Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud
Where he gets the mud is a secret that’s been kept over 80 years,
since the days of the old timers. And now Jim Bintliff parks his truck
in the shade of a treeline along a tributary of the Delaware,
drinks coffee from a thermos and listens to the black-throated
green warblers and scarlet tanagers calling from the canopy
of an early spring. He pauses to consider the birds he hears
but cannot see, almost as if the sycamores and silver maples
have learned to sing, with river birch calling from across the water.
He’s here to harvest the mud at low tide, his feet sunk past
the ankle, with sweat coating his arms, the back of his neck, the sun
rising over the world until the sky is softened into a blue powder.
And Jim shovels the mud into 5-gallon buckets, mud he’ll cure
for months at home before packaging and sending off
to baseball teams across the country. This is the official mud
of Major League Baseball, and it’s rubbed into each ball
with spit and bare hands by equipment managers before
every game. 2,430 games a year. More sometimes. Nearly
900,000 baseballs rubbed with this mud from New Jersey.
The curved blade of the shovel in Jim’s hands—it lifts
the Ordovician, the Silurian, the Devonian, sediments
deposited over one hundred million years, gravel and lime,
sand and stone, the landscape around him a woodcarving
done by glacier, by entire ages of ice gouging troughs
into the Atlantic seaboard, the Appalachian Mountain range
rising and falling into washed-out riverbeds, ravines, hollows.
Which is a way of saying that he lifts the bodies of the dead,
marine life from long ago, the abrasive grit of worn-out siltstone,
sandstone, claystone, fossils of plant and animal life ground
to their finest talc and film, all of this and much more—
this is what he pours into the buckets as mud.
Over 40 years he’s done this, and he plans for his daughter,
Rachel, to harvest this mud in the seasons after he’s gone.
They are caretakers of the game. This is the work they do
in solitude. Invisible to the field when the crowd, turned electric,
rolls a wave of applause through a sea of arms lifted to the sky.
But they’re in every moment. Rubbed into the very canvas
of the ball. Those quiet mornings by the river. Coffee
steaming in a thermos. Rachel with her shovel in the mud.
The green crowns of trees singing all around her.