Play Ball

It was on my “bucket list” – to see the Cardinals play a home game in Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Dodgers were coming to town so we bought tickets, booked a hotel room and got on the road for St. Louis. The weather was perfect for a summer day, clear and cool with a deep blue sky. My almost new Ford zipped down the expressway with a Milt Jackson CD in the player.

After four hours of driving and two more hours of wandering around St. Louis, we were finally in our seats and ready for the game to begin. The scene before us was essential America: two great and historic teams about to square off against each other in an iconic stadium, a crowd of some 25,000 composed of every age, race and ethnic group gathered for the game, Old Glory fluttering in a gentle breeze with the smell of hotdogs in the air. Somehow, the troubles of world were left outside the gates. Our heroes were gathering again to make the impossible look easy.

Paul Simon’s song, “America” came to mind: “We’ve all come to look for America…” I felt like saying, “Paul, I think I found it.” A high school band was there to play “The Star Spangled Banner”. This is a place where people still stand and remove their caps, placing the right hand over the heart for the playing of the national anthem. During the darkest days of World War II, Commissioner Landis offered to suspend baseball out of respect for the troops overseas. President Roosevelt replied in a letter, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” On a day like this one, it’s easy to see why the president felt the game was so important to the morale of the people.

Baseball is rich with rituals. It’s the oldest pro sport and has occupied a unique place in the American psyche for a long time, so it’s not hard to see why it has developed rituals. It has the ceremonial first pitch by a celebrity or beloved person. It always starts with the national anthem, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Park” is always sung during the “seventh inning stretch” (except in Boston where “Sweet Caroline” is always sung during the eighth inning stretch). There is the ceremonial food of hotdogs (or brats) and beer and it is always ridiculously overpriced. You buy the stuff in a sign of devotion to the game, and probably starvation.  There is always the cartoon mascot to entertain the kids during breaks in the action. There is the “kiss cam” and the hokey organ music.

These rituals are not empty window dressing. They are essential to the experience. The rituals and ceremonial actions evoke feelings and memory. They remind us of something important about who we are and how we dream. They show us how we fit together as a society and how we manage the paradox of teamwork versus individual accomplishment. Whether we are the star pitcher on the mound or the guy in the stands selling hotdogs, we are each necessary to make the show happen.

Baseball is a sort of psychic salvation for me, a neurological hot tub. I subscribe to MLB.TV so I could watch all the games every day over the Internet if I had the time. I have some favorite teams but I often watch games that I totally don’t care about, don’t know the players, and could not care less about the outcome of the game. I watch what’s going on or maybe not. The mindless chatter of the announcers makes a background noise or I can tune in my attention for the endless stream of trivia and statistics. Either is good.

It is a bit of a stretch to call baseball “America’s pastime” in the current era. We have NFL, MBA, golf, auto-racing, soccer and streaming television – none of which was present in the early days of baseball. There was a time when the only sources of entertainment were saloons, church and baseball. President Roosevelt considered baseball to be necessary for the morale of the nation during the Second World War. Times have changed and not all change can be called progress. Still, the pace and style of baseball does seem out of step with the fast-paced, combative spirit of entertainment in our time.

In the halcyon days of baseball, the players were just “average Joe” “man on the street” kind of guys. Their pay was miserable and they often had to pay their own expenses. The early White Sox had to launder their own uniforms. Honus Wagner was a coal miner before he played baseball. They were relatable people. They were normal guys and that was part of the magic: just about anyone could watch the game and think, “I could do that. I could be that guy.” In that era, none of the players signed contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars to play a handful of seasons. You could get into a baseball game for next to nothing – very different from the hundred dollar seats of today. In my mind this creates a distance between the fans and players that didn’t exist in baseball’s prime. I don’t know what A-Rod’s life is like but I know where Honus Wagner came from and why he played.

This is not a futile appeal to return to the golden age of baseball. It’s not coming back. This is a celebration of baseball’s deep memory and rich history. It is a rejection of the violence that passes for entertainment these days. Do I expect the masses that gorge on NFL, MMA, UFC and NASCAR to suddenly rediscover baseball? No, that’s not likely. I do hope that the audience for baseball continues to be strong. I do wish that we could learn from baseball – its ethic, its leisurely pace and quirky but charming customs. I do hope that I will always get a little thrill when the umpire yells, “Play ball.”

9 comments

  1. I love baseball.
    All my brother’s (5 of them played and that is how I first came to love the game.)
    Then, my son played from when he was 5 years old and got a baseball scholarship and going to all his games was the best of times and best of days!
    I saw yesterday that Larry Walker was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame .
    Loved watching him when he played with the Colorado Rockies.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s