The 5th Inning
by E. Ethelbert Miller
Busboys and Poets and PM Press
Reviewed by Vincent F. A. Golphin
Baseball games are usually nine innings, so the title of the poet E. Ethelbert Miller’s memoir intrigued me. The 163-page book is a second appraisal of his life, a sort of sequel. So, with some appreciation for Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), his first foray into the literary form, I could not resist what I thought might be a sequel. The good news is –even if you have as little interest in baseball as I– Miller remains an insightful character. The 5th Inning is lyrical prose for the most part. “The memoir has a jazz feel to it,” he writes. I concur.
At several points throughout, the manuscript riffs off a single notion, and departs from the central theme in an unpredictable yet pleasant manner. The story takes on the cast of a long prose poem. The author cannot resist word play, despite his protest. “As I get older the poems appear less and less,” he writes. “The personal is prose. I feel comfortable fathering words.”
Miller’s 5th Inning is a deeply personal and frank assessment of the struggles, foibles, and failures of a man who tried to make the right plays as husband and father. At nearly 60, the author hugs the sports metaphor. The reader takes a whimsical ride. In chapter eight, titled “The 5th Inning,” the author offers a peek into the title’s logic. He (and the reader by default) roll through a swift round of baseball, from the pitcher’s perspective.
“In the middle of warming up you feel it,” Miller writes. “Your catcher feels it too.” Two pages later, the writer delivers the punch:
In the fifth inning you know anything can happen. This could be a complete game. You count your blessings for surviving the fourth. The first hitter sends a ball deep to the warning track in left field. This brings your manager to his feet. He starts to pace in the dugout. He’s afraid you’re losing it. You look down at your feet and kick the rubber. You’re afraid too, and it tips the next hitter off. One swing and you’re down four. The next two hitters follow with a single and a double. It’s over now. You may as well play catch in the backyard with the kids.
Even though the reader might not have pitched a game, those who have crossed age 50 will grasp the emotion. Most people who have seen movies such as Angels in the Outfield, especially the 1951 original, Bang the Drum Slowly, or The Pride of the Yankees, understand how it feels to come to that point in one’s career or life when the energy, or the magic, is on the wane. Miller uses the book to assess the energy of relationships he holds, then concludes he is more Kenneth Fredrick Keltner than Joe DiMaggio. Keltner, the Cleveland Indians third baseman who halted DiMaggio’s 1941, 56-game hitting streak, never made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but forced lovers of the game to rethink their standards for greatness. That is why poet Liam Rector proclaims Miller “a Gandhi” in U.S. literature.
The 5th Inning is honest, resolute, and upbeat—“I’m finally learning how to pitch and not simply throw” —and avoids many of the pitfalls of memoir writing. Most readers will see their questions about life, love, and the last lap among Miller’s. The Poet Lore magazine editor drafts a spare reflection on age:
When a person becomes 50 or approaches the years that follow, his story is almost over. He can turn around and see the narrative he created. It might be about children, wealth or personal achievements. The narrative is the story you find yourself in, but can’t determine if you’re the author.
Memoirs are as hard to assess, or neatly present, as kittens in a basket. That said, as readers draw to the end of The 5th Inning, even non-sports enthusiasts, they are likely to be as thrilled and impressed as fans at a hometown victory.