With the media gluttony of the Super Bowl firmly in the rear view mirror, and the same number of people excited for the NBA All Star Game as there are for the World Junior Curling Championships at the end of this month, the sports calendar has left American fans in a sort of purgatory, caught in an undesired waiting place. However, there’s a light in the distance, emanating from diamonds of green and brown. Baseball season is nearly here.
A story exists telling of an American and a Brit in a barroom dispute, disagreeing over the respective merits of America and Great Britain. When the conversation reaches its boiling point, the American says, “screw the Queen,” while the Brit replies with “screw Babe Ruth.” The obvious implication of this interaction is that for a foreigner used to the idea of monarchy, the closest thing to a similarly royal figure in the US is an athlete, and specifically, a baseball player. Years after this interaction supposedly took place, as the British continue to try and make sense of baseball and its significance to America, a BBC Magazine article entitled “Why baseball is a metaphor for life in America” tries to explain.
Paralleling the daily lives of baseball players and the average American, the article claims that “just as their baseball players are, Americans are adept at picking themselves up when the market fails.” Baseball players go into every at-bat knowing that the odds are firmly against them, and yet, confidence is perhaps the defining characteristic of a baseball player, as well as of Americans in general. With failure a key and accepted part of American life, the article comments on how, just like their favorite baseball player after going 0 for 4, Americans will, along with “millions of their fellow countrymen will dust themselves off, pick themselves up, and start being American all over again.” Furthermore, the article references how children in America are commonly told they can become President, despite the very evident long odds against that happening. The vast majority don’t end up occupying the Oval Office, but the significance here is how much the American ideal of hope permeates through society, and in doing so, is ingrained at an early age in everything from politics to sports.
As baseball players, along with everyone else, see failure on a daily basis play it, the sport is a delightfully human game. It appears easy on the surface, but in reality, it’s filled with underlying nuances that only the most perceptive viewer could catch. Such is also the case with life in general, as it appears easy enough to live and be happy with, but, due to all of its nuances, leaves a great deal of people unsatisfied – but that’s too much philosophy for a sports piece. In baseball and life, unseen beauty is ever-present; moments like a catcher sprinting down the first base line to back up first base on a routine grounder or a left fielder charging in to back up a throw to third base are everywhere in baseball. Similarly, life, where small and efficient things combine together to create a life worth living, is filled with unheralded beautiful moments, but as in baseball, one has to know where to look.
The mysteries of baseball — what Fred Merkle was (or wasn’t) thinking when he didn’t touch second base in 1908, whether or not Ruth called his shot in 1932, why the numbers on the front of the Dodgers uniforms are red and why Cubs fans still exist, have so ingrained themselves into society that they’ve become rhetorical questions at this point. Common knowledge is that they, along with far greater questions about things like the purpose of life, are utterly unanswerable. And just like someone giving up a quest to understand the origins of the world in favor of simply appreciating it for what it is, baseball fans have come to accept and appreciate the unfortunate legend of Merkle, Ruth’s called shot, the red numbers, and the unrelenting hopefulness on the North Side of Chicago every April, and revel in the unexplained glory.
Circling back to the previously discussed interaction between the Brit and the Yank, one can imagine an ending in which the American tells the Brit, “you can have your royal remnants of the past, your royalty, and your pristine cricket pitches. We’ll take the sandlots, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and finally, our American spirit – the ability to look past odds stacked against us, past the likelihood of failure, and swing for the fences.”