This post originally appeared on AuthorsNow.com.
“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day….”
So goes the first line of “Casey at the Bat” and the greatest American litotes. It’s no mistake that Mudville is introduced immediately, while “mighty Casey” isn’t mentioned until the end of the next stanza, because the protagonist of the poem isn’t Casey at all. The heroes are the fans watching anxiously from the stands.
We don’t know much about Mudville except what we can gather from the name. For example, we know that Mudville is a town too busy to be bothered with marketing. Sure, they could call themselves “Greendale,” but who would they be fooling? It’s not green at all, they admit, it’s muddy. We don’t know the principle industry of Mudville, either, but it’s probably something unreliable and unromantic: coaxing beets from their muddy fields, maybe, or digging for charmless metals like lead and zinc from their muddy hillsides.
Mudville isn’t big enough for a city council, because a city council would think about branding and spearhead a name change to “Greendale” or at least something innocuous like “Marlesberg.” Mudville is big enough to have a ballpark, though, and a proper one with stands and a semi-pro team, which means Mudville’s priorities are in order. After all, a day at the ball park is a fleeting escape from some hard-scrabble existence that involves mucking about in the mud.
I imagine the people of Mudville cram their ballpark after church on Sunday, still wearing their church clothes and still shiny from their weekly baths. (This is 1888, after all, and while plumbing has probably made its way into the homes in Greendale, the people of Mudville still draw up the water from a pump and heat it on the stove and take turns in the same bath until the last and littlest relative steps into cold and brackish water no different than the puddles outside.) The baseball game is a necessary continuation of the church service, nearly religious in its significance.
It’s a fine day for baseball, too, but not for the local nine. They trail by two in the ninth, and the outlook isn’t any more brilliant for their team that it is for the meager, muddy futures of the town’s residents. As all people must do, the Mudville baseball fans hold out on the slenderest of hopes–that Casey will come to bat despite a cake and a lulu preceding him in the line up. Why do a lulu and a cake precede the clean up hitter, we must wonder? Well, that’s simple. Casey is their ringer. Mudville taps the town coffers for such a swinger, and can’t afford anyone else. Even the umpire is paid in dinner and pie. The lulu and the cake are kids from town, and are, for all their failings, the best Mudville can do to set the table.
Today those kids don’t disappoint. It’s as if all the futile hopes of Mudville are finally realized, and perhaps Mudvillians briefly glimpse some heretofore unimagined future: a paved road leading visitors to a thriving Main Street surrounded by verdant acres and handsome homes, and a shiny new sign welcoming those visitors to Greendale. But then…. Well, there is no joy in Mudville, as everyone knows. It couldn’t happen any other way.
If Casey delivered on the promised hit, the poem, and the town, would be lost to obscurity. Instead, Mudville lives on in the public imagination, emblematic of all towns where hopes are fleetingly placed and subsequently crushed on the local five, six, nine or eleven. Nobody cares about Greendale, but Mudville is the most celebrated sports town in the world. The residents of Mudville lick their wounds and wait until tomorrow, or next year, because they know that their heartbreak is what makes them great.