankees because (1) they're a New York team; (2) they win quite a bit, especially the World Series; (3) their stadium has a distinctive architectural facade that's been replicated over the Kerr's proscenium; and (4) they wear white uniforms that are pinstriped, just as the Yankees have done throughout their history. You'll also notice that when a player is seen coming to bat from the opposing team, he's wearing a gray uniform. That means that he's playing in an Empire home game, for home teams traditionally wear white uniforms while road teams don gray.

Greenberg mentions that sometimes an umpire's decision is questioned but it's rarely reversed. That's almost 100% true, though there was a game a couple of decades ago when a Kansas City Royal hit a home run against New York and the Yankee manager charged that the player had used an improper bat. Upon examination, this turned out to be true, so the home run was taken away. An even more interesting incident occurred about two decades earlier: Baseball's first female umpire called a player out and, when the crowd booed, she changed her mind and said he was safe. Then the crowd booed her even more for not being strong enough to stick to her guns. She quit that very day.

By the way, while I was watching Take Me Out last fall, I thought I'd figured out where the plot was heading. The play tells of gay superstar centerfielder Darren Lemming, who is tremendously and understandably insulted when new relief pitcher Shane Mungitt says he dislikes "playing with a faggot." Lemming is so furious that he talks about quitting the team, but his business manager (and staunch fan) Mason Marzac convinces him to stay. In the next game, the Empires are in danger of losing their lead, and must call on the suspended Mungitt to save the day. I assumed that the opposing batter would hit the ball to center field and Lemming would just stand there, making no effort to catch it. As incredible as it may seem, baseball rules state that Mungitt and not Lemming would be at fault in such a case. You see, a player cannot make an error if he doesn't touch the ball, so this would have to be ruled a hit -- one that would be counted against Mungitt, who would be the losing pitcher if the hitter had enough time to round the bases and score the winning run. (As it turned out, Greenberg came up with a scenario far more dramatic than the one I envisioned, which is why he's an acclaimed playwright and I am a mere critic.)

Mungitt, by the way, is new to the team because he's been promoted from "Double-A Utica." In baseball's hierarchy, major league baseball is the highest level. One step below is called Triple-A ball, followed by Double-A ball, then simply A-ball. There was a time when the minors used B, C, and D designations but those were dropped in the '50s. Traditionally, players are promoted to the majors after they've played Triple-A, but it's not uncommon for a Double-A player to make the double jump. So Greenberg is telling us that Mungitt has come a long way in a short time.

Lemming responds to the clubhouse strife by becoming an even better hitter, with an "average around .400." Baseball takes its statistics to an extra decimal point, so a guy who's batting .400 is actually hitting safely 40% of the time. Doesn't sound so hot, does it? But no one's batted .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. Indeed, the highest career batting average is Ty Cobb's .367, which hasn't been bettered since he retired in 1928. Although he got a hit less than 37% of the time, he's still the best of them all, yet that's an F where I went to school. Makes you hate baseball players even more for commanding all those millions for such comparatively meager achievements, doesn't it?

The cast of Take Me Out
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Interesting that Lemming wears #8. It's a number that many superstars have worn, including Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox, Willy Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Yogi Berra of the Yankees. But Greenberg couldn't have had Berra in mind when writing Lemming, for he's a most erudite character while Berra was infamous for his many illogical remarks. My favorite is the one he uttered in a Kansas City restaurant after ordering a pizza. The waitress asked Berra if he wanted it cut into six or eight pieces. "Oh, six," he replied; "I could never eat eight." On the other hand, Berra was absolutely correct when he noted (albeit in simplistic terms) that, no matter how far ahead a team may be during a particular game, "It ain't over till it's over." By the way, I once saw Berra in the audience at Luna Stage in Montclair, New Jersey -- the town in which he lives -- at a performance of King Lear in which Olympia Dukakis played the monarch. I was hoping he'd fall asleep and that his wife would nudge him and say "It ain't over till it's over," but he stayed awake all night long. (And I never thought I'd use the names Yogi Berra, Olympia Dukakis, and King Lear in the same sentence!)

At the end of Take Me Out, the ballplayers say to each other, "Fuck of a season, huh?" in a way that acknowledges both the great and the awful parts of it. That's one expression that baseball-impaired theatergoers don't need translated, for all of us can say it about our own theater season. And one of the great parts of this season is Take Me Out.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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