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Into each play, some life intrudes

Hits and errors. Home runs and bunts. Baseball and stage writing aren't really that different, are they?

September 12, 2004|Richard Greenberg | Special to The Times

People sometimes ask me: "What are the effects of winning the Tony Award on your life as a playwright?" Frankly, I can't imagine why they care -- it's not a question I would have asked anyone else. But I get it enough that I guess they do care, so I'm finally going to answer it.

The only hitch is that I don't think there have been any effects on my life as a playwright. A year after winning the Tony for my play about baseball, "Take Me Out," I still write as I've always written -- in alternating spells of not-at-all and graph-o-mania. Right now it's the latter. Winning really hasn't changed any other aspect of my life except possibly in the way I'm treated by the women who work in my doctor's office.

A dozen years ago, I experienced a siege of Hodgkin's -- which in the cancer community (if there is such a thing) barely earns you a civil nod. For whatever reason, my doctor's office is one of the most cheerful places I know. The witty, kindly nurses and receptionists have been absolutely lovely to me from the beginning. Then, when I won the Tony, they began insisting that I give them my autograph. Because of the Tony, they finally "got" me.

Before they'd always been interested in my career, solicitous of my career, inquisitive about my career. In other words: totally baffled. Now, as a result of the Tony, trips to my oncologist's office, always bizarrely pleasurable, have attained a sort of school's-out, summer-vacation level of bliss.

The thing about winning the Tony is that it's a way of reassuring people outside of the theater world that you (a) have a real job and (b) aren't broke. Much of the time, neither is true, but it's nice that they think so.

I recently finished the first draft of my newest play, which I began writing one week after completing the first draft of my next-to-newest play. I tend to write plays in twos, and I think I finally know why: Limitations are form-giving. Therefore, any successful play is an act of omission.

For me, the completion of a play almost always engenders the desire to write its opposite. My next-to-most-recent play is, in a whimsical sort of way, unremittingly bleak. My newest play offers some relief. Writing like this, though, is how I've been doing it for a long time -- B.T. and A.T.

If anything, it was events that led to writing "Take Me Out" that disrupted, for however brief a time, my work habits.

It was when I fell in love with baseball that my relationship to my work as a playwright changed.

Yes, I got a play out of it. But for the first time, the point wasn't about writing a play. The fact is that at the time I could think of nothing but baseball, and writing plays was what I did.

Baseball happed to me, this accidental Columbian revelation, in July 1999. Within a couple of weeks, I was writing scenes. I restrained myself from starting a full-fledged play. I knew it would be a valentine, and valentines are useless in the theater. Luckily for me, something scurvy happened in major league baseball that jolted the game out of the realm of the idyllic. Something that linked the tentative utopian rainbow of a team dynamic to the shaky covenants that guide life in a democratic society. I started writing.

Now the point was not to write a play on a broad canvas or even to write a play at all. The point was simply to extend baseball into every reach of my life.

In those days, I loved my team, the Yankees. I loved them so much that I was afraid the passion would fade. I asked my brother to reassure me it wouldn't. He has genuine fan cred, having been adept at the sport practically since he drew his first breath. He confirmed it would be a lifelong commitment. I was grateful, but I couldn't imagine myself becoming his kind of fan. I couldn't imagine hurling invective at my own guys.

The night I finished the first draft of my most recent play, the Yankees suffered the worse defeat in their history -- one of the worst in baseball history -- losing 22-0. I only saw a little of the game; I was happily correcting the draft of this new play.

Time has passed, and that's when I realized that the balance had shifted. Once again, work comes before my career as a spectator.

Oh, I'm still a huge Yankees fan. In fact, as I write this, I hate their guts. Javier Vasquez, who started the 22-zip debacle, is a gifted, dedicated young pitcher. I want to kick in his teeth. When he was pulled after a despicable inning and a third, I was on the phone. I said to my friend, "Wait a second. I've got to turn on the sound -- I want to hear Javi Vasquez get booed." Alex Rodriguez is the greatest living baseball player; landing him was an enormous coup. He can't score a guy from second, he's the most overpaid player in the game. The Yankees are "the most storied franchise in sports history." They can't pitch, they can't manufacture runs; they're a fossilized embarrassment.

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