“Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season–these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” George Will
“I would change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Baseball is the belly-button of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.” Bill “Spaceman” Lee
Bill Lee had it right. In a world filled with the prognostications of politicians, preachers and pundits all with their agendas to “fix” what ails society baseball is the one constant in American life that somehow calls us back to a better time and allows us to realize that bad times don’t last, unless perhaps you are a Cubs fan. Baseball when you come down to it has no agenda it is not just a game but it is life, American life the way it is supposed to be. Baseball has endured despite strikes and scandals because of what it is and what it embodies and baseball matters to America more than political social or religious ideology. Baseball is more than a game, it is America.
You see baseball at all levels matters from the Little Leagues to the Major Leagues is a game where talent and hard work teach life lessons. It is a game but unlike other games it is a game where the past, present and future all matter and as such baseball helps connect us to the reality of life. It stands apart from the overwhelming cultural impulses of most other sports, the media and the entertainment industries. Winning matters but the integrity of the game matters more which is why when there is a scandal in baseball that the politicians, pundits and preachers all suddenly become experts even if they have never played an organized game of baseball in their life and couldn’t tell a infield single from a fielder’s choice.
So why does baseball matter? Well let’s start with all those politicians, pundits and preachers that promise to “fix” the country on a daily basis.
In the United States of this new millennium we live in a pressure cooker that is being turned up to higher and more uncomfortable levels every day and I think this is in large part due to politicians, pundits and preachers who intentionally play on people’s worst fears and suspicions. For many people there is no relief and no place to go for succor. The political climate is toxic and destructive, politicians and pundits of all stripes beat the airwaves senseless with their non-stop propaganda and twisting of the truth and it seems that many of the politicians simply desire power for power’s sake rather than being interested in the good of the country.
Pundits make their money by stirring up controversy just as the pundits of the “yellow journalism” era did over a century ago. Of course some preachers who desire earthy power, popularity and political influence doing the same stirring up the emotions and playing on the fears of their flocks as this keeps the money flowing. I think that these relationships are incestuous and do more harm to the people of this country than good. Thus I figure that very few of these people have any interest in bringing peace to the country. Whether it is the Left calling the Right Nazis and Fascists or the Right calling the Left Communists and Socialists, all of which have meaning loaded with fear and emotion the effect is the same on those who cannot escape the ceaseless bombardment of bad news.
Even the most popular sport in the country, Football is a game of the modern industrial age. It is a game of power and open violence fought like a war on a gridiron and bounded by the clock which constrains the game force the players, coaches and fans into a mentality of artificial urgency which often carries over into the way that people do life in general.
Baseball on the other hand is different. It calls us back to our roots and reminds us that the poisonous ideologies of the politicians, pundits and preachers will not last and as James Earl Jones playing the character of Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams so stirringly put it “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” Baseball even in its controversies and scandals still hearkens back to times just as trying and poisonous as the present and reminds us that those things which serve to divide us and may for a time hold sway over individuals and society will pass away and that our country still has a future and hope.
Baseball does not rush us along. It teaches us to savor detail and get caught up in the nuances of the game and of life. It is not governed by artificial deadline and if needed takes us into extra innings. No game is ever out of reach and baseball shows us that no matter how far we may be behind that we can come back and there is a fairness in that people can’t just run out the clock on you but have to give you a chance at the plate.
Baseball teaches us perspective and humility for even Hall of Fame members are not perfect. It is the one sport that teaches us a key fact about life; that we will fail often more times than we will succeed…. unless of course you are Mariano Rivera. It teaches us another fact of life that we need to plan for the long term as the baseball season like life is a long event with many peaks and valleys. As Andy Van Slyke once said “Every season has its peaks and valleys. What you have to try to do is eliminate the Grand Canyon.” It teaches us that we don’t know everything about life or even what we do well in our chosen vocation as Mickey Mantle said “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” Likewise it teaches us to put things in perspective by reminding us that we don’t know everything. Earl Weaver once said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Such an attitude keeps us humble and reminds us that there is always more to learn. Baseball also teaches us that you can’t live your life in the hopes of making everybody happy by worrying about what people think of how you do what you are called to do. Tommy Lasorda noted “if you start worrying about the people in the stands, before too long you’re up in the stands with them.”
Baseball calls us to be better by teaching us that teamwork and individualism can work together for the good. It helps teach us that individually we can be better no matter where we begin our life journey from. Satchel Paige said. “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.” Likewise it calls us to community as Harmon Killebrew noted that “Life is precious and time is a key element. Let’s make every moment count and help those who have a greater need than our own.” It also call us to be better human beings in matters of civil rights and the public good, as the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti said “On matters of race, on matters of decency, baseball should lead the way” something that it began in 1948 with Jackie Robinson well before the rest of America figured this out.
Baseball is about striving to do better and be involved in life as Jackie Robinson said “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”
Baseball is about community with the fans, players, owners, management and media all having an interest in the game. It is funny when there is a scandal in baseball it is often viewed more seriously by the public than almost anything else. There are no congressional hearings about pro-football, basketball or hockey because they exist in a different world than baseball. Baseball despite football’s immense popularity as a sport still represents what is traditionally American. It is a sport where someone can work their way up from nothing and be an All-Star and a sport that takes better care of its players unlike football which has left former players and stars crippled with terrible injuries for life with little assistance from the league and game that they sacrificed their bodies for. Football may titillate our baser gladiatorial instincts but baseball helps define us as people and as a nation more than any institution or sport in the land.
Yes baseball has problems, it is not a game of perfection except for brief moments where a pitcher will throw a perfect game and there have only been 18 of those in the history of Major League Baseball. That is why it still speaks to many people who can relate to a game that deals with the ups and downs of life better than any other sport. Nothing is guaranteed in life and life can change for the better or the worse in an instant. Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech after he had been diagnosed with ALS is a case in point:
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
Those are just some of the reasons that baseball matters. This is why George Will can say that “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” Walt Whitman once said “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”
I know of no other sport that can help bring healing to our land which like in times past needs something to cheer about and remind us what is really important in life. You can disagree with me all you want but if tell me if any of this is bad for us after all anyone can argue a call.