Mike Spry stands and whistles at a podium, somewhere dark.
In “Atrophy and Labour Day Baseball,” featured on The Barnstormer, Mike Spry tells the story of one couple watching a baseball game. It begins comically. The husband has a third beer, then a seventh, and “only then does he notice the sexual tension/ in the catcher/umpire relationship.”
The wife describes how she would like to kill him “with a paring knife,/ in Tulsa, in October, after watching The Last Waltz/ in a motel with no room numbers or ice machine.” For his part, he considers “extracting atropine from the nightshade/ to top up her gin and soda.” This is one of those intense dysfunctional love affairs. Think Blue Valentine. Divorce is mentioned as a future inevitability, yet here they are.
Meanwhile, the game progresses. Their murder contemplations occur, respectively, in the 2nd and 4th innings. “In the top of the sixth,” the third base coach is questioned in the same breath as their “taking relationship notes from Marylin Monroe.” They have “violent intercourse” in the seventh, in answer to the seventh inning stretch (during the post-9/11-introduced singing of “God Bless America,” not the more carefree “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which is the traditional seventh inning stretch anthem).
Homer Simpson enjoying the fine sport of baseball.
“It was typically in the eighth,” we’re told, “where they’d find the bottom of their relationship.” As Homer Simpson has identified, baseball is a fine game for drinking, and it has surely aided in this couple’s descent. He puts his white slacks back on, the momentary forgetting of sex now done. The bottom of the ninth finds the game tied, as “it was always tied in the bottom of the ninth.” In baseball terms, this is not true, but for this couple, the chance of a win, which when it comes in the ninth always feels miraculous—a walk-off homerun, a single then the tense manufacturing of the winning run—is the perfect mirror. Maybe they still have a chance.
Likewise, “he expected a walk-off, and to be 20 again” while she “expected a sacrifice, to be held at night,/ to be told she is beautiful, and to believe it.” But not to be: “Too often their fortunes were left to the will/ of a light-hitting Dominican middle infielder.” Of course, a .220 hitting second baseman’s two homeruns a year have to come at some point, but it probably won’t be against a closer.
The relationship-as-game analogy works so well, and is especially poignant, because these two baseball nuts would get it intimately. But at the end Spry turns away from it, and looks at the couple directly. They relied “on a distant memory of once,/ of a promise that would never eventually arrive.” Finally, as with the sweet doldrums of mid-season baseball, after the titular Labour Day, “the summer” of their marriage “would end.” And like the Toronto Blue Jays, they’re probably not making it to October.
This poem is doing something very similar to James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Both are about the watchers of sports, but we cannot know them without the sport. Like Wright, Spry has wrung the human tragedy from what is casually thought of as light entertainment or as the subject of untoward fanaticism. It might be that latter, as might be a long-term relationship.