“Dungeons & Dragons” and Baseball; or, Robert Coover Fights the Robot Umps
By Ryan LackeyAugust 4, 2019
The notion of the robotic umpire is remarkable for its improbable ability to find support from across the political field. Publications as ideologically divergent as Vox and The Federalist have published articles calling for Terminator-umps, and they share ideas about what makes the robot umpire worthwhile (the accurate calling of balls and strikes) and the motivation of the opposition (an ironclad clinging to tradition). But I’m not a baseball traditionalist, and I don’t think questions of robotic accuracy belong in conversations about either baseball or collaborative storytelling, which turn out to be far more interconnected than they might first appear. As it happens, this interconnectivity sits at the tragic center of the best American novel to combine baseball and tabletop roleplaying games: Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
I don’t consider myself a traditionalist because I’m very much in favor of baseball’s copious absurdities, such as the designated hitter. Coover’s baseball novel, as we will see, is often absurd, which is why it works so well. Organized sports (especially professional organized sports) are inherently absurd: the rules are arbitrary, and the physical actions are frequently hilarious. This is especially true about baseball. The uniforms are practically antebellum; the rituals are ornate; and ability is dispensed to the old, the slow, and the out-of-shape alike. But the fact that baseball is taken so seriously by so many suggests that the strange jumble somehow becomes meaningful, and I suspect the way baseball creates meaning makes a point about how we tell stories and why living with complexity can be so difficult.
I think it’s clear that meaning doesn’t emerge from the mechanics of baseball themselves. We don’t watch for the excellence of the execution; no one, after all, would pay money to sit in the bleachers and watch the world’s finest refrigerator repairman expertly rehabilitate a troubled Maytag. There might be something about the game’s beauty. With all due respect to Oliver Evans, credited as the inventor of the refrigerator, there is little aesthetic pleasure in either the machine itself or its operation. And there is grace in many of baseball’s physical movements: the painterly sweep of a left-handed swing or the balletic dexterity of a double play. Isolated from context, however, these moments of beauty don’t do much. We choose to be fans of teams and players, not highlight reels. (Plus, what might be the single greatest event to ever occur on a baseball field — a flyball bouncing off Jose Canseco’s head and over the fence for a home run — is decidedly unbeautiful, totally unlike anything we could reasonably call “graceful.”)
Here is where we return to Dungeons & Dragons — baseball is about narratives, about telling stories, and doing so collaboratively. A single fan or player or umpire contributes to the story but could never tell it alone. Likewise, the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, unlike most traditional board or video games, is not competitive but collaborative. Each game session helps develop an ongoing story that the players compose, edit, and interpret together.
There aren’t really winners or losers in Dungeons & Dragons; there are players who are storytellers and characters both. And while a baseball game’s final out determines winners and losers, baseball is not fundamentally about discriminating between winners and losers or the skilled and less skilled. Like Dungeons & Dragons, a baseball game is a story told by many people all at once: not only the players, fans, groundskeepers, sportswriters, and umpires present but also the people absent (the makers of bats and balls, the league officials, the readers of future box scores) and historical (everyone who’s ever played one of these roles). Baseball is an immense narrative network, and its participants exist all over time, in the future and the past. It’s collaborative storytelling at its most expansive.
The appeal of the robo-ump, its unimpeachable accuracy, contradicts the disordered, capricious magic of collaborative storytelling. Nor can a robo-ump perform voluntary speech, which turns out to be critical to the whole enterprise. Nothing happens in a session of Dungeons & Dragons unless something is spoken. Until the dungeon master or gamerunner declares that there are goblins in the next room, those goblins don’t exist. Assuming the players aren’t using a prewritten scenario, these goblins aren’t revealed or uncovered; they’re called into being. A player swings a sword by saying the sword has been swung. A favorable dice roll allows the player to declare that their character has found treasure or a cache of supplies; speaking the words calls them into being.
To umpire a baseball game is to exert a creative, maybe even alchemical, power: ball or strike. Philosopher J. L. Austin referred to these moments of creative language as speech-acts. Speaking certain phrases exerts a creative effect on the world, makes things occur. Famous examples include wedding vows and knighting ceremonies: to say “I thee wed” or “I pronounce you” or “I knight you” makes happen the things described. For games like Dungeons & Dragons and baseball, these speech-acts are embedded in the mechanics of play. But whereas every participant in a game of Dungeons & Dragons can create with speech, that power in baseball is generally the umpire’s alone, and the recognition of language’s ability to transmute a pitch into a ball or strike is key to baseball’s intimacy with narrative.
Of course, we might say that a robo-ump would do the same thing, and that its accuracy would better facilitate play. But I think that inaccuracy better fits the messy complexity of collaborative storytelling, which at its best is spontaneous and improvisational — and not a space where robots are best suited. Replacing a human being with a robo-ump would make the narrative of a baseball game a little less complex, a little more predictable. To do so would remove a storyteller from the network, one nodule of possibility. What’s more, I think the impulse toward the robo-ump reveals the desire for control — and the intense discomfort of being without control — that participating in a collaborative story demands we confront and overcome. There are many others who exert an influence on the story, and I cannot know exactly what they might do. On one hand, this fear of the unknown manifests as an empirical impulse, the desire for certainty and control. But on the other, when I become one part of a larger and more complex story, I’m forced to pay more attention to others and acknowledge my own marginal status: that I am not, in fact, the protagonist of the story. The nice thing about Dungeons & Dragons and baseball both is that this process of self-decentering can actually be pleasurable, a phenomenon that philosopher Elaine Scarry calls opiated adjacency.
Despite the pleasures of self-decentering, however, the possibility of being author and hero both is always seductive, a fact that Coover’s novel makes grimly clear. The Universal Baseball Association tells the story of the eponymous Henry — a lonely, unhappily employed accountant — and his DIY baseball game, in which everything from base hits to bench-clearing brawls and (importantly) on-field deaths are tied to dice rolls. After each simulated game, Henry updates his scrupulous league records. Besides logging obvious things like batting averages, Henry creates and tracks fictional intra-league politics, writes articles as made-up journalists, and inducts retired players into the hall of fame. In the terms of high fantasy, Henry does some remarkably thorough world-building.
As the novel opens, Henry grows obsessed with the Association’s latest hotshot rookie: starting pitcher Damon Rutherford. When Damon throws a perfect game, Henry is overcome — his attachment to the game and to Damon already teetering on malignancy — and he immediately seduces Hettie, a local barfly, and demands she call him “Damon.” Soon after, the fictional Damon, batting against fellow rookie Jock Casey, is struck and killed by a pitched ball after an exceedingly rare set of rolls, and Henry is distraught, totally bereft of any effective coping mechanism. Despite the kindness of his co-worker Lou, who appears to be his only friend, Henry drinks heavily and eventually loses his job as the edges of his reality flake and crumble. Some of the novel’s best writing reflects this faltering of the real, jumping in a single scene or paragraph between Henry’s world and the Association’s, the difference between which grows increasingly unclear.
It’s worth noting here that the novel is terribly dated. One of the songs Henry writes for his Association bard is a bawdy, folksy retelling of a public rape, the result of which is an apparently stable marriage. Granted, the novel isn’t interested in framing Henry as anything other than a deeply troubled and often lecherous man, but it is unpleasant reading nevertheless.
On its own, the novel is a neat exercise in ’60s-era postmodernism, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best works of baseball fiction, which is a crowded and accomplished genre. What’s more interesting and relevant here, though, is the fact that the novel presents the desire for narrative control and the inability to deal with the messiness of collaboration as not just tragic and lonely but actually cursed — a metaphysical or theological failure. To deny the random and inexplicable, the novel suggests, is to make space for violent, solipsistic obsession.
Henry’s loneliness lingers in every corner of the book, and I’d suggest his loneliness is entangled with his attitude toward storytelling. It’s worth noting that things really begin to fall apart for Henry when he ceases to roleplay. For the first 55 and a half seasons of the Association, Henry does not control the players and the games in the way we might think about controlling a video game character. Rather, Henry performs within the game’s diagesis; in acts of imaginative empathy, Henry makes decisions the way he figures a grizzled, ulcerative manager or a conservative league bureaucrat might. His agency is limited, bound by the parameters of the world that are no less real or rigid for being arbitrary, his own creations. As Henry thinks to himself:
Oh, sure, he was free to throw away the dice, run the game by whim, but then what would be the point of it? […] Even though he’d set his own rules, his own limits, and though he could change them whenever he wished, nevertheless he and his players were committed to the turns of the mindless and unpredictable—one might even say, irresponsible — dice. That was how it was. He had to accept it, or quit the game altogether.
Although these stories aren’t really cooperative, since Henry plays alone, they also aren’t power fantasies. In the beginning, Henry is no more dangerous than an author, which is one of Coover’s metafictional points. But when Henry becomes infatuated with Damon Rutherford — when he begins to prop up his own sense of masculine potency with Damon’s on-field (or on-dice) success — the Association ceases to be a system for emergent storytelling and becomes instead a vehicle for Henry’s wish fulfillment. Once it does, the capricious and chaotic quality of the game’s design, which ensures Henry’s lack of control, becomes intolerable.
This is evident when Henry tries to open his game to collaboration and invites Lou to play, as the two fail to make any sort of interesting story (or even really enjoy the game) because Henry is unwilling to give up any narrative control. Lou, of course, has no idea how to navigate the byzantine rules of the Association, but what frustrates Henry even more is Lou’s unfamiliarity with the Association’s lore, the stories already in place. When Lou fiddles with the starting lineup of the team Henry’s allowed him to manage, Henry grows agitated. Lou’s changes are well within the rules of the game, and they’re defensible strategic choices. But Henry squirms: “It’s just that there’s already a whole history here, I mean, there’s been a long season already, and you’re getting in sort of in the middle.” Unsurprisingly, Henry has given Lou a scorecard with a lineup already filled in, and in a telling moment, he defends that lineup not as his choice but as fictional manager Sycamore Flynn’s: “He’s been in a kind of slump,” says Henry of a benched but talented player, “and Flynn thought—.” Of course, this diegetic explanation is totally meaningless to Lou, but Henry either doesn’t realize that fact or can’t be bothered to care. What makes the scene’s irony especially biting is that Henry’s obsession with the game’s narrative not only prevents him from actually playing a game with Lou, but also renders him incapable of listening to the story Lou tries to tell him. Henry prefers the safety of the single-player experience; by the scene’s end, Henry is effectively managing both his squad and Lou’s. “Who’s bossing this team,” asks Lou, “you or me?”
Henry’s failure with Lou ends any chance of his redemption. After Lou leaves, Henry finally usurps the dice, placing them purposefully down to signal another fatality. Jock Casey, the killer of Damon Rutherford, is struck by a line drive from Damon’s catcher Royce Ingram; the dice read 6-6-6. Between Jock Casey’s initials and the numbers, the symbolism is about as subtle as a grand slam. This is the moment Henry lapses, and his world becomes fallen. (In a clever bit of inversion, Henry asks Lou to wash his hands before they begin; rather than playing Pilate, he wants Lou to be absolved of responsibility and control, which belong only to Henry.) The novel seeks out the irony of such grand, theological significance rewritten in the bathos of a tabletop baseball game. It’s a quintessentially postmodern move, this mock-heroic collision of the high and low, but I think what’s more interesting than the postmodern admixing is the very sad image of Henry, playing alone. Recall his earlier reflection: “Oh, sure, he was free to throw away the dice, run the game by whim, but then what would be the point of it?”
Ultimately what is bleakest about Henry’s story is his overwhelming loneliness — a loneliness so totalizing that, by the novel’s macabre ending, it manages to swallow up the Association, which once represented Henry’s best access to a way out of himself. The worst fate the novel can imagine is the power to make all the decisions. In the religious idiom the novel likes to assume, Henry ceases to be clergy and instead becomes Almighty. Unsatisfied as a mere participant, sharing agency with the dice and the personalities of the Association in the cooperative work of building meaning, Henry demands authority; he determines meaning from the moment he arranges the dice and kills Jock Casey. If once he was dungeon master — a crucial but hardly authoritarian position — he ends up Absolute Master of a Very Small Dungeon.
The novel’s end reveals both the absurdity and the cruelty this sort of solipsistic power needs. In order to keep the Association running, Henry resorts to ritual sacrifice. Each season, the Association’s most promising rookie plays Damon in ghoulish theater; it’s unclear whether the rookie is actually killed or only symbolically hit by a beanball thrown by another rookie as Jock Casey. In the Association’s universe, religions and academic subfields have sprung up in order to explain the ritual’s origins and significance. The whole final chapter reads like a mashup of the mock-chivalric bits of Ulysses and “The Lottery.”
The rules and mechanics of a game are the confines that allow stories to grow and emerge; it’s in this way that Henry’s game most resembles actual, real-world baseball. The faces of the dice are as devoid of intrinsic meaning as any diamond-shaped arrangement of fielders and runners. As the novel says, “The dice and charts and other paraphernalia were only the mechanics of the drama, not the drama itself.” But when we build stories from these arbitrary foundations, we grow to love these strange structures, because building and bestowing meaning is the long, slow work of living. And the best examples of this work are accomplished with the help of others.
I don’t think that robo-umps will lead us into loneliness, or obsession, or ritualized human sacrifice. The real point here, I think, is that that it’s easy to forget that most of the meaning we get to make sits on a foundation of stories, and stories prefer collaboration to isolation and singular authority. Learning to live with the random, uncontrollable, and complex means leaving room for astonishment, fellowship, and joy. If robo-umps take their places behind home plate, baseball will be fine. But if we mistake the robo-ump for an objective, impartial, infallible defender of what baseball really means to us, if we think that the robo-ump’s accuracy makes baseball a cleaner and finer game than Dungeons & Dragons, then we’ve forgotten something fundamental. Instead of coming together at the table or on the grass to watch and play, we might end up in our own quiet corners, rolling dice with ourselves.
Banner image: "Wes Helms at The Plate" by Jeramey Jannene is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.