Saturday, April 26, 2008

How to Write a Baseball Play

I recently decided to write a one-man show about baseball. I've been running dry recently, creatively speaking, so I decided to combine two of my creative passions, baseball and theatre, to direct my energies toward a specific end.
I wanted to do something that would tell the history of baseball, but from several different perspectives. I didn't just want players; I wanted managers, owners, GMs, scouts, reporters, and even fans. I also wanted to pick stories that were about more than just baseball. Retelling the final innings of the 1924 World Series would be exciting to a baseball fan, but maybe not to an average play-goer. So I decided that if I was to include pure "baseball" moments, they would still have to be relevant to people who weren't baseball fans. The great thing about baseball is that so many famous players, moments, and myths are connected to a specific moment in history, or are at least part of a larger story that makes them compelling no matter who you are. It was these stories I wanted to tell, but through the lens of the national pastime (that was even my first idea for a title: simply, "Pastime").
My first idea was to write a one-man show chronicling the history of baseball. I would pick a select few characters from history to take us through the ups and downs of baseball. I was full of ideas of creative ways to present different eras of baseball and, by extension, American history and culture as reflected in the national pastime. I thought (and still think) that it was a fine idea. But it was just too big. It took Ken Burns 9 episodes of public television to tell the story, and I was trying to fit it all into about and one and a half hours of theatre. Anything longer, and I felt I would be unfairly taxing the audience. Part of the challenge of a one-person show is to keep the audience compelled all by yourself, but if you're talking about two or two and a half hours plus intermission, that's not daring -- that's insane.
The other problem was that there was no way I could narrow down all of my ideas to fit even two and a half hours. When I first started brainstorming, I divided baseball history into nine rough eras, and then I started listing possible characters to appear representing that era. These lists alone were daunting. At first, I wanted to narrow it down to three characters per era. But how can you do that without leaving out eight or ten equally appealing characters? Could I really look at the years 1920-1945 and pick three characters from baseball history? Let's say I do pick just three characters (which I did): "Rube" Foster, Babe Ruth, and Satchel Paige. What about Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy, Carl Mays, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Josh Gibson, Hank Greenberg, Pete Alexander, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Moe Berg, Ed Barrow, Allen Roth, Rogers Hornsby, Mel Ott, Damon Runyon, Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, Pete Reiser, and Ernie Lombardi?
I eventually realized that I had enough material in just one "era" to do an entire play about it. So that's what I did. Maybe someday later, I'll turn it into a nine-part series on baseball history, but for now, I decided to focus on just one.
I wanted to keep the structure -- nine "innings," or segments -- to help organize the show and also add another baseball touch. It would also keep the show short and stop me from rambling if I had just nine segments featuring two or three characters (monologues) apiece.

So it was up to me to pick one era of baseball to write about. My first draft had divided baseball into nine rough "eras" in chronological order:

Prehistory: (1700s-1850s)
Base Ball: (1850s-1890s)
Dead Ball: (1900s-1920)
The "Golden" Age: (1920-1945)
Integration: (1945-1960s)
Willie, Mickey, & The Duke (1950s-1970s)
Free Agency: (1970s-1980s)
Big Business: (1980s-1990s)
International Pastime: (1990s-Present)

The time restrictions were rough; it was more important to group characters by theme than to impose too-strict chronological restraints. Forced to pick one of these stories to tell, my first instinct was to go with Integration. It's a period that interests me greatly, and I know more about it than possibly any other era. And I could approach it without a strict observance of timeline. I could start with "Fleetwood" Walker, the last black major leaguer, in the 1880s, and continue up to the present day, if I wanted. I could include characters such as Walker, Satchel Paige, Bill Veeck, Curt Flood, and many more.
The problem with this approach was one of sensitivity; I'm not black, and to write a one-man show about race performed entirely by a white person seemed wrong. Not that I wouldn't include black players, or treat the subject sensitively, but for the story of black-white relations to be told entirely by a white man seemed inherently dishonest, especially since the whole point of the play would be inclusion and diversity. I tried to rework it as a two-person show for one black actor and one white actor, but that stalled a bit. I still might pick that project up again soon, but I decided to go to another era and stick with the one-man show concept.
I decided upon the dead ball era. There are a lot of fascinating, interwoven stories from that era that say a lot not just about baseball, but about the human condition and the American issues of the time. And there is no shortage of colorful characters from that era. I've already started researching and hope to have a rough draft worked up in a few months. You'll forgive me if I'm a bit vague about my final project; playwrights are justifiably paranoid about getting their ideas stolen, and if it sounds like an unreasonable fear, trust me when I say that it's not. Hopefully, though, I will get an opportunity to perform the play and copyright it, thus enabling me to write about it and publicize it as best I can.

I'll try to keep you involved with this interesting process as it continues, if in vague and general terms.


I also would be remiss if I didn't mention the newest development in Cincinnati baseball. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky was fired recently and replaced by special adviser (and former Cardinals GM) Walt Jocketty. I think the move was the right one, but the timing of it was downright puzzling. Krivsky was fired less than one month into the season, with the Reds at 9-12. Is that disappointing? Yes. Is it worth dumping your GM? Absolutely not. What must have happened is that Jocketty, who just joined the team this off-season after being let go by St. Louis, was meant to take over as GM all along, but ownership wanted some sort of justification before canning Krivsky. They couldn't wait very long for it, I imagine, and tried to use the 9-12 excuse as the reason for getting rid of him. That's not only silly, but a pretty insulting lie to both Krivsky and the fans.
Not that I disagree with the move. I've been a vocal critic of Krivsky in the past, and while he has made some good moves (picking up Bronson Arroyo, Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips), they've been outweighed by the poor ones (hiring Dusty Baker, the Kearns-Lopez trade, the glut of expensive middle relievers). But even a poor GM deserves better than this. If the Reds (and owner Bob Castellini) really wanted to get rid of Krivsky, the honorable thing would have been to do so before the season. Yes, it's embarrassing to fire a GM not for what he did but just because a better candidate happened along, but that's at least more honest than what the Reds did. What they did was hedge their bets and try to have it both ways, only to make themselves look worse than they would have by firing him earlier or later.
Wayne Krivsky did not do a good job as GM of the Reds, and he deserved to be dismissed. But to get rid of him this way was the wrong thing to do, and it sends a message of dishonesty and double-dealing throughout the organization and fanbase. That's never a good thing, and it wasn't worth it just to get rid of Krivsky.

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