Monday, October 19, 2009

The True Meaning of Baseball


Did you catch last night's game between the Phillies and the Dodgers? Astounding! Particularly if you're a Phillies fan.

It put me in mind of the time when I was in Yekaterinburg and a Russian fan asked me why anybody would bother to watch baseball. Now, I'm always a lot better on rewrite than I am on first draft, and that day more so than usually. So I floundered through something lame about there always being the possibility of winning, no matter how far down you are.

"So it's all random, you mean?" my friend asked.

No, no! It's not like that at all, and if you don't understand baseball, you'll never understand America.

Everybody understands football. It's the face America presents to the world: We are bigger and stronger and tougher than you are and if you don't show us respect we'll crush you under the treads of our offensive line. It's all about power. But baseball is who we actually are. Baseball is all about heart.

"Baseball," I should have said back then, "is a morality play. It's a distillation of our lives and souls, and it's made up almost entirely of failure and redemption."

There's more than enough failure in this country, in these lives. There are long, long stretches when you're at the bottom of the league and batting .100, times when you just can't catch a break and nothing you do works. But every day you suit up and step back up to the plate. There are times when the world is cold and Cliff Lee is hot and you can do nothing but strike out, over and over and over again. You learn exactly how bitter failure can taste. But you keep on slugging.

Los Angeles had a night like that Sunday.

But then -- not often, because the game is rigged so it only happens rarely -- you get a night like Philadelphia had yesterday. Your pitches are hard and true. You rip one into the stands. Everything falls into place.

This doesn't just happen. It's earned. It takes hard work, determination, skill, practice . . . and heart. Or maybe a better word for it is spirit. You don't start out with that kind of spirit; it's forged in the smithy of failure.

Failure is so much of our lives. That's why America's favorite team is not the Yankees, but the Cubs. That's why everybody was so elated when the Red Sox finally took the pennant. It proved that all this failure was not without purpose. It showed that there's a chance of redemption for all of us.

Maybe even, some day, for the Cubs.


1 comment:

Richard Mason said...

My theory of spectator sport:

Each moment of a game has a certain probability of being consequential to the outcome.

A good spectator sport has some climactic moments that are clearly important (e.g. "two outs, bases loaded") and these should be identifiable when they happen or slightly before, not only in hindsight.

It is not possible for every moment to be climactic. If every play is critical, then none of them are. Therefore, there should be some rise and fall of tension. However, the majority of moments should have at least some minimal probability of mattering to the outcome.

Basketball is a poor spectator sport by this analysis because every play is just as important as every other play.

Soccer is a poor spectator sport because it is low scoring, so any particular moment has a low probability of mattering. At least to the casual observer, it appears as a long stretch of inconsequential play, punctuated by a single unpredictable goal.

Football and tennis, with their repeated 1-2-3-4 cycles of tension, are good spectator sports.

Baseball is pretty good except when it tends to be low scoring. Baseball is entertaining when people are getting on base.