This piece comes from our archives.
When I am trying to recall my childhood, the best I often call forth is a phantasmagorical flash of images and feelings; for instance, a friend whose play habits I have forgotten or a name without a face-not nearly tidy enough for scrapbook presentation. Amongst the confusion, there are a few vivid, traceable “story lines,” if you will, by which I can mark my life’s progression.
One example that comes to mind is my relationship with Rich, my best friend since I was three. Another is my exploration of books and all the richness I have found there. Indeed, there are other threads equally as important to the overall weave and design of my personal history, influences that give it form and worth. But with October winding down, amidst the kaleidoscope of autumnal color, one storyline, which comes accompanied by the “crack!” of a bat and the “pop!” of a mitt, gains a particular poignancy: my love for baseball.
As a lifelong New Yorker born in the 1980s, I grew up amongst baseball chatter and rivalry. From one house to the next, loyalty was divided between the Yankees and Mets. My house belonged to the Yankees. With stars like Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, and Keith Hernandez, and having won the World Series in 1986, the Mets were the better team of the eighties. But I inherited my father’s love, became a Yankees fan, and learned to revere the history of the team. Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, and Don Mattingly were my players of choice.
As I grew older, what I loved so much on television I took to the schoolyard, and began playing catch with my father, two older brothers, and the other neighborhood boys. And soon, I was playing in the local Pee Wee league, helping my team to the championship round in five consecutive seasons. Unfortunately, we won only the first of five. Eventually, as the skills of the other boys developed, mine stalled, and I became a mere spectator. While my playing days were over, I still found baseball exhilarating as an onlooker. And I watched year in and year out, following my team down the valleys and up the peaks, devastated with every playoff loss and elated with every October victory, devoted to my team and to my sport without demur.
Recently, a friend, peering over my shoulder while I read baseball box scores, asked me with sincerity (a rare and disarming temperament), “Why do you like baseball, anyway?” Truly, baseball, like many things personally enjoyed, is a delight to some and a frivolity to others. As with anything really loved, my love for baseball has been challenged before.
It is a challenge, honestly, with which I rarely engage because cynics-of sports, most especially-very seldom ask genuine questions, usually making proclamations through their “questions.” The conversation inevitably devolves into an each-to-his-own pact of non-aggression. They go their way; I go mine. It is not a conversation worth having often. So when I detected the sincerity in my friend’s voice, I realized that he was not showing disdain for my sport, but that he was actually asking a rather thoughtful question: “What is the meaning of baseball?”
Very quickly, I recognized that I did not really know the answer. I had never considered baseball in that manner. I had always unquestioningly enjoyed it, as I suspect is the case of all baseball enthusiasts. But that is to be expected, maybe even hoped for. As C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and author, explains, enjoyment, the disposition at the heart of sport, is vastly different to contemplativeness, the disposition at the heart of paradigmatic construction. Contemplating baseball requires objective detachment from it-an outside view, if you will. On the other hand, enjoyment of baseball requires an unquestioning subjective engagement: humility before the sport-being inside of it.
Enjoyment and contemplation are two differing consciousnesses. One sees from without, one from within. And fans learn from the earliest age to see sports from within. Still, I thought to contemplate the question and seek an answer.
Admittedly, when measured with a detached rationality, baseball appears absurd. The principal action of the game revolves around a man who, from a raised bump of dirt, throws a stitched leather ball across a 216 square inch pentagon which lies 60’6” away. An opponent stands aside the pentagon and tries to swat the stitched leather ball with a narrow wooden stick. Many more precisely measured and equally ambiguous actions ensue as a result of this repeated event. While these are famously difficult feats, they appear entirely arbitrary. At first glance, baseball gives the impression of meaninglessness, and, especially in light of their enthusiasm, its fans appear irrational.
Yet, a cardinal virtue of any good sport is its ability to test the physical limits and discipline of an athlete. And, although the rules and actions of baseball may appear arbitrary, they certainly excel in testing an athlete’s physical endurance, agility, speed, and strength. To this end they have been constructed and diligently upheld; so they are not entirely random. As each game generally spans over three hours, and each player has limited opportunities to contribute to the contest’s outcome, an athlete must prove his patience and focus as well. For example, on offense the position players (players who both play the field and hit) are likely to have only four at bats per nine innings. On defense, a position player can go an entire game without fielding a single ball-a rather frequent occurrence. The athlete must remain vigilant, as a result, so as not to be caught unaware. However, the greatest test for a ballplayer is one of will, for even the most excellent hitters succeed, on average, only three times out of every ten at bats. Failure is at the very heart of baseball and success can only be had in spite of it.
Americans love excellence, even of the purely physical sort. It satisfies our meritocratic predisposition. On that level, one can understand an American’s appreciation for a baseball player or team. But can appreciation for excellence explain the intensity of the fan’s communion with his team? Can it explain the fan’s tears over loss, adulation from victory, or even prayers for a player’s well being? Can it explain his devotion during years or even decades of competitive futility? No, it certainly cannot. Again, the fan is either entirely irrational, or there is something more to baseball. I suggest that there is something more, which can only be found in the experience of the fans, a testimony that cannot be discounted. To see it, we must move a little further in.
Simply put, baseball has a visible level-a physical dimension viewable by all, even cynics-and an invisible level-a metaphorical dimension experienced by fans only (often on the subconscious level) which is unknown to cynics; especially empirical statisticians. If baseball is a body, the rules are the bones and flesh, and story is the blood. Only together does it have fullness and its fullness can only be found in fandom.
So what does the fan see, exactly? While it’s different for each fan, it certainly contains nostalgia, as I have recounted from my own life. More importantly, the fan sees a microcosm of the human story. In my experience, I of course appreciated Don Mattingly for his offensive and defensive prowess. Nevertheless, he became my favorite player during years when his back was balky and his numbers declined. During those seasons I appreciated his perseverance, humility, sacrifice, and sympathized with a career that became increasingly demoralizing. Don Mattingly became my favorite player because I empathized with his personhood. This is common: in one breath fans will praise a player statistically, the next in universally human terms.
In addition, the drama of baseball is entirely unscripted, which makes its structure both analogous to life and more theatrical than a stage play, film, or television show. In this way, a baseball game reflects spontaneous human achievement, action, and emotion: a physical dramatization and symbolization of everyday living. Furthermore, the story of a particular game, season, franchise, or player establishes the meaning, and thus the dramatic content, of any given physical action. For example, a home run hit in an April contest, while physically impressive, is quickly forgotten. On the other hand, in 2003, Aaron Boone’s home run to defeat the Red Sox and send the Yankees to the World Series was a narrative masterpiece, complex and deep enough to stir true euphoria and genuine devastation. As a result, the moment is memorialized in both infinite honor and infamy. This demonstrates an indelible fact: no matter how impressive the physical act is, its meaning is understood, and memorability determined, by its place in the story of the game.
On a subtler level, baseball is symbolic for an overarching metaphor that mirrors human existence at its most primal: that life can only be lived in the face of certain death. A baseball contest progresses by outs, failures, if you will, not by time. Generally speaking, a standard ballgame is complete only after both teams in the contest record twenty-seven outs. In the bleak world of baseball, both teams fail. The victor is merely the team who has accumulated the most runs in spite of their own demise. Concomitantly, the hitting side, dubiously named “the offense,” is postured from the start in a defensive position, and their task is to temporarily stave off the efforts of the pitching side to retire them. Ultimately, the world of baseball is a fallen one in which even the victors inevitably perish. Much like life, victory in baseball is achieved in the face of a harsh fatalism. Ballplayers are actors in a passion play and the fans are the beneficiaries of their willingness to demonstrate the human struggle.
If victory means failure, and winning the World Series is so supremely difficult, why play? Here I can only make a suggestion: for good reason baseball first took root amongst rural Americans, a people famous for their protestantismus. Imported from England, baseball became a reflection of the Americans that claimed it. Like all, the people of rural America were aware of death’s certainty, yet they still hoped that on the other side promises would be fulfilled and dreams come true. Baseball, their game of choice, offers players and fans a mirrored anticipation. Fielding a baseball team is like taking Pascal’s wager: when a team wins the World Series, all of their hopes and dreams for the season have been realized. Wouldn’t it be worth it to dedicate oneself to that cause even if humiliation was assured and victory uncertain?