Long before he was a writer, a university professor and Canada’s first poet-laureate, George Bowering was a baseball player.
He grew up in a small town called Oliver, in the little pocket desert at the southern end of BC’s Okanagan Valley. Oliver is now known as the Wine Capital of BC, and boutique wineries are thick on the ground. In the 1950s, though, Oliver was just a small orchard town without an art gallery or much else in the way of what are now called cultural amenities. But there was baseball.
Bowering at bat
“The other sports were basketball,” Bowering said with a smile. He’s been playing baseball almost ever since, for the Kosmic League, the Twilight League – any league that could use a lanky second baseman who could also play short.
He finally hung up the spikes in 2004.
“I was lured out of retirement, played a couple of games and retired again. Officially.”
The Zephyrs of the Kozmic League -- Bowering is in profile in the engineer's cap at the back
That would make it about a 60-year career – not bad for a guy with dodgy knees, bad eyes and all the aches that come when you’re a bit older. Wouldn’t it be fun to play pickup ball in Oliver again?
“Twelve years old is probably the best age there is, right?” he asks rhetorically. “We had fool-around baseball. We didn’t have parents running Little Leagues and stuff. And uniforms?” He scoffs at the idea of it.
When they weren’t playing sandlot ball on long summer afternoons, they listened on the radio to games being played in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Bowering fell in love with the poetry as well as the playing of the game. Now he can explain the Infield Fly Rule in 25 words or less and can probably tell you who was the MVP in the 1979 World Series.
After a stint with the RCAF, Bowering went to UBC and studied English. He helped found the poetry newsletter Tish and learned that poetry is more than distilled emotion crystallized into words.
"We studied poetry hard and we had masters who taught us the art of poetry,” is the economical way he sums it up.
Since then Bowering has taught university classes, and has published dozens of books – poetry, prose, history and fiction. He's also won several awards, including two Governor General's awards -- one for poetry and one for fiction. Not bad for a guy who bought his first book in a pool hall.
In 2002, he was chosen Canada’s first poet-laureate.
"I don't know what I expected,” he recalled after the two-year term expired in November of 2004. “I knew that I was not going to be writing poems about the wedding of the daughter of the prime minister or something like that."
In fact he only wrote four poems the first year, and some politicians weren’t amused by what they considered a waste of tax dollars.
"One said, you made 12,000 dollars.. hmmm...why, that works out to a lot of money per poem."
When he retired, Bowering had time to travel. And being a baseball fan, he travelled around to ball parks all over the US and Canada. We ran into him at Ross Wells Park in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where the home town Eagles were playing the Regina Rebels. Our son Nick was catching for the Eagles.
It was a hot prairie night. There were so many insects swarming around the lights that chains of them draped from one light tower to the next, like lace. The game was slow, and between plays, George talked about baseball.
“Everybody wishes they could get in the car and drive around to baseball games, right? But you don’t get to a major league city every day, especially out west, so you start going to minor league parks. Pretty soon you say, if it’s a major league park, that’s OK. But the minor league parks are a lot more interesting.”
That’s because the players are either on their way up to the bigs, or on their way down. A routine fly ball is anything but. A dribbling bunt down the third base line can turn into a home run on errors. Plus, the minor leagues put on a better show between innings.
“If you go to Missoula, Montana,” Bowering recalls, “they get a bunch of kids dressed in these rain slickers and they have to throw trout back and forth. The Trout Toss – you don’t get that in Yankee Stadium.” Bowering’s raspy laugh draws a few stares.
He doesn’t have much use for the men in pin stripes. He’s a Boston Red Sox fan through and through. So you’d think he’d be happy that they’d finally broken Babe Ruth’s curse and won the World Series in 2004. Not so.
“It was awful. It took away my irony. After the Red Sox pulled off this miraculous destruction of the New York Yankees, then they went into the World Series against the Cardinals and took them four straight. And in the fourth game I was cheering for St Louis, because I just couldn’t see the distinction of being a Red Sox fan disappear.”
Bowering’s passion for baseball has taken him all over the world, including Switzerland, where the game left a lot to be desired, but the snacks were good – especially the hot dogs. And then there are the mascots.
“It was in Dayton, Ohio where the mascot had a spring on his head and he could jump up in the air and bounce on his head.” Again the laugh. But sometimes even the mascots give up on their team.
“It was such a long, hot, boring day somewhere in upstate New York where the Mud Dogs were playing, and there was this guy dressed as a dog and he just wound up sitting in the stands, with his arms back around the seats beside him, howling every time the Mud Dogs made an error.”
But even if the mascots moan, the snacks are bad and the play on the field is inept, a bad day at the ball park still beats a good day almost anywhere else.
“Even if the scores’s twelve to nothin’, and most of those runs are scored on errors,” says Bowering as Moose Jaw pops one over the infield and scores another run.
George Bowering tells baseball stories on Tuesday November 8 at 7:30 pm at the Granville Island Brewery on Granville Island, hosted by Sheryl McKay and Paul Grant. Bowering’s new book, The Diamond Alphabet, is published by BookThug.