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Saturday, December 06, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part I)

This is the first installment of a multi-part blog that of an essay I wrote called "Baseball As Context". It's a bit of personal history mixed with baseball memories. I had started it early last season but was inspired to finish it as therapy after the Cubs loss in the NLCS. Enjoy...

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
– Educator and historian Jacques Barzun (God’s Country and Mine)

I am a failed baseball player. I’m pretty sure I lifted that line from George Will but it applies equally to me as to him and countless thousands of other American boys. Although I’m not yet considered archaic in baseball terms (being under 40) I have, through a slow and painful process, come to grips with the fact that I’ll never wear a big league uniform and never throw my southpaw overhand curveball in Wrigley Field before 39,000 screaming fans as Jack Brickhouse, Harry Carey, or even Skip Carey make the call to the myriads of fans listening and watching on WGN.

However, this realization has brought to mind how much of my own history, like that of the nation (as the character Terrance Mann played by James Earl Jones famously said in my favorite baseball movie Field of Dreams), has occurred against the backdrop of baseball.[1]

At its best baseball unlike any of the other major sports, in addition to just being a fun game to play and watch, connects us with the past and enables us to make comparisons across time. I believe this to be due to the fact that a) no major rule has been changed in over a century,[2] the closest being the abomination that is the designated hitter, but I digress, and b) the equipment remains (in the professional ranks anyway since lower leagues have succumbed to the financial advantage of aluminum bats), with some improvements and innovations to be sure, fundamentally that used by generations of ballplayers. And of course, while we are making those comparisons in the context of baseball, we can’t help associating the events of our own lives and our national life to feats performed on the field.

Having said that, I don’t subscribe, as the late Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould said to the notion that baseball "'imitates life' or stands as a symbol for larger truths in human existence."[3] In various ways I think many sports and other human activities imitate life simply because they are activities to which humans give a part of themselves and that therefore reflect at times both our best and worst inclinations. I do, however, prefer to think about baseball as context, and what follows is that context played out in my own life as the really important events; a loving family upbringing, time enjoyed with friends, a college education, a marriage to a wonderful woman, and the birth of one child and the adoption of another has occurred.

[1]Jone’s character said in part, "This game..marks the times." The site where Field of Dreams was filmed lies roughly 50 miles from my small town and so both its baseball mythology and setting evoke special feelings. I now enjoy the film as a late winter ritual. "Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa".
[2]Baseball evolved in America from a variety of English games including “rounders” (which was sometimes called “base ball” as in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey) and cricket and was not invented by Doubleday in a pasture near Cooperstown in 1839. The year 1845 is the closest date there is to a birth for baseball when Alexander Cartwright laid out the diamond and rules that forshadow today’s. However, major changes involving strike outs, walks, number of outs, how outs are recorded etc. continued until late in the 19th century with the game essentially taking its modern form by 1893.
[3]"Baseball’s Reliquary: The Oddly Possible Hybrid of Shrine and University", an essay reprinted in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball, 2003. Gould, who was a lifelong Yankees and later Red Sox fan, wrote many interesting pieces on baseball, his most lasting perhaps his essay on the disappearance of the .400 hitter.

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