Study Guide

Casey at the Bat Competition

By Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Competition

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game. (3-4)

In the poem's very first stanza, the speaker lets us know that this is no recreational league game. This is a serious, life or death competition—and not just for the players. The fans are so invested in their hometown team that the thought of a loss is almost sickening.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast; (5-6)

Okay, so a few of the Mudville fans bail out. There are always a few nonbelievers in every crowd. But most of the Mudville faithful stick around despite near certain defeat. Why? Because it ain't over 'till it's over, and these fans are competitive. They haven't lost yet, so they aren't going anywhere.

Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip. (27-28)

Baseball is a team sport, but often the battle comes down to two individuals: the pitcher and the batter. Casey and the pitcher are locked in fierce competition and they know it. On paper, this pitcher has the advantage. He only needs to get one out. But he's facing Mudville's hero, and Casey is confident he can beat the odds and get the winning hit. These two lines really bring the competitive focus away from the teams and onto Casey and the pitcher.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clinched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate. (45-46)

Have you ever noticed that people look at you a little differently after PE class? It could be because of that dance you do every time you score a point, or maybe it's the way you taunt the other team (you really shouldn't say those things about someone's mother). Even the most mild-mannered among us can get pretty whipped up in the heat of battle. Competition has that kind of transformative power. Casey is changed by the intensity of the competition. He goes from a smiling vision of "Christian charity," to a hateful madman whacking home plate with a bat. This is why we just had to forge that note to get out of PE. It's just too dangerous.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has stuck out. (49-52)

Ultimately, competition comes down to winning or losing, success or failure. It's harsh, but true. It doesn't matter how many times someone feeds us that line—"it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game—deep down, we know it's just not true. We compete to win and when we don't it stinks. For those Mudville fans, their team's loss is a serious blow. Just as Casey was locked in a battle with the pitcher, Mudville was competing with another town. Casey was representing Mudville itself. Casey's failure does more than just make the fans sad or the team sad. Mudville itself, the whole town, has absorbed the loss and become part of the defeat. Happiness seems impossible. If you want happiness, you'll have to go "somewhere" else, someplace with a winning team.

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