City Lit Theater Company

Baseball has always baffled me. Why do people I know, whose opinions about art and politics I respect, love this game with such a passion? How is that otherwise intelligent men and women find deep meaning in this essentially empty game?

I once heard late Yale president and commissioner of baseball Bart Giamatti advance the idea that baseball was the only professionally organized sport in which the objective was “to return home safe.” Baseball, he said, is a metaphor for life. Which means, I suppose, that in our overly regimented, postindustrial society we piss our days away, yearning to return home as we round the bases from coffee break to lunch to afternoon stretch.

Then we have Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella, who has based his whole writing career on revealing the extent to which an increasingly secular and alienated America has projected its unexpressed religious feelings onto baseball. In Shoeless Joe (made into the movie Field of Dreams) Kinsella uses all the traditional elements of biblical prophecy—mystic visions, voices from heaven (“Build it and he will come”), even visitations by angels and long-dead ancestors—as inspiration for an Iowa farmer to build a baseball diamond in his field. Once the diamond is built, it becomes a kind of cosmic nexus, connecting this world with the next.

Kinsella’s short story “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon” is a considerably less serious work than Shoeless Joe, but it still celebrates baseball’s ties to religion. More precisely, Kinsella resurrects the age-old belief that mere mortals can actually create cosmological change simply by having the right people perform the right rituals in the right way.

In “Last Pennant” the ritual is, of course, the World Series, and the high priest is Cubs manager Al Tiller. If the Cubs win the Series, God has decreed, Armageddon begins; if they don’t, the universe continues as is. Al Tiller’s problem is deciding whether to go for the momentary glory of winning the Series (but losing the world) or to sacrifice fame and save the world.

In adapting “Last Pennant” to the stage, Paul Barrosse, Tom Mula, and Arnold Aprill have considerably broadened Kinsella’s mildly humorous short story, infusing it with plenty of loud, cartoonish characters (including a buffoonish Harry Caray parody and an obnoxious team owner who looks and talks a little like Yosemite Sam). The adaptation has the manic but good-natured comic energy I fondly remember from Practical Theatre’s (and Paul Barrosse’s) heyday in the early 80s.

Happily, the show’s surfeit of physical comedy is executed more in the spirit of the Marx Brothers’ intelligent anarchism than in the spirit of the Three Stooges’ infantile and abusive slapstick. Even Adam Bitterman’s portrayal of the vulgar, pushy club owner (who swings his baseball bat whenever he speaks) is done with restraint and finesse.

This may say more about Aprill’s knack for casting than about Barrosse, Mula, and Aprill’s adaptation. All the actors are right for their roles. Sad-faced Dan Payne seems especially well cast as droopy Cubs manager Al Tiller. Payne’s Tiller, with his gentle but worn features and his grumbling, weary voice, has clearly endured a lifetime of humiliation and disappointment, yet Payne is an accomplished enough comic actor to let the audience laugh at Tiller’s predicament.

I suppose comparisons with Bleacher Bums are inevitable; both shows use the structure of baseball games (the national anthem, the announcements, the seventh-inning stretch) to give structure to the play. But Last Pennant is a much more imaginative and magical play than Bleacher Bums with its mildly exaggerated realism and rather flat-footed comedy. Not only is Last Pennant far funnier, but even in the hurly-burly of this colorful and energetic adaptation, Kinsella’s message is not lost.