I have not been writing much here these last several months, as I have been distracted by diamonds.
Baseball diamonds, that is.
This year I had four children on four different teams. The baseball experience varied widely among them, from the comedy of errors in 5 year old Maria’s tee ball games to the quite sophisticated and skillful playing in 14 year old Luke’s league. 8 year old Joey’s coach-pitch and 11 year old Patric’s kid-pitch teams were somewhere in between these two extremes.
Practice began in early April. The Spring was cold here, and most nights I watched the games wrapped in a blanket, shivering like a football fan. The season is just ending now, with the last of Patric’s All Star games, and the temperature is in the 90s during the day. But as the games begin at 6 pm the day is starting to cool and however warm, it is still the most comfortable I have been all day, in this least pleasant season for those of us who work outdoors.
I can think of few more lovely ways to unwind after a day of labor than sitting back in a comfortable fold-up chair and watching a baseball game. If only Little League allowed beer it would be near heaven.
Not that I am not looking forward to getting my life back: iconography has been slow going, and I am tired of drive-through fast food (though not of Chipotle’s, which I grab if I have time for a quick sit-down meal).
I have loved baseball as long as I remember, which is about to age 4, trying to catch the balls my dad was tossing to me. I remember bloody nose after bloody nose until I had mastered that skill, and I remember the sheer determination with which I battled fear of the ball, which is the natural reaction of a small child to a hard object hurling toward him.
I was blessed to live near a ball field; Dr Buchanan, a retired physician and hobby farmer whose own children were grown, had built a backstop for the neighborhood kids in one of his fields, on the edge of our small town, and he kept it mowed. We played ball every day we could all spring and summer, often with enough guys for two full teams, and when there weren’t enough players for that we employed the timeless shortcuts of sandlot ball: right field is an automatic out, pitcher’s mound is out for first, and the batting team had to supply a catcher, who was bound by sacred honor to make an honest effort to tag his team members out at home. You could get a game going with as few as six guys. While I say “guys”, neighborhood baseball was a strict meritocracy, and one of the “guys” was Debbie Rockman, who was as good a ballplayer as any of us.
I also played, besides sandlot ball, Little League. It was almost a different game under the guidance of grownups. Fewer fistfights over disputed calls, to be sure, but also more pressure to win and more structure: umpires and rule books and uniforms. Unequivocal pluses included free balls when they were too worn for games, free broken bats that could be repaired with electrical tape, and trips to the A & W when we won.
I still love baseball, though I am not the sort of fan who can recite a lot of statistics, and I don’t follow the Major Leagues very closely, aside from keeping track of the Detroit Tigers’ standing and watching them on my mom’s TV when we visit her in Michigan. (Mom is a major Tigers fan, and when my dad was alive they traveled to Florida for spring training).
My love of the game is more philosophical and aesthetic. Others have written, and written well, about baseball, and I doubt I’ll say anything original here.
But I ask you for a moment to consider the unique nature of the game.
Every other game that I know of, except baseball’s distant cousin, cricket, of which I know not a thing, is a variation on one of two themes. The first involves smacking, with your hand or some sort of racket, a small or large ball, or a “birdie”, back and forth over a net until someone misses. The second sort of game is basically about moving- either kicking, throwing, bouncing, or pushing- some sort of ball or puck or- in Afghanistan- an animal’s head from point A to point B and then back again. These games use clocks, and the idea is to get more points or goals than the other team in a limited amount of time. These games, very linear one and all, are completely time bound.
The tyranny of Time imposed by the clock brings a certain fatalism. I have attended my nieces’ and nephews’ soccer games, and once my nephew’s team was down 2 to 0 at halftime. The kids were despondent: it was impossible to win .
Now I ask you: What the heck kind of game is that?
Consider, if you will, the noble game of baseball.
In baseball, there is no clock. It is a game played not in time, but in eternity. Any game can, in theory, stretch into infinity. And some games, like last week’s All Star game, which went on for 15 innings, feel like they will.
And in baseball, as in life, there is always hope. Your team may be down by 7 runs. It could be the bottom of the ninth, with two outs. And the batter could have two strikes. And it isn’t hopeless. You could still win. Granted, it’s a long shot, but it can happen. It has happened. In baseball, as in life, there are miraculous recoveries, sudden momentous changes of event. And there are rallies, which are baseball’s version of the religious revival, when the players seem to be swept up into something bigger than themselves.
Or consider the sheer poetry of baseball. In the linear games the goal, the end, is to score points. In baseball the end is the beginning, to circle the bases and arrive “safe at home”, right where you began. The path is a circle, a return to the source. I am not the first to hear echoes of St Bonaventure and St Maximos in this. “Safe at home”: the heart’s desire.
It is a game by nature meditative, even contemplative, with long stillnesses broken by sudden and decisive action. If I had my way it would be played in silence, aside from restrained reaction to the drama on the field. And the field? Other games are played on “courts” or “rinks” or – God help us- “gridirons”. Only baseball is played on something precious, a “diamond”. And where else is the essential action judged “fair” or “foul”?
If other games, with their drive into enemy territory, smashing and crashing, kicking and tackling, evoke war, baseball recalls something more like liturgy. It is as stately as football or hockey or rugby are raucous. Any rough physical contact in baseball is purely accidental.
I do not say that baseball was designed with such conscious high mindedness; the game evolved on the town greens of the British Isles (that nonsense about Colonel Doubleday is to baseball history what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was to western history). But I do say that those farm boys and villagers, with their sticks and balls, were on to something, intuiting deep truths about the human condition, knowing instinctively what satisfies the soul. That the game reached its perfected form in America is one of this nation’s marks of greatness.
Other games have their charms and their glories. I never appreciated football until I attended a high school game in West Virginia a few years back, when my bride’s cousin was quarterbacking. The cold night, the relentless drums, the blare of the brass band, the pom-pom girls, the echoes of tribal warfare: it was grand and primal pageantry indeed.
Baseball may not stir the blood like that, but it elevates the heart. For sheer grace, for beauty and drama and poetry, there is only one game in town.