I first knew David Hale as a statistic. To the similarly uninitiated, he is the same magnificent number, one that transcends the SAT scores and GPAs and BACs for which lesser Princetonians acquire numerical infamy. A sophomore in Mathey College, David carries an unpretentious and wholly likable air that belies his reputation. Indeed, it is the asymmetries in our dialogue–more strongly felt, I would imagine, than the typical barrier between interviewer and interviewee–that come to define our thirty minutes. After all, only one of us can throw a small leather ball at 98 miles per hour, and it is not I.
There is a point in one’s life at which one simply has to, ought to, needs to learn about baseball. I have registered enough awkward conversations with gabby, studied fans, enough confusion of infield and outfield, enough plain bewilderment about foul balls and foul tips to reach this point, and so I meet David Hale on this day having done my homework. Here is what I have: the “shortstop” occupies the position between second and third base. In New York, kids and their Pops don’t “play catch,” they “have a catch.” Cy Young has a Facebook.com account. It is also apparently well established that any and all journalistic articles pertaining to baseball shall end waggishly with “Play ball!”
One thing is immediately clear upon meeting: DAVID HALE is the DESTROYER. There is a certain geography to his very person: a mountain in a square chin, a quivering isthmus between a pleading upper lip and an overzealous Roman nose. He takes my hand in his, I remark, rather like the way an ace pitcher prepares for a “slider.” I will attempt many such ham-fisted insertions of pitching jargon in our thirty-minute conversation, most of which plummet into mumbling, a rapid shuffling of papers in hand, and general avoidance of eye contact. David does not seem to notice.
Baseball, like most sports at Princeton, carries with it a sepia-toned past, full of storied traditions, sturdy men, and myth. The first man to steal second base by sliding feet-first was Princeton’s own William Gummere 1870. Joseph Mann, class of 1876, threw the first no-hitter in baseball’s recorded history, against Yale, after learning how to throw a curve ball while at Princeton. William Schenck 1880 was the first to use a chest protector when playing catcher–his own, of course, made of layered copies of The Daily Princetonian. Hobart “Skeet” Fordham of the class of 1882 is credited with having first used “fifth base” to refer to anal intercourse, during a game against Williams .
David’s perspective, playing ball in the cavernous shadows of these admittedly minor totems of global sporting history, is surprisingly level-headed. “Princeton’s a great school that just happens to have a great baseball team, too.” He majors in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, a name that describes, in far too many words, a fairly delicate science of optimization. On this, David quips, “My dad’s an engineer, and it’s a lot of work but probably worth it in the end.”
But of all subjects, it is poetry that arises most frequently in our conversation. “There is a poetry to pitching,” David begins pensively at one point, characterizing his own pitching as “well-rounded, easy when it needs to be, but mostly just hard.” I learn that a “slider,” whose name I blithely dropped earlier in our conversation, comes in looking like a fastball but drops down more quickly than a curve ball. David describes, with demonstration, how the tiniest changes in grip and arm trajectory can mark the line between successfully deceiving a batter and just plain sucking.
I think about the flesh-tearing momentum and impulse that is demanded of David’s joints every time he approaches the mound. I think about how one could possibly train normally for such an asymmetric activity, of how one could escape the temptation to supersize one arm while keeping the other in a safe limbo between “scrawny” and “healthy.” I do not ask David about these things, and he is content to fill the space with talk of “change-ups,” “gyroballs,” and “slurves.” David, at one point, senses my discomfort with pitching jargon, and punctuates the confusion with characteristic levity. “I just throw extremely hard,” he says with a laugh.
In his native Marietta, Ga., Hale took a rather atypical approach to blending high school with high speeds: “I went to [the] Walker [School], which meant that I couldn’t just play baseball and not do school.” The Wikipedia entry on the Walker School lists the school’s mission statement as: “[To] provide an excellent college-preparatory education in a nurturing environment that values personal integrity, that prizes creativity, and that inspires the lifelong love of learning.”
“I actually played infield and batted through most of high school until I found myself pitching senior year,” David says, and I wonder if he means that he found himself in pitching or simply that he ended up as pitcher that year. I want to ask David about the cultural burden of being a Southern boy playing the great game in 2008. But there is, more importantly, an incident in which Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson hit a passing pigeon dead-on with a pitch, and a hilarious YouTube video that captured the moment. “An explosion of feathers,” David promises, through deep chuckles, “Just watch it.”
After my conversation with David, I receive an e-mail from Princeton Baseball Head Coach Scott Bradley.
“David Hale is a terrific young man and one of the most important players on our team. I believe,” Bradley says, “that we have a very close knit team and the players enjoy coming to practice each and every day.” Herbert W. Hobler ’44 writes, to the Princeton Alumni Weekly in a letter published on its website:
“It was then traditional to bring the class baby on the field in some unique way. The previous year, I believe, a miniature car arrived at the mound and amazingly, like clowns in the circus, above five men and the class baby squeezed out for the first toss. But ’42 outdid that by landing an autogyro (predecessor to the helicopter) on the mound and out stepped little Woody! The crowd roared. Still, at our fifth we tried to out-do ’42 by having three full-grown elephants parade onto the field with our class baby Richard Wolf atop one of them. All three elephants kneeled down, raised their trunks to salute President Dodds, and then off stepped our five-year-old for the first pitch. I don’t think any class thereafter could match either the autogyro or the elephant.” (September 18, 2002)
I spotted David Hale speaking to and laughing with friends over slices from Villa Pizza in the lower level of Frist later that day. Among fellow champions of good times and apologists of beer and backwards baseball caps, Hale no longer appears quite the presence that he occupied opposite myself and surrounded by reproduced, sanitized Princetoniana on the walls of Cafe Vivian. Upon seeing him again, I recall one particular illustration of a small child decked in an orange and black jumper holding a Princeton flag and hollering, “Hooray, Hooray, Hooray, Tiger, Sis, Boom, Bah!” and I wonder if the Class of 2010 has a class baby. I’d pick Mr. Hale. Play ball!