Both the language and images of the first three lines convey the sense of balance, of being “poised between” two contrary states. When a runner takes his lead away from the base, he enters a dangerous region, a no-man’s land between the security of one base and the promise of the next. If the pitcher tries to “pick off” the runner—if he throws to the base from which the runner has taken his lead—then the runner must dive back to safety. If the pitcher decides to throw to the plate, then the runner may dash for the next base. In the present state, however, the runner is neither “on base” nor a “base stealer”: he is “poised between going on and back.” This state is akin to being “pulled both ways taut”—the four consecutive stressed syllables conveying the heightened tension—“like a tightrope walker.” The simile implies not only balance and danger but also the runner’s physical appearance: his arms stretched at his side, his body in a state of rigid intensity. Similarly, the description of the way he holds his hands offers symbolic meaning as well as a pictorial image: his fingertips point “the opposites,” one toward the base he is leaving, one toward the base he is trying to steal.
The poet’s use of meter here enhances the comparison between the runner and a bouncing ball. Like the ball, he springs on his toes, and the alternating stressed and unstressed syllables in the phrase “bouncing tiptoe” are a sonic imitation of such motion. The second half of the simile—“or like a kid skipping rope”—adjusts the sense of the first. While a bouncing ball unconsciously submits to the forces of nature, each succeeding rebound smaller than the last, the rope-skipper must infuse energy into each jump: a test of will similar to the athlete’s. Thus, Francis adds the invocation at the end of Line 5: “come on, come on.” Its repetition conveys the internal voice of the runner, his attempt to urge himself (as well as the action of the game) to the climactic moment. Its unstressed-stressed rhythm also echoes the bouncing sound of the previous line.
The sideways steps of Line 6 suggest perhaps the movements of a crab. In Line 8, however, the runner is described as hovering “like an ecstatic bird.” In either image, the comparison suggests the quick, instinctive motions of an animal. Again, the meter reverts to the stressed-unstressed rhythm of bouncing: “teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / taunts them, hovers.” Now, however, the building momentum is “ecstatic,” an embodiment of the surging excitement just before the moment of decision. While the tightrope and rope-skipping metaphors of lines 2 and 5 convey the feeling that danger possesses the upper hand, now it is the runner who has gained control of the situation, taunting and teasing the pitcher. This teasing is part of the baserunner’s technique: he hopes that by “flirting” with the pitcher’s mind he will force the pitcher into making a mistake. One such mistake would be to “crowd” the batter—that is, to pitch the ball so close to the batter that the catcher’s throw to the base would be obstructed. In the final line-and-a-half, the poem descends entirely into the runner’s mind. The outer world has dissolved; the runner is merely waiting for the proper moment to make his dash. That wait is conveyed in four consecutive dactyls—“delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate”— followed by a pause, represented by the dash, and the final monosyllabic moment of action: “Now!” Though the reader never learns whether the runner is safe or out, the internal experience is over; the rest is purely a matter of speed. The runner has gone from potential to action, from a would-be base stealer to the actual base stealer of the title.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Robert Francis, Published by Gale Group, 2001.