Greenberg's Got Game

A master playwright swings for the fences with a socially conscious baseball play

by Steven Drukman

Last century began tinged with an optimism alien to today's jaded baseball fans. To quote a 1901 issue of 'Baseball Magazine': 'Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, made proper provision for baseball when he declared that all men are free and equal. That's why they are at the ballgame, banker and bricklayer, lawyer and common laborer.' 

This sunny-sky view of the American polis has suffered its share of rain delays over the past 100 years. Whether at Ebbets Field or Camden Yards, decade after decade proved that all men were not always created equal, even in that most pastoral of settings. In fact, baseball struggled'in lockstep and in microcosmic form'with the same social issues that plagued the nation throughout the 20th century. Alongside the game's heroic tales there have been seamy stories of labor strife, corruption, gambling, racial prejudice and, now, drug use. The American experiment is far from over, and baseball'despite its geometric and algebraic perfection'is far from 'perfect' in the sociopolitical realm.

Over the past two decades, a handful of 'baseball plays' have grappled with social issues. Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak's The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, about a deaf Chicago White Sox player in the 1910s, addressed disability on the diamond in its 1987 premiere at Chicago's Commons Theatre. That same year, August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning Fences'a stirring drama about the fictional Troy Maxson, who was kept from big league play because of the game's ban on black athletes'debuted on Broadway. In 1994, Eric Simonson's adaptation of Mark Harris's 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly'a play about a dying ballplayer that ran at Boston's Huntington Theatre'was, according to its author, 'made relevant in the age of AIDS.'

More recently, in 2000, Lee Blessing's Cobb (first staged by New York's Melting Pot Theatre Company) rose above the mere baseball bio-play by placing a decidedly politically incorrect athlete in proper cultural context. (Blessing's antihero, the bigoted Ty Cobb, is shown in Blessing's imagination to be haunted by Oscar Charleston, who played in the Negro Leagues and was known as the 'black Cobb.') Last season, Ken LaZebnik's League of Nations (which premiered at Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theatre in March) used one team's pitching rotation'which included a Korean, an African American, a Mexican and a hot new Japanese import'as a portrait in miniature of this country's roiling, sometimes boiling, melting pot. Still, despite these admirable efforts from socially conscious playwrights, the phrase 'baseball play' usually conjures but one: Damn Yankees, Adler and Ross's 1955 Goethe-meets-Doubleday musical that dressed the Faust legend in cleats and made the Washington Senators sing 'you gotta have heart.'

Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out (which is currently having its U.S. premiere at New York's Public Theater) is the first major play to grapple with homosexuality and its uneasy overlap in the world of professional baseball. But Greenberg's play is about much more (and, in its true-to-baseball spirit, much less) than sexual politics: As the playwright himself explained, the real love story in Take Me Out is with the game, pure and simple. The play'concerning Darren, a young superstar who decides, in a mixture of hubris and candor, to 'come out' to his adoring fans as a red-blooded, 100-percent homosexual (he doesn't even, uh, swing both ways)'premiered at London's Donmar Warehouse last June to mostly rave reviews. Writing in the New Yorker, critic John Lahr asserted that 'if there's anything that confounds the British more than American optimism, it's baseball'a game'some would say a ritual'of hope.' Nonetheless, the result of Greenberg's 'mischievous ambition: to marry the old ballgame with gay politics' is 'exhilarating.' Lahr suggests that Take Me Out would win over even the most resistant Brit who might find the project not quite cricket.

Take Me Out's implicit message'that social issues sit like thorns in the manicured green fields of ballparks'may explain why professional baseball is sometimes a bit tentative in its approach to cultural politics. (And when it comes to professional theatre, why for every Cobb there will always be a hundred Pride of the Yankees'or, for that matter, Damn Yankees.) This has less to do with players, owners, sportswriters and, for that matter, playwrights-who-are-fans 'being in denial' than it does with the ontology of the game: The panglossian spirit cannot be extracted from baseball's very essence (as the quote from Baseball Magazine attests). Darren doesn't believe his admission can hurt him because the fans will still come out, rosy-eyed and rooting to the end. That's baseball's way, and you see it in every game. 

And this spirit pervades more than each individual game: For the true aficionado, there's always that irresistible force of optimism in the face of adversity that peppers the larger epic drama that stretches out over every season. Hope 'springs' eternal (even for Cubs fans) in spring training, and 'falls' for most by the end of October. Even if your team is showing you (as Casey Stengel said of his hapless Mets in 1962) 'new ways to lose,' with the right midseason trades and a little bit of luck'well, you never know how things will end up. Baseball'perennial, passed on to our kids and prone to extra innings'tends to play out as the theatre of American renewal.

To wit: This conversation took place when a baseball strike appeared imminent. But like fans down by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, both the interviewer and his subject seemed illogically, even desperately, hopeful. In baseball (like theatre), there's always next season.

STEVEN DRUKMAN: You know why I'm writing this piece, don't you?
RICHARD GREENBERG: Well, I never knew but just found out you were an incredible baseball fan.

I am, but we're on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak.
Oh, God, you're not from some place like Boston, are you? [they both laugh]Well, we can still talk.

Well, this launches us quite easily into what I've always believed: that baseball allows us to play out our particular geographical, social, ethnic (you name it) issues, but in the end, baseball itself is what's important. Red Sox fans like me love our pious Brahmin pessimism almost as much as we love our team.
It's true. You Red Sox fans'your misery concretizes all those New England virtues, that Protestant deferred gratification. And now, I guess, after 83 years of losing in the post season, that's a lot of deferral. And you guys are always complaining about the Yankees, blaming our payroll.

Oh, New Englanders are always crying poverty. We're thrifty.
You're martyrs. The Diamondbacks just played a series with the Red Sox'and swept them'but your fans didn't care: They just kept coming up to the Diamondbacks and thanking them for beating the Yankees in the World Series last year! That's nuts. And as I say in my play Three Days of Rain, 'Boston isn't a city, Boston is a parish.'

We finally agree. Now is Take Me Out your first baseball play?
I think it has to be my only one, don't you? After Tom Stoppard wrote The Real Thing he said, 'Well, that's the love play.' Which is odd, because love is a bigger subject than baseball'well, no, not really. Anyway, I think this is my baseball play. 

Is this a 'gay play'?
I don't want to make any of those disingenuous remarks like 'What is a gay play?' Aren't all my plays 'gay plays,' in a way? Actually (and this is not enlightened as much as it is'blind): I don't remember if plays I've written have gay characters in them or not. Because you know how our lives are more multifarious than that? I just think of characters in the same way. I guess this one has a gay 'angle.'

Well, at any rate, the mix of homosexuality and baseball in a play is not old hat.
Funny, though: A publicist recently complained to me that it marginalized the play to call it a 'gay play' because then baseball fans won't show up.

Or vice versa. We gay baseball fans are in the minority, Richard. But this play is really more tragic than the tag 'gay baseball play' suggests. To me, it's not unlike [John Knowles's novel] A Separate Peace.
Oh, my God! You know, it's hilarious that you said that'nobody has said that. The narrator, that's part of it, sure, as is the crisis of masculinity, of course. But recently when I read the play I heard an echo of that book, and I haven't read it in 20 years, so that's very astute. And also it's a love story. Though I think that the love story in this play is really love for baseball. Because'okay, a confession: I have only been a fan since 1999. What happened was, I became a fan and instantly couldn't focus on anything else. I thought about baseball, and everything else came second. It possessed me. Eventually I could make room for the rest of my life, but only when I could see relationships, work, what have you, through the eyes of the game. Baseball is that large, though'it allows for metaphors, as you know.

It's bizarre that someone's induction to this game should come so late.
Which is why I am such a fanatic. I was so skeptical'I thought people who cared about baseball were ridiculous. I've never been a 'fan' of anything, really. I was never one of those 'Oh, Liza' people. So the experience of fan-dom was a new one, along with baseball. I went out and bought histories, and that Ken Burns documentary sits on my TV like a shrine, an altar. I'd read anything.

Now I feel like I'm spending a lot of time cramming. The history of this game isn't embedded. I'll read anyone'I enjoy George Will, for example, when he's writing about baseball, not politics. (I've gotten over that idea that someone has to be morally vetted before you can use or enjoy them.) It's why I can forgive [Yankees pitcher] David Wells if he made homophobic comments'he's just not evolved yet, is the way I prefer to think about it.

And, of course, he pitched a perfect game for the Yankees.
Well, that too.

But I prefer the sentiment of his teammate Mike Mussina, who, when asked how he would feel if he found out he was playing with a gay man, replied: 'I assume I already have.'
Good for him, yes. See, as I say, I'm a new fan, so I didn't know all that.

So in a way, the character Mason [a gay character who becomes an instant baseball fan in Take Me Out] is standing in for you.
Yes, the way he just fell in love with it right away is true of me. And now if there is a Yankee game I can possibly see, it's mandatory. I am watching it. That first season, when it ended so abruptly for me, I couldn't take it. I couldn't bear that feeling of loss'I would scan the upper reaches of cable TV, and discover Dominican winter baseball.

Well, there's always ESPN Sports Classics [a channel that broadcasts old sporting events].
Yes, but some of those years, in the '70s, when everyone had to be a hippie, and uniforms were fuchsia and orange'I can't take that.

But in a way, what's true for Mason in Take Me Out is true for all of us, even those of us who loved the game from childhood. Nostalgia is part of baseball, I think.
That sort of Wordsworthian experience of baseball being unconsciously lodged in us'it certainly happened to me. And that's what I uncovered writing this play. It was almost an enormous relief coming to baseball so late in my life'it conjured up these memories I didn't even know I had, but of course I did. It's like that closing sentence in Jim Bouton's 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.'

Well, it seems that there are other characters in Take Me Out loosely based on real-life players.
(Sarcastically) Oh, gee, ya' think so? Who could you be thinking of?

Darren 'the half-black, half-white beloved star who admits his homosexuality' is a bit like Derek Jeter.
(Mock surprise) No!

And Shane Mungit, the bigoted relief pitcher, has a hint of John Rocker.
Wow! I never thought of that.

Okay, I'll stop. But it occurs to me that playwrights should make more of these eccentric characters in baseball. Especially the psycho/superstitious pitchers.
Oh, absolutely. Actually, when Rocker gave that bigoted interview to Sports Illustrated, I was really happy, because it suited my play quite nicely. And [Mets reliever] Turk Wendell, with that demeanor on the mound. But there was something appealing in him'just the courage to wear that necklace.

[Red Sox pitcher from the 1970s] Bill 'Spaceman' Lee'
Oh, yeah, he was witty. Though he was the one guy in baseball that [Yankee coach] Don Zimmer said he wouldn't let in his living room. He hated him. That's all in Zimmer's affable but not-quite-compelling memoir.

You actually read that?
Of course! You don't see Zimmer very much this season. I wonder if it's age that is making him less appealing or if [Yankees owner] Steinbrenner is just punishing him for those hemorrhoid commercials!

Actually, speaking of the crisis of masculinity and baseball: You
have to admire [Texas Ranger] Rafael Palmeiro doing those Viagra commercials.
Really? Do you? I guess. I admire Derek Jeter for doing those peanut butter commercials, actually. You know, let 'em have their endorsements. I don't care.

I'm amazed that you watch so much baseball and write so much. This year we'll also see The Violet Hour (opening Nov. 3 at California's South Coast Repertory), and last year we had both Everett Beekin and The Dazzle.
Think of it this way: What else do I do? I don't have a family to be responsible to, or have to support anyone beyond myself. And everything that has happened in the last couple of years represents work that goes back six or seven years. So we're talking an average of a play a year, and I don't think that is extraordinary output if that is actually your job. I'm steady more than prolific. Look at Philip Roth. He's writing novels, thick novels, and they are masterpieces. I find that astonishing. He's turned his entire life into writing. I admire that. I do try to do that'turn my life's moments, all of them, into writing.

What is The Violet Hour about?
It's about a young man who's starting an independent publishing firm, and he has to choose between publishing the first novel of a classmate and the memoir of a blues/jazz singer with whom he is actually having a clandestine affair. And a machine of indeterminate function and origin comes into the office and starts picking and changing everything. 

And you used some baseball consultant on Take Me Out?
Well, we have a baseball-ographer (she doesn't want to be called a choreographer). She's coaching movement. 

Okay, Richard, this piece is coming out in October. Any World Series predictions?
Uh, well'I'm Jewish. So, therefore, superstitious. I guess I can go ahead and name the National League winner because I don't care: the Diamondbacks. Again. 

I'll pick the Braves in the NL because in addition to the Bosox, I'm a Mets fan, and, so, a pessimistic fatalist.
You're probably right. Poor Mets, especially last year after the Subway Series. I can't get over these teams who have great seasons and then fall precipitately, one season later. It's a tragedy; I love it. 

Speaking of the Mets, this was the year that Mike Piazza had to 'come out' and say, 'Sorry, I'm not gay.' So who do you think is the gay Met?
Oh, that's easy. I actually have a relative who runs with the sportswriters, and he has told me who it is.

Tell me!
Well, off the record.

Steven Drukman, a Red Sox fan, is a former American Theatre associate editor and a playwright whose Going Native opens this month at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre. Next month, Richard Greenberg, a Yankees fan, opens The Violet Hour at South Coast Repertory while Take Me Out continues at New York's Public Theater.