Baseball: America's diamond in the rough.
One gorgeous Saturday afternoon last April, Russ Connors and I watched from the middle deck of the Cleveland Indians' new Gateway Stadium as Albert Belle and the rest of the tribe dismantled yet another visiting team in Cleveland's steady march toward what so many hoped would be the Indians' first pennant race since either Russ or I was in diapers. I'm not really a baseball fan, but when the weather is as fresh and sharp as an autumn apple and your team is ahead in the game and in the league, it's pretty hard not to join in with the near-sellout crowd cheering a brilliant double play or roaring at the crack of a home run.
Unfortunately by the time October rolled around, the season had sputtered to an early and ignominious end. Instead of watching first-class teams battle it out in fiercely contested pennant races or following a handful of players chasing Roger Maris' homerun record, fans were treated to Larry King's broadcasts of scuffles between millionaire players and multimillionaire owners with both sides conducting themselves with the grace and dignity of Ross Perot and Ollie North. And finally, there was something poignantly ironic when fans mourning the loss of their first World Series in nine decades found themselves turning to PBS, of all places, to catch the nine innings of Ken Burns' joyous celebration of "Baseball" as America's national pastime.
As Dickens (one of the few male authors Burns doesn't cite in his program) would have said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." While extremely entertaining and informative, I thought Burns' 18-hour documentary made too much of baseball's importance and virtues, particularly in a moment when owners and players seemed bent on parading their warts before the world. As the saying goes, it's just a game, and certainly not the only one in town--or on cable. And yet there is no getting around the long-standing and enduring popularity of this intensely American game, a sport currently enjoying yet another in a long series of renaissances.
In a time when so many Americans are unsure of their financial futures, floods of fans and television contracts have boosted baseball revenues and players' salaries into the stratosphere. At the same time authors as diverse as historian David Halberstam (Summer of '49 [Avon, 1990]) and October 1964 [Villard, 1994]), political columnist George Will (Men at Work [McMillan Co., 1990]), and sportswriter Roger Angell (The Summer Game [Ballantine, 1986]) continue to be intrigued by this game and offer their readers not only fascinating stories about the sport and its players but also engrossing meditations on the meaning of its games, character, and life itself. So even if baseball is not the American sacrament, perhaps it is--like jazz and movies--one of them.
Maybe it's not too much to say that this ritual of work and play is one of the windows into our culture and psyche and that we could learn something about ourselves from looking at this particularly American game.
"Play ball," the umpire cries, and perhaps that's the best thing about this game of baseball--that we play at it. For play is a celebration, exuberant and joyous, of ourselves and of life. For a few hours fans and ballplayers enjoy the thrill and beauty of a game well played and have more in common with the frolic of Peter Pan and the glory of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" than with the dull routines and awful seriousness of meeting deadlines and negotiating the morning commute.
It's no wonder Walt Whitman thought there was something almost medicinal about adults changing into their play clothes and going out onto a ball field for a game. Whether in our workplaces, schools, or churches, we are often way too serious, too earnest; and as a result, we make life altogether too tedious and boring. As Shakespeare said, we should beware of men with no music in their hearts, for they are full of plans and machinations. Play is a great tonic for so much that ails us.
In games such as baseball we befriend our bodies, celebrating their power, skills, vigor, and talent. Stepping outside of our offices and getting off our couches, we stretch our calves, fill our lungs, and let our bodies run their courses at top speed, clearing out the valves and straightening the kinks that come from living too much indoors and in our heads.
Baseball's play is communal, a team sport that shines as much in the well-executed double play and the sacrifice bunt as in the slugger driving home the winning run. Although it certainly has its superstars and heroic moments, the magic of the game really surfaces when the efforts of individual players come together with the rhythm and grace of a fast-moving dance. And up in the bleachers the fans constitute a community of their own, sharing an easy camaraderie as they chat, cheer, and complain together over peanuts and cold drafts.
Unlike church congregations or theater and movie audiences, baseball fans are encouraged to talk back to the game and mix in with those around them. Whether passing hot dogs down the line, or joining in an occasional wave or standing for the seventh-inning stretch, the fans are also playing at the larger game of baseball. When we play or cheer with others, we're tapping into our need to belong to something bigger, to be connected to each other. That can hardly be a bad thing.
Another great thing about baseball is that it has such a wonderful sense of place. Like the base runner who finds both safety and exhilaration in tagging home plate, fans entering into ballparks and stadiums often experience both the warmth and easy familiarity of a place full of memories, as well as the rush of stepping out of the routine and ordinary into a magical playground.
In ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, watching a game not only brings back memories of childhood play but also connects us to the generations of fans and players whose cheers and hits seem to echo off the bleachers.
Even if the lush, green lawn of Yankee Stadium isn't Eden, and the Iowa ball field in "Field of Dreams" isn't heaven, baseball diamonds do remind many of us of the games we played as kids, as well as the ones our parents took us to. And when so much of the space in our lives has become instant, sterile, and cloned, consisting more and more of prefabricated malls, climate-controlled offices, franchised restaurants, and sanitized theme parks, it's good for our souls to be in a place so thick with memories and stories.
Although it's probably an exaggeration to refer to baseball's majorleague parks as temples or cathedrals, there is a sense in which these cavernous monuments to the playful are helpful reminders of how good--and even how holy--play is. They are a reminder of how important it is to go aside for awhile and refresh our spirits in prayer and rest and play. Though we may not notice it at first, ballparks are places honoring the joyous, the poetic, and even the beautiful.
Another of my favorite things about baseball is its sense of time--both its season which reaches from April to October, and within the nine or more innings that can stretch from early afternoon until deep into the night. Baseball's playing season imitates and snuggles into the natural rhythm of the year. In February the players migrate south for training camps, and spring blossoms are accompanied by the sound of batting practices and pitching drills. By early summer the sport is off and running, well into the long stride of 160-plus games that will stretch across our vacations and bring us up to harvest time. And as autumn leaves are being raked and piled into stacks, the two pennant winners are slugging it out in a final series that will bring the whole thing to a close for another year.
When so much of our lives are spent with one eye on the clock, it seems like a good thing to remember that time doesn't just come in seconds and minutes but also in moments, sometimes quite wondrous. A good game of baseball can remind us that time is relative--and a really good one can help us step into the present moment and not just skim along its surface.
But, alas, as the strike and the petty wrangling between rich players and richer owners shows, not everything is good in Mudville--or Cooperstown for that matter. In a time when government reports show increasing poverty and a deepening sense of financial insecurity among Americans, the game proclaiming itself to be our national pastime has been called on account of greed. Story after story reports how fans--who have never been fond of owners--feel betrayed by striking ballplayers earning an average of $1.2 million a year, while a few pundits have suggested this could even be the end of the game.
And yet, maybe there is something to be learned from this, too. For if baseball is an American sacrament, it is not just because this game, which has become a business, reflects our love of the outdoors and fair play but also because it reveals our culture's obsession with wealth and the wealthy. Indeed, in the richest nation on earth it's not just ballplayers and owners who are fixated with the almighty dollar. In his recent text The Cost of Talent (Maxwell-McMillan Intl., 1993), Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, reports that the salaries of American physicians, attorneys, and corporate executives have grown exponentially over the past two decades, far outpacing their peers in other capitalist nations and creating a disparity not seen in this country since just before the Depression.
More and more professionals and collegians are making career choices based on how rich they can become, while an increasing percentage of our Representatives and Senators in Congress are becoming millionaires and multimillionaires. The shrinking middle class is being replaced by a deepening rift between rich and poor.
In this sense the strike may offer us an opportunity to reflect not only on baseball but also on the cost of wealth and the threat that obsession with riches presents to a healthy and humane society. If greed can so easily undermine a game such as baseball, wouldn't its corrosive influence be just as damaging in our corporations, our health-care system, and our legislative processes? Perhaps this strike could serve as a wake-up call, alerting us to the need to critically examine the impact of wealth upon these other areas of our communal life and to work for more economic justice.
Thomas Jefferson once argued that a healthy democracy depended upon the existence of a broad-based middle class--an equitable economic community where the differences between the wealthy and poor were not so devastatingly great. Perhaps the baseball strike will remind us to try and work for that sort of team.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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