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Making the show

Baseball art moves from the diamond to the gallery

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I have plenty of reasons not to be a baseball fan. I was beat out at shortstop during my freshman year in high school by a flashy, fair-haired ladies’ man, a humiliation that terminated my baseball career. As a boy from Milwaukee, fate decreed that I would be inexorably and emotionally bound to the Brewers, a sad-sack organization that last year set the all-time record—do you realize how hard it is to set an all-time record in a game that’s as old as dirt?—for team strikeouts. And the price I’ve paid to maintain a tenuous physical connection to the national pastime—two blown-out shoulders in a decade of slow-pitch softball play—is a steep one for a guy with no shortage of middle-age indicators.

Nonetheless, my enthusiasm for the game runs so deep that I would have to categorize it in genetic terms: I am a baseball fan, Pastimo aficionadus, subset brewcrew miserablus.

The physical grace of a leaping catch or a swing as natural as a handshake; the tactical purity of a journeyman slapping a ball to the right side of the infield, advancing the runner to third base with his sacrifice the only out; the defining characteristic of the game as the only major team sport unbound by a ticking clock: these are but a few of the infinite layers of beauty in baseball, a beauty that inspires poets, writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians. (And not just Jack Norworth, the man who penned the classic Take Me Out to the Ballgame in a mere 15 minutes, either—have you ever heard Dylan moan “Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can”?)

Of course, baseball also inspires beer-bellied yahoos to remove their shirts in the stands, roto-geeks to argue the significance of slugging percentages, and Yankees fans to act as if they have earned the reflected glory of their team’s stranglehold of dominance. Perhaps it is they who fuel the snobbishness of those who would remove baseball art from the sacred realm of “true” art.

But a guy in funny pants spitting tobacco juice and adjusting his jockstrap is just as worthy of artistic subjectivity as a downtrodden whore on a street corner. For not only is baseball worthy of art, it is art, and art of the best kind: sweaty and dirty, intricate and revealing, relevant. So while the Art Museum of Missoula’s mission in Out of the Bullpen: Baseball in Contemporary Art—“to build a bridge between the arts and athletics”—is a superfluous one for those who already see the essence of baseball, it should provide a paved walkway for those who have yet to make the connection.

And what a glorious display it is. From the straightforward compilation of black players profiled in Washington artist Tina Hoggatt’s “Eight Ball Players from the Negro League” to the sublime watercolor moment captured by Arlee’s Janet McGahan in “Boys of Summer: Second Pitch,” the couple dozen pieces that make up Out of the Bullpen strike deeply to the heart of baseball.

Perhaps the finest example of the inherent contradictions in baseball—the complexities that give the game its gritty flavor—comes from two stunning pieces by Missoula sculptor Jonathan Qualben. Qualben is not a fan of sports in general, and has been a strident opponent of the effort to build a ballpark at the downtown site chosen by Play Ball Missoula (though he makes it clear that it’s the process he objects to, not the idea of the park itself).

Inspired by his nephew, a left-handed hot prospect out of a New York high school, Qualben’s “Wind Up” and “Swinging Away” fairly jump off the wall. “Wind Up” absolutely nails the deception that pitchers strive for in the moment before delivery. A southpaw hurler has nearly completed the pre-pitch act of bringing ball to glove, glove hand high near the throat, ball hand concealed behind the glove. Perhaps checking a runner at third base out of the corner of his eye, the pitcher’s face is a featureless, unreadable mask—what’s he going to bring, the high heat? The knee-buckling overhand curve?

But it’s in “Swinging Away” that Qualben’s medium truly flexes its muscle. Caught at the precise moment when a swing begins, when a tightly-coiled batter begins to unwind, the rough-edged, rust-colored mix of reinforced concrete conveys the stored power of the torso with striated lines running fluidly from waist to shoulder. The grace and strength of the game is perfectly and purely defined in this piece, this concrete concoction from a man with little passion for the game.

Conversely, passion bleeds from the work of Bryan Di Salvatore, the Missoula author of A Clever Baseballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward. One of three writers to conduct baseball-inspired readings at the show (Pete Fromm read last week; David James Duncan will appear on July 22), Di Salvatore opened his reading last Tuesday with a preamble that dashed the esoteric ramblings of those who pine for the Quixotic good old days: “There is no such thing as a Golden Age of Baseball,” he asserted. “It’s a game too worthy to be coddled.”

Di Salvatore was also commissioned to write an essay for the exhibition, but what came back is “Old as Dirt,” a nine-part poem as rambling and vibrant as the game itself. Lo and behold, part five of the poem is a simple box score from a Milwaukee Brewers-Chicago Cubs matchup earlier this season, a 7-2 defeat of my hometown heroes.

And yes, the arcane signifiers of the box score allowed me to reconstruct the game in my head, from the sterling effort of Cubs starting pitcher Shawn Estes to the solo shot off the bat of Brewers slugger Richie Sexson. Of course, I had a little help in reliving that game. You see, I watched it on the fairly expensive package I purchase from the satellite company every season. Someone’s got to keep tabs on those Brewers, who are showing signs of becoming a solid ballclub.

Out of the Bullpen: Baseball in Contemporary Art runs through Aug. 2 at the Art Museum of Missoula

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