A Poetic Game

By Gabe Ribas
February 13, 2012

I like to tell people that when I was a kid I spent my time bouncing between baseball fields, college campuses, and art museums.  I don’t tell people this because I want to come across as well cultured, educated, artsy, or bright, but rather to illustrate that I was connected to my parents.   My dad works in an art museum back in Maine, and my mom was a professor at the University of Colorado.  Staring at a Picasso, or burying my nose in a book seems as natural to me as talking about how to sequence pitches or pointing out the weaknesses in hitters swings.  As a youngster I was taught to love Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot as much as Roberto Clemente and Bob Gibson.

Growing up there are two things that I remember very distinctly about my father; 1) how he would read me poems, and  2) him being my catcher, coach and umpire as I attempted to develop as a young pitcher.  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”  by Eliot and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Frost were my bedtime stories, after long afternoons of catch sessions in the back yard.   The words were beyond me at that time, but I liked the song-like elements of poems and could sense the importance that my father’s inflection gave the verses, as the poems washed over my exhausted body .  As I get older and older, and constantly find new beauty and poetry in the game that we play, I think I am slowly uncovering my dad’s plan to teach me lessons about life and baseball through the words of some literary giants.

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                    
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.”

—  T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”  (Verse 1)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

— Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

As we prepare for our season to open this week in Texas, we have spent more time talking about the mentality of a competitive team than we have on any other topic, and when I take time to reflect on that mentality in my quiet moments, I can’t help but be drawn to the poems of my childhood.  While they may seem to have nothing to do with baseball, or with the culture of RD that we are developing, if you really listen to the words, it will come as no surprise that Robert Frost once said, “Nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write prose-unless it be to have it assumed that I once pitched a baseball with distinction…”

There are two ideas in the aforementioned poems that resonate with me as we go through the yearly grind that is our season. The first is if we trust in each other, and believe in the strength of our team more than our singular ability, then we can leave all our fears at the door, and exist in a place where we can surrender to the love of the game and trust in one another.  Thomas Sterns Eliot eloquently addresses the human compulsion to try to predict outcomes rather than simply enjoying the journey and surrendering to shared struggles.  Together anything is possible, but if we attempt to go it alone, people – especially baseball players – tend to try to make sense of the end of the road, rather than recognizing the relationships that sustain our spirits along the way.

Since the beginning of the fall here at Santa Clara, we have been coming closer and closer as a team, building our trust in one another, and it has been largely due to the fact that we have had, “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  From day one Coach O’Brien has spoken passionately about the fact that all of us are here to be part of something special, and in order to do that, we have to constantly remind each other, that while we may want to stop and smell the roses, we are beholden to one another to constantly strive for more.  The promises aren’t supposed to be easy, but it is the hard that makes them great.  When we find a way to hold our teammates in our hearts, we never stop grinding, never stop wanting more, and constantly push forward chasing our goals.

Seven months ago I came to Santa Clara thinking that we had a great chance to come here and build a winning team.  I figured things would be largely the same as they had been at the other places that I have worked (Northwestern, Holy Cross, Northern Colorado), but there is something poetic about this team and this program that have really spoken to my heart.  A long time ago one of my friends who is also a coach asked me what I thought it was that players really wanted out of their college baseball experience, and after some thought, I said, “they want to feel like they are part of something bigger than the team.  They want to have a sense of belonging to a program that is more than simply a collection of individuals.”  As the fall and winter have given way to spring, I can hear my father’s voice in his before bedtime tone, every time I step onto the field.

One of the things that we ask the players to do is write a lot of thank you letters, and this is my public thank you letter to my dad, for being my first coach, and for helping me to see the beauty and poetry in this game.  This is a game of fathers and sons.  Of tough love, and pure joy.  The highs are like nothing else and the lows will beat you up for days, and weeks, and months on end.  Let me be very clear, that my dad was far from a great player.  He learned the game by sneaking through the gates at Yankee stadium and the Polo Grounds when he was a kid growing up in the Bronx.  My father’s stories aren’t that of a professional or even a college player, but of a kid who grew up playing stickball in the concrete jungle of New York City for hours and hours on end.  At a point he figured out he was a better poet and artist than he was a ball player, but the love of the game never left his heart, and he made sure to pass it on to his son.  As I was growing up he always told me about the history of the game, and he made me feel like there was magic in baseball.  We had conversations about the baseball Gods, and how we had to keep them happy by respecting the game and playing it the right way.  When we would stay outside having a catch until we could both barely see, the strike zone that my dad would call to all the ghost hitters I faced would always be the size of a shoebox until I proved that I could throw it in the glove over and over again.  From the back yard, all the way to minor league stadiums across the country, I swore there were days where I could feel the ghosts of baseball standing on the mound with me, giving me strength.  At the end of the day I know my father has had a chance to feel the same things I have as he has followed my career as a player and coach.  It must make his heart happy that I am now part of a program that has been on the field for 130 years .

Most kids who get this game stuck in their hearts have that feeling because of their dad.  I remember very distinctly, my dad taking me out of school to take me to see my first major league game.  I was 7, and we went to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox and A’s.  As my father once said while we were in Spain,  “Our ancestors built these cathedrals to worship, we built Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium for the same reason.”  The grass was so green.  The sound of the bats during BP sounded more beautiful to me than any songs I had ever heard.  We walked out to the bullpen to see the pitcher warm up, and I remember thinking that it was impossible for a human to throw that hard.  As it turned out, I would actually throw that hard.  We caught a foul ball.  We ate hot dogs and drank coke.  I stared at the Green Monster like it was a Van Gogh, and to this day no park can touch my heart the way that Fenway does.  I know my dad had to swallow hard to allow me to see my first game in Boston, rather than at Yankee Stadium.  When we finally did go to The Stadium, years later the first thing we did was walk out to the monuments to pay tribute to the greats.

As this team starts our own baseball journey together I want to make sure that we all thank our fathers for giving us this gift.  It is our job as coaches to be keepers of the history and the magic of the game, but it was all of our dads that planted the seed in us.  At the end of the day there is something amazingly poetic about this game, after all, as Jim Bouton said in his classic Ball Four, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  And I wouldn’t have it any other way–thanks Pop.



2 comments on “A Poetic Game

  1. We are so blessed to have our new coaches! And to have at least one who knows how to appreciate poetry, art, and a slider makes me believe the baseball gods have truly smiled on us!

  2. Gabe, What a nice tribute to you and your Dad. I fondly remember your days in Keene, playing for the Swampbats….and Dad making most games, no matter the distance….ever proud and always calling for the red, hot chili pepper (your fast fast fastball.
    Good luck to you and the team.

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