Monday, July 21, 2008

Random Americana: Baseball

Since this year seems to be a turning point in our nation's history, I've decided to begin a series on things about America that stand out to me. This will be semi-regular (meaning, whenever I feel like it, but no less than biweekly). The first topic is one of the true loves of my life.
Enthusiams... What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives
me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what?
For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part
of a team. Teamwork... Looks, throws, catches, hustles.Part of one big team.
Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don't
field... what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of
fans. What does he have to say? I'm goin' out there for myself. But... I get
nowhere unless the team wins. -- Robert De Niro, The Untouchables
May 17, 1996. Nighttime in downtown Baltimore. The Seattle Mariners, down 7-2 after five innings, have completed a furious comeback, capped by an eighth inning grand slam off the bat of a third-year up-and-coming star named Alex Rodriguez. Norm Charlton, one of the original Nasty Boys that led the Cincinnati Reds -- baseball's first professional franchise -- to an improbable Word Series win in 1990, is on in the ninth to protect a 13-10 lead. He walks Roberto Alomar but then strikes out the dangerous Rafael Palmeiro, who had been 5-for-5 with a homer to this point. Bobby Bonilla doubles, but then Billy Ripken fouls out. Charlton walks Cal Ripken to load the bases. Catcher Chris Hoiles comes up and battles Charlton until they both stand on the ultimate precipice of baseball glory: Bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, a three-run game, bases loaded, a full count.

July 21, 2008. I'm sitting at Shirley Povich field in Bethesda, MD with 380 other people, watching the Bethesda Big Train take on the Alexandria Aces in Cal Ripken, Sr. Collegiate Summer League action. The players come from all over the country, staying with host families in the area. The odds are that none of these players will ever be heard from on the Major League level, but kids line the railings all the same, excited about an autograph, trying to grab a foul ball. In one of the upper-crustiest of American suburbs, the great pastoral game goes on.

Baseball is a part of the American soul. We have an intuitive understanding of certain aspects, as if the game resides on some Jungian level. We also have, even if not spoken, an inherent knowledge that the game is far older than anything we can comprehend, having been played prior to the Civil War and in a similar fashion to how it is played now. It is timeless, both in its existence and in its lack of clock. Watch it on a beautiful day and your mind drifts. It is the most meditative of spectator sports.

Think back to the 1920s, when baseball's greatest ever player was both figuratively and literally larger-than-life, a perfect mascot for the de-Puritan-ization of our culture. The 1930s, when people struggled to find work, but could look up to a man nicknamed The Iron Horse, who showed up for work every day and played with a blue-collar toughness belying his Columbia University education. World War II, when heroes on the field became heroes off of it, leaving the game and losing out on potential records to fight for their country. 1947, when baseball integrated racially long before the country as a whole was ready.

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," said historian Jacques Barzun in 1954. Historian Bruce Catton said, "Say this much for big league baseball - it is beyond question the greatest conversation piece ever invented in America." Al Spalding, one of the founders of professional baseball in the late 19th century, said, "The genius of our institutions is democratic - baseball is a democratic game." There have been quotes and books and theories, from Walt Whitman to Yogi Berra, Robert Frost to Casey Stengel. Baseball is, with the exception of politics, the one thing that has always drawn in Americans from all walks of life.

Back to May 17, 1996. Charlton begins his full count delivery to Hoiles. The runners take off on the pitch. Hoiles connects and sends a drive to deep center field, where waits Ken Griffey, Jr., the greatest center fielder of his generation. Griffey, famous for his acrobatics at the wall, leaps and extends his glove... but he is just short. There is a moment of shock as the gathered make sure that the ball actually went into the stands, and then chaos erupts. Grown men and women jumping around, hugging, like little children. In a game of anticipation, where a moment of true drama may show itself only once every few games, the exceptional has happened. The fans will never forget what they've witnessed, what they've experienced.

But baseball doesn't need that kind of heroics to be great. The deep green expanse of the outfield. The pop and explosion of dust as a fastball hits the catcher's mitt. The crack of wood hitting leather. The constant chattering from the players, the benches, the fans. This is a game of sights and sounds and feeling.

This is baseball.

This is perfection.

This is my America.

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