“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.” ― George F. Will
I am a baseball fan.
I am not a “sports fan”. I am indifferent to football and annoyed by basketball, which seems to be played year round, thus taking up space on the sports pages that should be devoted to baseball.
I am, more specifically, a fan of the San Francisco Giants – this, despite the fact that I live in Oakland, where the local team has been steadily undermined by its owners who wish to move their team to another, more profitable venue. (Delightfully, the Oakland team – The Athletics – responded by playing their hearts out and making it to the playoffs before sellout crowds, thus putting the lie to the owner’s claim that no team could find support in Oakland – but, I digress, perhaps. )
I am aware of all the arguments that many friends make against paying attention to baseball or, indeed, any professional sport. I know that these men are mercenaries, multimillionaires, most of them, who may be playing for a rival team next year. I know that some of them (mostly Yankees players) are not nice people, and that more of them use performance enhancing drugs than are detected. Mostly, though, the argument goes, “Why should I care who wins or loses some dumb baseball game? What difference does it make?” Fair question. Here’s why.
A few days ago, my wife, DJ, and I took a day trip, up and over to the coast. Since the National League playoffs were at a tense point, I wore my Giants cap, black with the bold, orange “SF” on the front; a little magical spell on my head. Wherever we went, strangers smiled and said “Go Giants”, offered opinions, asked what time the game started- reached out and spoke to a stranger, because I was wearing a particular hat.
Think about that for a moment. These are not easy times. We are an unhappy, distrustful people, as a whole. Granted, I’m a pretty unthreatening person: an older, white man with what I’m told is a disarming smile. Still, there’s a disinclination to speak to strangers. The consequent distancing breeds suspicion and fear, but the wearing of an iconic cap or jacket signals that we have something in common. This matters, I believe, because we want desperately, on some deep level, to break out of our isolation and be social ( which derives from the Latin word socii (“allies”). To put it simply, baseball and perhaps all sports to some extent, allows us to trust a stranger, enough to initiate and respond to contact with people of all classes, races and colors, and that brings a sense of relief that can bring tears to your eyes. Doesn’t last long; the moment I look like I’m about to change the subject some of the distrust is back, but it’s a moment. It’s a start. It can go somewhere. It matters.
There’s a more profound value, though, to be found in baseball: it speaks to our deepest spiritual needs.
Sports, and particularly games involving some form of ball, go back to our pre-history. The first “balls” may, in fact, have been human heads, in more than one culture. This was, evidently, the case in the well-documented Mesoamerican ball games, played at least four millennia ago, continuing into the arrival of the first European explorers. From numerous statuary and reliefs we know that the losers of these games were- at some time in the game’s history- sacrificed, their hearts cut out and offered to their gods. The player’s skulls, it seems, (we don’t know if the skulls were from the losers or the winners) were sometimes encased in the balls, to make them lighter. Pretty nifty, but not something I’d like to see return. The old uniforms are enough.
It seems that we humans need a mythic spectacle, of some kind, an iconic struggle on which we are able to project our hopes and fears- while we, maybe, bet a few clams on the side. The Winners allow us, for a few minutes, to believe that we, too, can win against overwhelming odds. The players become demi-gods, representing our aspirations or our clan’s hatreds (see previous reference to the Yankees, most of whom are probably nice enough people, actually). So far, so good. I see you nodding in agreement, but why is baseball particularly important, in this context?
It’s because, my people, baseball begins in the spring, and it ends (or should end) with the waning of the light, the coming of the fall. The archetype of the Year King, born with the coming of the light and dying with the approaching darkness is hardwired in us. Every culture of which I know has some version of this story- often more than one- going back beyond that of Damuzi, Innana’s foolish lover, written in cuneiform five thousand years ago. We feel this story in our DNA and respond to it, whether we know it or not. The “Boys Of Summer” are our Year Kings, particularly the stars, whose triumphs and slumps we follow with an interest that make no sense in any other context. We know that this year’s Most Valuable Player will, eventually, falter. No matter his level of skill or his training regimen, his reflexes will lose their edge; his mighty thews, their power; and he will go down, swinging, into the darkness of mediocrity. He must, because the only thing that makes the Human Condition – and especially our helplessness against Death – bearable is the certainty that even the Gods are finite: they, too, must go down. BUT, with the coming of spring and the return of the light, they will rise up again. The cry, “Play Ball” will be heard, once more!
So it is that baseball matters, whether you are a fan, glance occasionally at the scores, or ignore it altogether. It matters because it provides badly needed lubrication to our social interactions but, far more important, it matters because it gives us Hope. In these secular times not many of us believe, literally, in the old stories of death and rebirth. Even at Christmas time and Easter we sing the old hymns more from a sense of sentimental nostalgia than belief. But we know that spring will return and that there will be superhuman feats and unbelievably boneheaded mistakes and that “our team”- that is, the one with which we identify for whatever reason – will carry our hopes and fears at least into the end of summer. The playoffs represent our momentary victory over death, still present with every play, and The World Series?
Baseball matters because it’s the best model we have for transcending the fix we’re in: whatever it is, if these guys can do it maybe I can do it. If not, there’s always next year.
As always, I’ll be interested in whatever comments you may have about any of my musings. Until the next time, keep your eye on the ball, happy trails to you, and Go Giants!