In 1985, when I was living in Bahrain I watched all seven games of the World Series between the Cardinals and the Royals without knowing anything about baseball. I still don’t know why or how I made it through the series, for I watched it alone, without Google, and without knowing the difference between a ball and a strike. Even today, when umpires have their own ways of calling a game (including hand signals for balls and strikes) it needs a moment, if you’re not paying close attention, to see the difference; strike zones are fluid, shifty shapes like ghostly apparitions—just when you think you see them, they’re gone. It took me a few games to decipher anything, but it was a slow month and I had only two channels on TV, one of them in Arabic, so baseball won.
This was America’s game and as I was getting ready to move to the States I thought I needed to understand this sport some had likened to cricket, but was unlike any cricket I had ever played or seen. For the most part I was able to follow along with the commentators as long as there wasn’t anything too complex. The in-field fly rule would come later. I remember the Game Six controversy at first base; not who the principals were, just that there seemed to be a fight going on, with replays clearly dividing villains from victims. I was familiar with disputes in cricket where players surround officials and make their case in heated and vociferous ways, but I had never seen managers from the pavilion (cricket’s equivalent of a dugout, minus the spitting and general untidiness; pavilions are genteel places with tea services and polite applause) rush onto the field to challenge an umpire’s decision. What I saw that October was much in keeping with my simplistic opinion of America—where the power, brashness, and brute athleticism so evident in football, which I had also seen on TV and understood less, were masked by long moments of silence as pitchers prepared their wind-ups (in cricket, bowlers run before delivering the ball) and only occasionally displayed as runners charged towards bases bent on injuring opponents.
So began my interest in the boys of summer. Living in Tallahassee during graduate school I would watch it occasionally on TBS, which is how and why (like many Americans) I became an Atlanta Braves fan. That and the fact that they were the only team nearby (the Marlins hadn’t yet appeared on the scene) and were in last place in 1990 (an appealing underdog status), from where they went on to win the NL West against the Dodgers in 1991. Two years later they acquired an artist named Greg Maddux from the Cubs and that’s when baseball changed for me. Now it was about pitching rather than batting, about artistry rather than power, about strategy rather than brute strength. I had grown up watching the great spinners of cricket bowling, artists with subtle changes of speed, who “flighted” the ball slowly, daring a batsman to hit it. I was also beginning to see baseball against the backdrop of America as I began traveling across and exploring this adopted country of mine, learning to look beyond the façade to apprehend the complexity beneath facile assumptions and naive definitions of Americana.
There have been numerous attempts to draw parallels between baseball and America, most notably Ken Burns’ documentaries about the game. Such comparisons tend to overreach their objectives, seeking to explain one through the lens of the other in ways that simplify and diminish both. Most of these associations are located in the early or middle part of the last century when the shifting currents of racism affecting our national psyche found their roots in baseball; and Jackie Robinson and the Negro League became symbols for social change. A key element of American mythology is the rags-to-riches illusion that persisted through generations and endures even today despite evidence to the contrary and the disenchantment of a burgeoning underclass; we cling to false idols of random celebrity, buoyed by ephemeral trends in market fluctuations or accidental encounters that cough up occasional millionaires or superstars. Baseball lore was hallowed on the altars of those fleeting legends—stories of scouts chancing upon raw talent toiling on fields across the Midwest or South, poised to be delivered into stardom. Of all our sports, only baseball cherishes the concept of the Natural, players who possess such innate skills as amateurs that the transition into the professional ranks is merely a matter of being discovered. This personification of the American Dream does not belie the American concept of a work ethic where success is the reward of labor, but it does tend to equate the two in ways that permit the mirage of upward mobility.
Basketball is the most popular sport among children, followed by soccer (especially if you combine the indoor and outdoor versions); but neither can compete with football as a spectator sport. We simply love violent entertainment; there’s no way around that fact—TV, movies, guns, boxing, mixed martial arts, bounties in football, etc. Hockey might not survive were it not for the violence associated with it; even lacrosse has found its own aggressive niche!
Although baseball is no longer really the national pastime, its popularity is a bit puzzling at first. Home runs may be overrated in the grand scheme of things; only a handful of top home-run hitters also have a high batting average. So it cannot be that alone; nor can it be the occasional clashes at each base. How then is this woven into the American ethos? It almost seems un-American—slow-moving, full of hidden strategies, and predicated on failure, where a 30 percent batting average is a benchmark of success couched by the delusional term 300, which I first thought meant 300 percent, a superhuman number obviously designed to make us feel better! A game that conceivably could have no ending and could last for several hours—almost but not quite like cricket!
When you migrate to a country it’s easy to force any experience into a portmanteau with the preconceived notions that accompanied you. America’s image, for better or worse, right or wrong, has always been swathed in aggressiveness—loud, imperious, and intimidating; constantly on the attack politically, economically, and even culturally in the way we export Americana across the globe. Football would appear to be the perfect embodiment of our national psyche, which in part explains its preeminence; nor have we done much recently to dispel that image. Other countries may be as aggressive, and their political arenas and social discourse just as contentious and strident, but our standing in the world thrusts us into the global limelight, and slowly the portrait we depict outwardly seeps into our consciousness (aided by heedless actions), forcing us to adjust our own self-image—thus we become the thing we project, more than superficially, which is where my discussion hinges.
It’s tempting to describe baseball as an intellectual sport, but that’s a misnomer; chess is essentially an intellectual game, demanding intricate planning, strategies, an ability to construct complex visual patterns and change them, the foresight to think ahead and to outwit one’s opponent who is doing the same thing. Baseball does involve mind games between batter and pitcher (and managers), and requires talents beyond athletic ability (in basketball and other sports that talent is woven into athletic ability, where players feint, bob, and swerve to keep away from opponents), where a pitcher and batter try to out-think each other. Tony Gwynn, who was Greg Maddux’ nemesis in an age when Maddux dominated most other batters, talked about this concept in an ironic way; he said he didn’t try to out-fox Maddux (and his pitching partner, Tom Glavine) because he would never win. Gwynn opined that the only way to face Maddux and Glavine was to take the “thinking” out of the process and try to react athletically; rather than attempt to guess at the next pitch, he would clear his mind of those thought-processes, wait for the pitch and swing at it. In other words, play baseball almost in an un-baseball-like fashion! He reasoned that was the only way to bat against one of the great artistic pitchers of all time; and his record proves his point (Barry Bonds hit 9 HRs against Maddux, but his average was only 0.265; Gwynn’s was a phenomenal 0.415)! Conversely, Maddux once said that he thought about pitching differently after facing Bonds, for he began to think not about individual batters but about series of batters; thus, the way to pitch to Bonds (according to Maddux) was to walk Bonds, but pitch to the batters before and after him, hoping to get them out! Greg Maddux’ thought processes about baseball are legendary (he would call pitches of opposing pitchers from the dugout before the pitch was made), which is why his nickname was The Professor (not a moniker one would find in many sports).
Anyone who has watched a curve ball float in the air like a swallow and then drop like a swooping hawk into the strike zone knows that of all our professional sports baseball is the least about power. At least, it wasn’t designed to be about power, which has been forced upon it through our obsession with home runs! Some would argue it’s a perfectly designed sport. Complex and cerebral! Ninety feet between bases! Such an accurate distance. Apparently they stumbled upon it. God-given, the old-timers say; those wizened aficionados who grew up sitting under trees listening to the slap of leather on leather as young men pitched into the setting sun. There’s no scientific reason it should be ninety feet. Ninety-one, and they throw you out in a yawn. Eighty-nine and batting averages soar. But ninety demands almost perfect fielding and throwing. An in-field bobble and, if you’re fast, you’ve got a hit. Now if they’d only get the strike zone right: the way it was meant to be; the way it’s written in the rule-book—from the letters to the knees! Not the belt, the letters! But all they want are home runs! To bring fans into the park.
Still, control and movement define the best pitchers. Add power to that, and you’re unstoppable. Artistry is what separates baseball from the other American team sports. It’s a ruminative game. Ruminative? To ponder? To think over? What does it mean? The pitcher throws, considers what to do next, exchanges signs, then pitches again. Ruminative. Everyone’s thinking—both managers in their dugouts; the catcher, the batter, and the pitcher. And the fielders anticipating a flyball or infield hit based on what kind of hitter the batter is and what pitching sign the catcher has laid down. Out-thinking. That’s the ticket. They’re all trying to out-think the other guy.
The point is that “thinking” is part of the process (Gwynn had to suspend it against Maddux; but he substituted another kind of thinking), and as with all such encounters it takes time to develop, which is why baseball is a slow game, almost meditative, a game in which players feel their way through nine innings, taking mental notes early about the size of the strike zone, umpiring inclinations, and the tendencies of the starting pitcher, after having studied as much as they can about his pitches before the game—locations, velocity, what his preferences are depending on the count, which base is filled, who’s on deck, in the hole, how many runs are on board. Pitchers do their homework about the batting line-up they will face that day—the more thinking they get done, the more likely they are to succeed!
If such a game claims to be the national sport, what does it say about the masses of people who watch and play it, or is that an exercise in futility? If the popularity of football, bloody football hints at national character, even on a superficial level, shouldn’t the attraction of baseball temper those characterizations? But national pastimes are just one small piece in the complex puzzle of societies, particularly societies as mutable as ours, with ever-changing demographics and constant immigration. What does it say then about those poorer Latin countries that revere the game and provide some of our best players even as a lack of equipment and space are placing the game beyond the reach of some segments of our American society? Yes we love violent sports; but we also produce great artists and intellectuals. We play smash-and-grab pickup games, but many of our public parks are littered with chess players, and golf is popular despite its obvious class distinctions.
Perhaps there’s another reason. Baseball is the embodiment of the capitalist system we revere. That alone may make it America’s game. With no salary cap, it’s been hijacked by the robber barons of big market teams, mirroring the top two percent of our society! One can argue there have been teams that defied financial probabilities, but even that’s not at odds with capitalism—so often we see small companies surge against all expectations, revivifying the false American mantra that anyone can succeed in this land of opportunity! Every year it seems that the usual suspects are able to challenge for spots in the playoffs. Yes, the Yankees do lose, but who would bet against them making the playoffs next year? That doesn’t explain the Cubs, who couldn’t seem to win for over a hundred years despite high payrolls. Until, of course, they did. But nothing much explains the Cubs except their loyal fans and what Oscar Wilde would call “the confounded stupidity of optimism!” The paradox is that, although it’s not a legal monopoly, baseball is protected by anti-trust laws that separate it from other sports and accord it a special position in the American marketplace. This perpetuates the notion that baseball is somehow special, even as its popularity has dropped far below football and basketball.
The wildcard, inter-league play, and steroid controversies have conspired to keep the game in the public consciousness. Every time scribes and talking heads are about to pronounce baseball dead, something special happens—the home run record chase by McGuire and Sosa (both of whom are now in disgrace; but celebrities, politicians, and an assortment of heroes are constantly falling into disrepute; it’s the American way) and then a small-market underdog Texas Rangers team loses back-to-back World Series (each one more improbable than the other), tugging at our heartstrings and reviving passion in the game again. And then the Cubs won. And that consistent resurrection from the ashes may be the most American thing about baseball. After all, the Phoenix was the original national bird, and part of the first Seal of America!