The Utility of Boredom

By (author): Andrew Forbes

Spitball literary essays on the off-kilter joys, sorrows and wonder of North America’s national pastime.

A collection of essays for ardent seamheads and casual baseball fans alike, The Utility of Boredom is a book about finding respite and comfort in the order, traditions, and rituals of baseball. It’s a sport that shows us what a human being might be capable of, with extreme dedication—whether we’re eating hot dogs in the stands, waiting out a rain delay in our living rooms, or practising the lost art of catching a stray radio signal from an out-of-market broadcast.

From learning about America through ball-diamond visits to the most famous triple play that never happened on Canadian soil, Forbes invites us to witness the adult conversing with the O-Pee-Chee baseball cards of his youth. Tender, insightful, and with the slow heartbreak familiar to anyone who’s cheered on a losing team, The Utility of Boredom tells us a thing or two about the sport, and how a seemingly trivial game might help us make sense of our messy lives.


Andrew Forbes

Andrew Forbes is the author of the story collections Lands and Forests (Invisible Publishing, 2019) and What You Need (2015), which was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and named a finalist for the Trillium Book Prize. He is also the author of The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays (2016). Forbes lives in Peterborough, Ontario.


“Sportswriter Roger Angell called baseball a way to defeat time. So grab a beer. Sit on a porch. Put your feet up. Listen to a ball game on the radio. Or read The Utility of Boredom cover to cover. As Andrew Forbes says, “Boredom is fertile.” Rest assured, The Utility of Boredom is far from boring. It’s a book to savour, like summer.”Trout In Plaid

“In all of these essays, Forbes’s writing is almost invisibly stunning, clear, with romantic flourishes equal to his subject matter. But what he’s really able to articulate is how a love of baseball is really about a love of, or at least an acceptance of, the fact that losing is part of the game.”National Post

“Taking his cues from Susan Sarandon’s character in Bull Durham, who worships at ‘the Church of Baseball,’ secular humanist Forbes finds something close to religion in everything from Jose Bautista’s bat flip to the Billy Ripken error card.”Quill & Quire

The Utility of Boredom isn’t just for jocks. Forbes writes lovingly and philosophically about the culture of baseball.”Electric City

“Part memoir, part philosophical thought, and really smartly written.”—Ian Letourneau, CBC Radio Fredericton

“Collections of short stories are usually a mixed bag at best — not this one — I loved each story and many of them will be loved by all baseball fans.”The Guy Who Reviews Sports Books

“Forbes’ new collection of essays … is a modern poetics of baseball.”—Largehearted Boy

“Forbes’ style is casual, anecdotal, written with a wide knowledge and deep passion for the game yet readable on different levels, depending where you are on the baseball knowledge continuum. For neophyte me, it was all pleasure of discovery and details that will forever stick.”—Matilda Magtree

The Utility of Boredom by Canadian Andrew Forbes is a delightful collection of 25 baseball essays.”Spitball Magazine

“Baseball, like life, is getting flattened out these days, compressed to noisy highlight clips and shrill pontification. This book cures that flattening, reaching with grace and poetry past all the bludgeoning hot takes and arid statistical analyses to the kinds of absurd and beautiful details—a spectacular throw from deep right; a meandering spring training game; a foul grounder bounding up into the stands, right at you—that first made us all fall in love with the sport. If baseball, like heaven, is a mansion with many rooms, the essays in The Utility of Boredom are like a fat set of janitor’s keys unlocking the wide open marvels of the game.”–Josh Wilker, Cardboard Gods and Benchwarmer: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood

“Baseball is a welcome obsession of mine, a comfort. Reading Utility of Boredom by Andrew Forbes fed that obsession beautifully, warmly. It glows. He writes of baseball as sanctuary, baseball in both general terms and specifics—from the feeling of walking into a ballpark on a summer day to Vin Scully’s perfect description of a cloud. He invites us to get on our tiptoes and peek over the fence, smell the grass, hear the crack of the bat. He respects the slow-glory of the game, he loves the game, he’s really good at this, and I absolutely trust him with my baseball-heart.”—Leesa Cross-Smith, Every Kiss A War


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There’s an old synagogue in South Bend, Indiana where they now sell baseball caps and T-shirts and foam fingers. The South Bend Cubs of the Single-A Midwest League play just across the street at Four Winds Field. The synagogue closed for worship several years ago and it proved too tempting an edifice for Andrew T. Berlin, the team’s owner, to resist; he bought it and had it converted, removing the bimah and the Ark of the Covenant, installing shelving and a cash counter, and now it opens to service a different sort of adherent.

This seems entirely appropriate to me, though I understand how it might offend the Orthodox. The ballpark-as-temple notion treads the line of blasphemy, but does so acrobatically, since in the cases of both baseball and religion we’re talking about community endeavours with long historic roots, endeavours that call on us to uncover our better selves.

I’ll go further and suggest that houses of worship and houses of baseball serve similar if not identical functions, namely the promise of a safe place of assembly from which to organize our efforts to reach something higher. They offer sensations like few other things in this life do, a sense of the uncanny, heaping doses of wonder, and the tingle on the skin that occurs when we find ourselves in the presence of something that makes possible the miraculous.

There is a feeling I get just before a summer rain interrupts a warm day, a sense- and emotion-memory so strong it’s like teleportation: I am just days shy of my 13th birthday and, in the manner of all people that age, on the cusp of so much I cannot anticipate and yet for which I remain both eager and reticent. I am with my parents outside Doubleday Field, the tiny brick ballpark just a block from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where my parents have taken me for my birthday. Everything hums. The warm August day has turned dark and the sky threatens. The pavement smells warm, and seems to know it will soon be wet and black with rain. Soon we’ll venture up the little grandstand and watch a half-inning of a little league game being played there. In 18 years I’ll stand on this very spot holding my first child and point out Ferguson Jenkins as he signs autographs. That first afternoon, the one when I’m almost 13, the rain is coming but it has not arrived yet, and my mother and father have given this to me. This place, this experience. Baseball is being played, and I have just seen the Hall of Fame for the first time, and Doubleday Field is built of brick and it offers welcome, its roofed grandstand saying, Even if the sky breaks, I will keep you dry. In the confluence of all these things I locate a feeling like safety such as I have not felt since infancy.

Twenty-six years later I’m still there in many ways. Worshipful, reverent, and certain that my lifetime of watching and studying this game has not revealed to me all its secrets; that several more lifetimes would leave still more mysteries. And I’m grateful that, though I have permitted so much wonder to be drummed from me, allowed my capacity for sincere surprise to ebb away, I have maintained those feelings where baseball is concerned. It has not lost any of its ability to awe me; when I watch I’m still that kid.

The ballpark is where my otherwise firm secular humanism begins to grow soft, to give out at its edges, to take on a porousness into which seeps something very like belief. It’s the place where my weariness and cynicism abate, replaced by an openness and desire for grace. I’ve followed that feeling to all manner of places. Like a pole star it has determined my direction. I’ve forgone Paris in favour of Chicago, Seattle, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. I’ve passed over London for Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Burlington, Vermont. I’ve tithed it my meagre funds. I’ve felt wonder at seeing a champion crowned—ascending to the game’s heaven, as it were—and then known the despair of the season ending, followed by the reliable joy of the day pitchers and catchers first report to Spring Training, and finally registered the elation of Opening Day, with its unsubtle suggestion of rebirth.

It shows us what a human being might be capable of, with extreme dedication—for if we can’t beatify Jackie Robinson or Roberto Clemente then who among us is worthy? We also learn daily just how complicated our lesser saints are, how conflicted and human. Such doubt, of course, confirms faith. Josh Hamilton erred and then righted himself, achieving years of sobriety before a second slip, which he himself reported. Angels owner Arte Moreno cast him out but the Rangers accepted him back into the fold. After that dark hour, Arlington’s Globe Life Park probably felt like a sanctuary for Hamilton. He hit a double on the first pitch he saw and two homers the next night. If that’s not grace.

Across 9 innings, through 162 games, season after season and decade after decade, baseball asks for devotion, attention, dedication, and it rewards with clemency. It hints that faith and patience and penance will eventually yield pennants, though some paths to the promised land are more arduous than others. In this devising, Chicago Cubs fans represent the most hardcore of ascetics. Here is where that old synagogue in South Bend doubly proves its provenance, for those Midwest League Cubs are but several rungs down the same ladder as the long-suffering North Siders, and the world the Cubbies inhabit is most certainly an Old Testament one.

What other aspect of contemporary life is so imbued with as much quasi-religious ritual as baseball? What other game or pursuit or distraction offers so many symbols? It even has consecrated ground—how else to explain why on a tour of Fenway the groundskeeper insisted we not step on the grass? That, we understood, was turf made hallow by the feet of Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski.

In terms of both its textual record and the imagery it produces, provokes, and inspires, the richness and abundance of baseball is hard to match outside the ecclesiastical realm. In Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon’s Annie speaks of “the Church of baseball,” and she’s right in locating the part of the soul touched by the game as the same one that makes prayer so satisfying. Baseball readily and reliably offers a feeling of reverence so clear and deep it can’t be discounted.

The brain seeks defense mechanisms to inveigh against all manner of threat, from boredom to suspicions of futility, so it might be that in the face of baseball’s sheer volume—its frequent lulls, the endurance that’s required to withstand an entire campaign—we have become adept at imbuing it with unearned meaning and significance. It might be that the only answer to the question, What is it about this game? is that it grinds us down long enough to render impotent our otherwise sharp and clinical sensibilities. But I don’t think so, and I suspect that if you do, you might as well quit reading now, because most of these essays spring from the tacit awareness that baseball vibrates with something a little strange, that it trembles with a bit of stuff we might as well call magic for our inability to fully articulate it. This conviction is necessary to me, as it keeps me going during a blowout in early June between two teams whose lacklustre fates have been determined since mid-April; the deep belief that even if this game means nothing, this game still means something.

It shouldn’t be necessary to state a fact so obvious, but just to be safe let me underline it: I watch baseball a certain way, but that doesn’t for a second have any bearing on how you take it in. No interloper is required to intervene between you and the object of your devotion, no member of an ordained class need shape your relationship to the game. You’re free to love it in your own way, and you don’t need homogeneous talking heads or beat reporters to confer their blessings upon you. You don’t need bloggers, stat-heads, season-ticket holders or self-appointed experts, and you sure as hell don’t need me. It’s yours as surely as it is mine, and it asks chiefly for your attention in whatever form that takes.

But for me, baseball is epiphanic, a contemplative tedium interrupted by bursts of significant action. It’s the impossible made infrequently possible. Long intervals spent wandering the desert and sudden inexplicable miracles. I’m willing to concede there’s some Plato too in the symmetry of the dimensions, the cleanness of the rules being as close to perfection as we’re permitted to get, echoes of an ideal that exists off-camera and is ultimately untouchable.

The exercise, or indulgence, of all this requires a steadfast refusal to permit corruption in Major League Baseball’s organizational structure to mar said belief. It requires making allowances for the earthbound politics and prejudices of the people who run the game while maintaining the divinity and perfection of the game itself. Collusion, tax dodging, inequality in hiring practices, the exclusion of women, the “gentleman’s agreement” that prevented non-white players from participating, rule changes including but not limited to the designated hitter, the movement of franchises, the invention of Astroturf… all are regrettable but attributable to human fallibility, while the game itself continues unhampered.

Whatever our clumsy efforts, however we might muck it up, I tune in to a game to satisfy the desire to witness something uncanny, a desire so fervent it becomes need. And I suppose that’s as likely an inspiration for religion as any other you might conjure.

And like religion, the feeling is strongest within its designated houses of assembly. My “home” ballpark—90 minutes away from my house, give or take—is the Rogers Centre in Toronto, which is only proof that some houses are more beautiful than others. They can’t all be the Sistine Chapel. Whatever their form—tiny or massive, domed or open, concrete or wood or brick, or bleachers made from aluminum—ballparks are host to something so spiritually, aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating as to elevate them, whatever their architectural shortcomings. They, by dint of the proceedings they host, are redolent of beauty.

“Baseball is a hard game: love it hard and it will love you back hard,” said Pete Rose. Its arduous rhythms lend structure and rigidity to life, or at least half of it, roughly April through October. It repays sustained attention, accommodates our mistakes, provides shelter despite our slips. It will bend to us if we bend to it. In short, it offers the same rewards as most faiths. Baseball’s allure lies in all the tricks it has already shown us and all the tricks it might yet deliver.

Visitors to the South Bend Cubs’ team store are greeted with a verse from Exodus written on the wall. “Make for me a sanctuary,” it reads, “and I will dwell in their midst.” Apply that to baseball any way you wish. That sanctuaries exist so we might dwell in them, or that baseball might dwell in them with us as its witnesses, or that sanctuaries represent portals offering us access to something higher and more perfect. For me, what’s salient is that the word “sanctuary” is the right one, that the sense of safety and welcome and shelter I experience in passing through the turnstile is not one I experience alone. It tells me there is something substantial at play in those places, and that the language of mysticism and belief I affix to baseball is not entirely misplaced. It says that feeling is real, and that it’s the reason so many of us are inspired to offer such devotion. It’s why the Fenway Park organist, after Carlton Fisk won Game 6 of the ’75 Series by waving his home run fair, began playing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It’s why when we talk about baseball, unavoidably, we talk about going home.

Reader Reviews



160 Pages
8.0in * 5.0in * 0.4in


April 02, 2016



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