PLAYS TO AMERICA'S HEART AND MIND
By Stephen Holgate
"Whoever wants to learn the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." -- Jacques Barzun, American historian
To most of us spring and summer are different seasons, separate and distinct. But to tens of millions of fans in the United States they are no more than arbitrary curiosities of the calendar, only subcategories of the one true season of the year -- baseball season. For them time begins on the day of the new season's first game, when the sun begins to reappear from behind winter's clouds and the flowers have started to bloom.
Now, in these days of late spring, with the arrival of good weather, young men and women are digging out baseball mitts and balls and bats from the back of the closet where they have been hibernating during the winter. On children's schoolyards and the athletic fields of secondary schools and universities, on neighborhood baseball "diamonds" and in the massive stadiums of the highest professional leagues, Americans have begun again to play baseball and its close cousin, softball.
They play in school leagues, church leagues, privately organized children's leagues, and industrial leagues. They play in co-ed and women's leagues. There are leagues for men over 50, in which grayhairs trot slowly across the field, powered by memories of the speed, power and agility of their youth. A few thousand of the best play in the professional leagues.
It is hard to explain to people from foreign lands, this most American of games; harder still to express its hold on the national soul, the reverential devotion it calls from its fans, and how deeply embedded it is in the very fabric of our national experience.
With its broad green fields and slow pace, baseball is firmly rooted in America's pastoral beginnings and often seems untouched by change. In an age of accelerating change, baseball remains resolutely slow, played at a contemplative pace where one thing happens at a time -- except when nothing is happening at all.
It is played at a pace at which a father can lean forward, elbows on knees and, between handfuls of peanuts and bites of mustard-smeared hot dogs, pass on to his son the lore and traditions of the game. He will try to express the awe he felt for the heroes of his day and shake his head sadly at how today's players don't quite measure up. This is exactly how his father spoke to him. His son will roll his eyes, as his father did when he was young, and have the good sense to admire the great players of today.
The crowds are family affairs; fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and old friends. They start to come to the game in spring, bundled in sweaters and coats, when errant winter winds whistle around the ball field and spring showers may interrupt play. The season advances into full summer; short sleeve and cut-offs weather. The young will work on their tans while older fans shelter behind sun visors and layers of tanning lotion as the leisurely game plays out before them. The last games are played as the crisp fall air adds its warning of approaching winter and the end of the season adds importance and tension to the last contests.
The core of the
game centers on a battle of skills and psyches between the pitcher,
who throws a ball about the size of a large man's fist toward a batter
who stands with a long wooden bat to intercept the ball's flight and
launch it, if he can, toward the green and distant corners of the field.
In the child's game the ball comes floating from the grasp of young
boy at a speed not much greater than the boy can run; but challenge
enough for young hands and minds. At the professional level the ball
comes rocketing at speeds up to 160 kph towards a batter standing less
than 20 meters away. When he swings his bat at this missile he will
often miss it entirely, seeming overmatched by the impossible task of
hitting a ball thrown at such speed. When, in a minor miracle of speed,
timing and coordination, the batter hits the ball, other players behind
the pitcher will try to catch it before it hits the ground or will throw
it to a base before the batter can arrive, and he will be "out",
having failed again, as he does more than 70% of the time. It is a game
that rewards patience. After an afternoon of such failures the batter
may, in his last turn,
For the players and the fans it is a long season. Youth and amateur teams may play two or three games per week for perhaps three months. The professionals play, with incredible grace and skill, a tough and unforgiving brand of ball almost every day of the week for six months -- 162 games over that span.
Despite the length of the season, the game rewards -- almost requires -- close study. Every action of the professional players, their every game, is scrutinized with the greatest intensity by their faithful fans, whose spirits rise and fall on the results of each game, until the players lives seem sometimes more real than their own. A man who cannot remember his wife's birthday will unfailingly recall the date on which his team won its last championship. A supervisor who can't remember how many people work for him will recall that the great Henry Aaron hit exactly 755 home runs in his career.
In spite of labor disputes and steroid scandals, despite endless predictions that the quicker, seemingly more modern games of basketball and football will displace it, baseball remains America's game.
It is also something more. In its more than 130 professional seasons baseball has served as the gateway to assimilation for many of the ethnic groups that comprise the nation's diverse population. In the early days of the last century, the downtrodden Irish dominated the game and became the heroes of millions of schoolchildren, helping them gain the acceptance they had so long sought. In the 1930s the great players of Italian ancestry made their mark, and, by excelling at the nation's pastime, became an indelible part of the nation's rich fabric. In the 1940s and 50s African-Americans were at last allowed to show their merit on the previously segregated fields, dazzling fans with their verve and skill, and presaging, through their acceptance on the baseball field, the landmark civil rights victories that soon followed.
More recently, Hispanic players, native and foreign-born, have established themselves among the stars of the game, reminding everyone that they are Americans too and have mastered America's game. The newest wave in this traditional yet ever-changing game consists of the remarkable rise in the number of Asian players, particularly from Japan and Korea. Though still only a handful, they have brought with them the rapt attention of their countrymen back home. In Japan television stations have interrupted their broadcasts to give live coverage to the play of Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. These new audiences overseas underline an important trend. Despite its indelible connections with the United States, baseball has become an international sport and is now included in the summer Olympics.
The game has also enriched our language. Anyone realizing a great achievement can be said to have "hit a home run," better still, a "grand slam" -- named after a home run hit with runners already on all the bases. Someone having failed in almost any endeavor is said to have "struck out," a term for a batter who is called out without ever having hit the ball. A "screwball" is a strange and unorthodox person, named after a strange and unorthodox type of throw by the pitcher. Likewise, someone experiencing an unpleasant surprise is said to have had "a curve ball thrown at him," again named after a type of pitch. Almost anything done twice quickly in succession can be called a "double play," after a type of defensive play. Bizarre and unsettling developments are said to "come out of left field," because early baseball stadiums were often laid out in such a way that throws made in the late afternoon from the area known as left field had the setting sun behind them, which blinded players trying to catch them. A conscientious worker is said to "touch all the bases," making sure that all details are taken care of. If he doesn't he is apt to be "caught off base," by a surprising development.
The new baseball season began a few weeks ago and, in the professional leagues, patterns are beginning to emerge: the success of the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees; the surprising record of the unheralded Kansas City Royals; the equally surprising poor play of last year's champions, the Anaheim Angels. But the season is long and there are few truths which can hide the length of a 162 game schedule. Early bloomers will fade, to be replaced by teams with greater strengths. Talented teams which met with early failure will slowly rise in the standings during the crucial days of August and September. Then, with the regular season over, the best teams will meet in the excitement of the playoffs, as the first cold winds of autumn whip the colorful pennants and flags which decorate the stadiums and the nation will pause as the last games are played out in tense and deadly earnest.
All teams but one will finally fail and a new champion will be crowned. The others, and their fans, will suffer the melancholy end of their summer hopes, and face a long winter of waiting until spring arrives and time can begin once more.
File, Created: 09 Jun 2003 Updated: 09 Jun 2003
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