In ‘‘The Slump,’’ John Updike uses the national pastime, baseball, as the setting to explore one individual’s frustration with the world. The story is told by a professional ballplayer who finds himself, for no identifiable reason, unable to hit as well as he once did. He thinks about why this might be, but not very deeply; for the most part, he accepts this slump as his fate and considers what it says about life in general. The story depicts the superstitious nature of athletes in the way that its narrator hopes for better days without having any hope that anything he can do would make his luck return.
Readers can see in ‘‘The Slump’’ the raw talent that has made Updike one of America’s most respected writers for over a half century. The story is meticulously detailed, with sharp observations of even the most seemingly irrelevant actions, raising them to the level of importance. It achieves a philosophical depth that most stories only aspire to. It is, however, very unlike most of Updike’s fiction. A typical Updike story plays out in relationships, examining the social expectations that surround most couples. In ‘‘The Slump,’’ however, the narrator’s relationship with his wife is described, but it is not an integral part of the story. Updike is a master at showing human interaction, and here he shows that he can be just as effective when writing an extended monologue.
‘‘The Slump’’ was originally published in Esquire in 1968. It is currently available in the author’s 1972 collection, Museums & Women, and is frequently reprinted in anthologies.
When ‘‘The Slump’’ begins, its narrator, a professional baseball player, has already been experiencing trouble with his hitting. The opening line goes right past the subject of a batting slump, leaving readers to understand the subject matter from the story’s title, and starts immediately with guesses about what might be causing the problem. The first topic that the narrator suggests is ‘‘reflexes,’’ which his coach and the press assume to be causing his problem. He explains that he does not think it is caused by reflexes, though. As evidence for why he discounts this theory, he explains that the night before his wife surprised him in their bedroom with a rubber gorilla mask and he jumped under the bed in less than a second—she had a stopwatch ready and timed his reaction.
He remembers how easy it used to be for him to hit before falling into this slump, how the pitched ball seemed to float in the air before his eyes so that he could see every detail about it clearly. Now, though, the ball is obscured in a cloud, a ‘‘spiral of vagueness.’’ He paraphrases the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, as saying that ‘‘You can’t see a blind spot.’’ Aware that his hitting is his strong point as a ballplayer, he reflects on the likelihood, which he has already seen reported in a newspaper, that his team will try to trade him.
One good thing about being unable to hit is that he feels less pressure. He recalls how he used to leave home for the stadium and as he drew closer and closer, he could feel the butterflies in his stomach growing. He thought of himself as a thief, and walking through the corridors to the locker room, he imagined that he was being taken to the electric chair. It seemed like a dream, then, that players he had looked up to all his life recognized him. The whole experience of being on the team had been so amazing to him that he was constantly nervous—‘‘by the time I got into the cage, I couldn’t remember if I batted left or right.’’
Since the slump, however, the pre-game nervousness is gone. He drives to the stadium singing along with the radio, ignores the fans on the street, strides into the stadium, and performs perfectly in the batting cage before the game. When he steps up to the plate to bat, however, he is overcome with self-consciousness and unable to hit at all.
He describes his situation as ‘‘panic hunger.’’ It is not the kind of hunger that drives him to achieve what he needs to sustain himself, which is what his detractors say he has lost as he has grown successful. He compares panic hunger to the intensity that a child puts into trying to catch a ball, becoming so consumed with the idea of doing well that he closes his eyes as the ball approaches. He tries to force himself to keep his eyes open, to look at something off in the distance (the example he gives is ‘‘some nuns in far left field’’), but his eyes keep closing.
The slump that has affected his hitting has affected other parts of his life, as well. He avoids intimate contact with his wife, although he knows that it disappoints and angers her. He rides the lawn mower around the lawn so often that the grass is all dead. Filled with inexplicable dread, he is afraid to see his children trying at baseball. When he goes to Florida with the team, the repetitive sameness of wave after wave hitting the beach reminds him of the endless succession of batting opportunities that he endures in his profession, each one following the others with no meaning or differentiation. He suspects that reading Kierkegaard might lead him to the answer to his dilemma, but when he tries it, he finds himself unable to read: the pages of the book Concluding Unscientific Postscript all look blank, an emptiness that he describes as metaphorically resembling ‘‘the rows of deep seats in the shade of the second deck on a Thursday afternoon, just a single ice-cream vendor sitting there, nobody around to sell to, a speck of white in all that shade, old Søren Sock himself, keeping his goods cool.’’
In the end, he reflects on the indignity of his situation. He cannot even get on base by being hit by a pitch because the pitchers do not fear him enough to throw the ball near him; instead, they throw it right up the middle of the plate, where it would be easy to hit if he were not in a slump. For a moment, while thinking about the catchers laughing at him behind his back, he remembers ‘‘the old sure hunger’’ that drove him in his hitting in the old days, but the memory fades quickly, leaving him hopeless again. He is unable to believe in the external things about the game, citing specifically the stadium and the batting averages that are used to measure a batter’s success. ‘‘[J]ust you are there,’’ he muses, ‘‘and it’s not enough.’’