In Praise of Baseball
“I don’t know if this is what you’re asking. But I feel closest to God, like after I’m rounding second base after I hit a double.” —Eight-year-old boy quoted in The Children’s God
Well the Boys of Summer are back again. There was much joy in the nation’s myriad Mudvilles as little league, school, and community ballparks came alive for another year. But as this season progresses to its conclusion, I am not always “feeling the joy” for professional baseball. For one, we continue to see the ineradicable stain of steroids marring the reputations of some of the game’s most prominent players including this year’s all-star game MVP. Irritatingly, more and more stadiums are named after the financial institutions that have brought so much ruin to our country. And for those of us for whom the Yankees are the team we love to hate, we see the “damnable” one continuing to buy enough Hessians to be World Series contenders again this year. In baseball, as in America, the rich get richer, and to heck with the rest of us.
But enough caveats. As another season unfolds itself to its conclusion, I have come to praise baseball, not bury it. It has been nearly a half-century now since I started playing the game. Later as a dad I coached Little League and beyond, and have always remained a student. After decades of observation and outright devotion, I believe that even in these difficult days for the sport, baseball continues to instruct on our most fundamental human virtues and values. More to the point, I believe baseball far more that any other team sport embodies and celebrates many of the principles at the core of what it means to be a progressive, and especially a spiritually minded progressive.
Whoa! Baseball “spiritually progressive?” As John McEnroe might say, “You cannot be serious!” Well, I am serious, or at least as serious as you can be about a game, and as one pundit cautioned: “Baseball is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes or games are created equal.” So for doubting readers, let’s do some excavating into the often hidden depths of the game itself.
A Celebration of Nonviolence and Collegiality
“In football with short bullet passes and long bombs the quarterback marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack…. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! I hope I’ll be safe at home!” —George Carlin
Baseball teaches the fundamental values of nonviolence and collegiality. Baseball is the only team game in which the opponents do not invade each other’s turf. There is no “enemy territory”; no conquering the other side’s space. You are not assaulting the opponent’s yardage, slashing into their court or goal crease. There are no goal line stands, blitzes, or zone defenses. No, in baseball the field is shared—including having the same “home.” Until it was halted in 1953, for safety concerns about tripping, major league fielders actually left their gloves in the field when it was their turn to bat both for convenience and to share with others if too few gloves were available.
Adding to this nonviolent aura, baseball is also the only game started by the Defense: each game begins with the first pitch not the first hit. Former major leaguer Ken Harrelson remarked that “Baseball is the only sport I know that when you’re on offense, the other team controls the ball.” In fact, the offense does not get to touch the ball at all, and if they do they’re “out.” Tellingly, most real baseball fans prefer a close pitching duel over a slugfest, and in baseball a “perfect game” is not one where everyone hits but rather one where one side has no offense at all.
Baseball is also a mostly noncontact sport. Since 1971 helmets have been required for batters but no other safety equipment is necessary, except for catchers (and umpires). Unintentional collisions do occur between outfielders and very intentional collisions do happen at home plate. But violence, outside of the occasional bench-clearing brawl, and the ritualistic intentionally hit batsman, is very rare in baseball. There are no flagrant fouls, slashing, crosschecks, tripping, roughing, holding, kicking, clipping, gouging, facemasks, or horse collars. No constant foul calls, which so mar the pace of basketball; no dubious yellow or red flags as in soccer; no penalty box. Not surprisingly, in high school and college sports, both in practice and in actual games, baseball consistently ranks the lowest in causing injuries, far less then soccer, hockey, basketball, lacrosse, and even gymnastics. Baseball incurs only about one tenth the injuries caused in football.
A Celebration of Natural Time
“The Clock doesn’t matter in baseball. Time stands still or moves backwards. Theoretically one game could go on forever. Some seem to.” —Herb Caen, noted columnist
Baseball has no use for standardized, digitalized, mechanized time. The other major sports have strict artificial time frames reminiscent of efficiency-driven industrial production (as in “time is money”) or militaristic action (as in “synchronize your watches”). Football has four fifteen-minute quarters (and of course “sudden death”), basketball has four twelve-minute periods, hockey has three twenty-minute periods, soccer two forty-five-minute halves. Baseball, by contrast, is played in natural, not artificial, time. There are no seconds ticking away on scoreboards, no two-minute warnings, no buzzers or buzzer beaters. Actually, it isn’t just the baseball game that could continue eternally—each of baseball’s nine innings, in fact, each of its eighteen half innings, could theoretically go on forever.
In our hyperactive, ADHD world, this meditative, “real life” time element in baseball has been called its downfall. The game is too slow, we are told, for the modern age. Mary McCrory once wrote that “Baseball is our past football our future.” Let’s hope not. It is true that a baseball game can seem like six minutes of action crammed into two-and-a-half hours. Pitchers and catchers give, receive, or shake off signs; batters step out of the box; other players or coaches go visit the pitcher to give advice or encouragement; pitchers nervously pace or blow into their hands between pitches. For the most part though, to the baseball fan, the natural pace is far from boring. In fact it’s experienced as a crescendo of cumulative tension. Any parent of a Little Leaguer, or fan during a crucial major league contest, knows that a game can indeed seem like “a nervous breakdown spread over nine innings.”
The timing of the baseball season also is a celebration of the year’s seasons even if in a bittersweet way. As Bart Giamatti wrote: “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
A Celebration of Agrarianism and Diversity of Place
Paradise is an ancient dream … Judeo Christian culture has always known was lost. Where it exists, we do not know, although we always envisioned it as a garden …always removed, as an enclosed green place. —Bart Giametti, former Commissioner of Baseball
Baseball does not only eschew mechanized time but also cookie-cutter industrial type design and space. Think of the square boxes of office buildings and skyscrapers that masquerade as architecture these days. Most sports are similar. They’re all about rectangles with standardized dimensions. For example, the basket ball court is ninety-four feet long by fifty feet wide. The football field football is 120 yards long including two ten-yard end zones 53-and-1/3 yards wide. Shapes are similar for the other team sports.
Baseball is different, far different. First of all there’s its shape, not a rectangle but a diamond, and actually not just a diamond but a double diamond, the infield shape, inside the larger diamond of the entire field. The diamond shape is of course beautiful in itself, but one does not have to go far to find symbolic meanings of this shape. For many civilizations including the Egyptians it represented fertility and creativity. In alchemy its four points represented the coming together of the four elements earth, wind, water and fire.
The inner diamond of the baseball field, the infield, has as with the other sports, set dimensions. But that’s where standardization ends and true diversity begins. For the outside shape of the full baseball diamond remarkably has no set dimensions and the endless diversity of the shapes of these agrarian-like fields is deeply appreciated by each team’s fans and even foes.
Virtually every park will vary widely and even wildly. There will be odd features, strange nooks and crannies, high walls such as the fabled “Green Monster” at Boston’s Fenway Park and ivied brick barriers as in Chicago’s Wrigley Filed. Of course this diversity profoundly impacts the games. There are “hitter’s parks” with diminutive dimensions suitable for home run hitting, such as the new Yankee Stadium, often derisively and correctly dubbed “bandboxes” by real fans, and “pitcher’s parks” marked by large expanses where outfielders roam and long fly balls go to die. Whatever the shapes, outfielders have to become sage judges of bounces and angles in each park lest a single become a triple, a double an inside the park home run.
The baseball field’s unmistakable agrarian feel was shattered somewhat in the 1970s and ’80s as more and more teams opted for artificial “grass” in shameless imitation of football fields. Players hated it and the ever insightful outfielder Dick Allen retorted, “If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.” Baseball did come back to its “horse” sense and rescinded this desecration. Real grass came back and now only two stadiums (both domed and of course in the American league) still retain artificial turf.
A Celebration of Sacrifice
“Baseball is about the only place in life where a sacrifice is really appreciated.” —Mark Beltaire
Especially attractive to spiritually minded progressives should be baseball’s unique embrace of the sacrifice. Here a batter sacrifices his turn at bat, he purposely makes an out by bunt or fly out, so another can advance to the next base or reach home and score. If successful, if his out advances the runner, the batter is rewarded by the game. He is absolved of that time at bat, the out is not registered on his record. So if a batter were to sacrifice four times in a game and get one hit, his game stat would be one for one.
The most artful sacrifice is of course the sacrifice bunt. Many commentators have seen the decline in the ability of today’s players to execute this bunt successfully as a symptom of our increasingly narcissistic culture. There is some empirical evidence to back this up. The top ten “sacrificers” in baseball history all played in the first decades of baseball history. The single season sacrifice bunt record, sixty seven, is held by Cleveland Indian shortstop Ray Chapman. Chapman was a stellar shortstop, a team leader, a locker room favorite and adored by the fans. Poignantly and tragically he not only was one of the all time great sacrificers in the game, he also made the ultimate sacrifice. In 1920 he was hit by a pitch delivered by a Yankee (of course) and succumbed a few hours later from head injuries. To this day his is the only death ever in major league play. Always an inspiration to his teammates, after his death that season the Indians who were not favored to win anything went on to win the pennant, beating out the favored Yankees and won the World Series from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Cleveland fans still put flowers on Chapman’s grave.
The Shadow Side
“When I played ball I’d steal second, feel guilty and go back.” —Woody Allen
It would not be fair to the game not to mention its shadow side, or as Joseph Campbell fans might say its indebtedness to the spirit of Hermes. For baseball does not just reward sacrifice, it also rewards theft, especially speedy theft. Stealing a base is among the most exciting moments in the game. Though it happens only a few times a season today, a batter can even accomplish the ultimate theft: steal home. The famous Ty Cobb did it fifty-four times. Four times in his career, he stole his way all the way around the bases to score. A feat achieved only a handful of times in the last twenty years. Even Babe Ruth, never known for svelteness, stole home ten times. Jackie Robinson had perhaps the most historic steal of home in the first game of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees which his Dodgers eventually won. This steal put an exclamation point at the end of his historic career that had broken the segregation barrier in major league baseball.
Of course as in life, stealing has its risks. Most importantly, the catcher can throw you out and is encouraged to do so by the rules of the game. If the catcher overthrows the base trying to catch a stealing base runner he cannot be charged with an error. So stealing is not for the faint of heart. If caught stealing you are out and a valuable base runner is lost. When coaching, I often had to remind my more risk-averse youngsters that they could not steal second with one foot still on first.
A Celebration of the Individual and the Community
“More than any other games, baseball gives its players space-both physical and emotional -in which to define themselves.” —John Eskow
It is a fundamental conundrum of political science. What is the proper relationship between the needs of the individual and that of the community? Too much individualism, as many of us feel about the United States, and we see the tendency towards narcissism, a breakdown of empathy towards one another, a tolerance for economic inequality and suffering. Too much community control as in certain communist countries and we see a tendency for the suppression of the aspirations and creativity of the individual. Is there a model for just the right balance? I would suggest baseball as a candidate. It is certainly a team game. Success for any squad relies on a community spirit and mutually practiced and synchronized performance. In the field this coordination whether in executing double plays, hitting the cutoff man, or the complex shifts required for various batters and situations is essential. The late great announcer Ernie Harwell aptly dubbed baseball, “a ballet without music.” But each fielder will also be called on to fully exercise his individual efforts at his special position. There within the team context he knows he could be called on to execute an individual, heroic legerdemain that will save the day or alternatively could make an error that leads to a loss and fan opprobrium.
This is also true of batting. At least in the National League each player regardless of slugging acumen gets his individual, equal turn at bat. (This is of course the problem with the insidious American league designated hitter, which ruins this balance by not having the pitcher bat). He will also know given his unique physical capacities and baseball acuity which batting position is ideal. Speed and on base canny at the top of the lineup, power in the middle, and the rest at the end. The at bat is not wholly a sphere of individual achievement and decisionmaking. For the sake of the team he may be asked to sacrifice bunt or hit to the opposite field to move a runner ahead. Whether in the field or at the plate, this counterpoint of democratic individual opportunity within the context of the needs of the larger team community and effort is unique in sports.
A Celebration of Transcendence
“Kiss it Goodbye.” —Home run call of Bob Prince former announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates
A field goal kicker boots the ball through the upright into the stands; a basketball shot gets blocked into the first few row of seats; a tennis mishit embarrassingly flies up into upper rows of spectators. The result? An excited fan may get a souvenir and the game is briefly stopped until a new ball is back in play. But in baseball something very different can happen. If a batter hits a ball in fair territory over the wall and into the stands a pinnacle moment of the game occurs. Fans come to their feet as one roaring. The announcer may intone “adios,” “going, going, gone!” or “It’s outta here.” The hitter now realizing what he has done halts his run and eases into a confident slow gait. The field of play has been physically transcended. No fear of being tagged out now, no rush of fielders trying to make a play—for a moment the movement of the game itself has been transcended. Again all other team sports are cabined, circumscribed by rigid place and artificial time. But here the very overcoming of the physical space in which the game is played reaps the ultimate reward. And the reward for the hitter for this achievement, as an analogy with many a true spiritual effort or experience, is that he gets an unimpeded path “home.” This is of course called a “home run.”
But that is not all. In the spirit of many religious traditions, the transcendent effort redeems not only the achiever but those ahead of him that have made an effort as well. All runners on base at the time of the home run also touch home unimpeded. And if the bases are full it is called a grand slam home run the ultimate in this transcendent sport experience.
The unique nature of the home run was a major casualty of the Steroid Era where the leagues, the teams and the players all turned a blind eye to this terrible abuse of the game knowing that the exponential increase in home runs would be a crowd pleaser and most importantly be a major revenue builder for all concerned. Meanwhile the balance of the game itself was being destroyed and youngsters learning and playing the game were given corrupted role models. It is with relief that in the last few years, and especially the last few seasons, we have seen the home run numbers return to traditional levels and the this transcendent sport moment revived.
Celebrating the Common Man … and Failure
Baseball among the major sports has also been, pace Aaron Copeland, an ode to the common man. In the mind’s eye is the squat figure of Yogi Berra, the diminutive Ozzie Smith, the boy-next-door look of Cal Ripkin, the odd ovoid shape of The Babe himself. Baseball has never been the preserve of the ubermensch, the dauntingly tall, speedy, or huge human anomalies which are the norm in football or basketball. It’s a sport that has been open to “normal” people of any size or shape and, at least for several decades, race. And baseball players do normal things like throw, catch, stand still, hit, and run. This is probably why polls consistently find that a significant portion of adult men actually (and delusionally) believe that they could have made the major leagues. “Hey, I look like they do so maybe I can play like they do.” Well, not quite.
The game is also a lesson in humility and the acceptance of failure as part of life. Mickey Mantle noted: “During my eighteen years I came to bat almost 10,000 times, I struck out 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 bats a season. That means I played seven seasons without ever hitting the ball.”
As has often been pointed out baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and still be considered a hall of fame performer.
Then, of course, baseball has all those mystical, seemingly synchronized numbers: nine players, nine innings (eighteen players, eighteen half innings), four balls and three strikes, four infielders and three outfielders, four bases and three outfields, but just one “home”… But with all this in it and so much more, there is also just the simple joy of playing and watching the game. As a famous outfielder, and roué, once quipped. “Baseball is the most fun you can have standing up.” True. But still, there is that other dimension. Whether playing the game—or just fantasizing about it, as we fans tend to—there’s the vision of rounding second after hitting a double in the gap, clapping your hands and looking around the diamond as the ball gets played back in, and maybe, just maybe you begin to feel closer to…. well, you get the idea.