baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Respect for the Game Is Its Highest Lesson

When we moved out into the country, I thought I would have space and leisure to do my baseball experiments… and so I do, compared to our previous cramped suburban circumstances.  But Internet connection—or the lack thereof—was an obstacle I hadn’t reckoned on.  The online shifts and short-cuts I’m having to make do not always work, and at their best they still leave my connection running like cold molasses.

I’ll partially blame that situation for my having struggled unsuccessfully (until just last week) to create two YouTube channels for my two separate ventures: one about Deadball Era hitting and one about reasons to have faith in a higher power.  I apologize to anyone who may have subscribed to view videos in the former vein and has lately been receiving notice of ones in the latter.  I think I have finally sorted out the problem—but with slow-running Internet, I seldom saw displays coming up on my screen as described to me by “experts” or loading links in the promised fashion.  Even my filming devices have been badly confused, apparently, by the i-Cloud’s insistence on sharing every photo with every device at every instant.

Since I have stumbled and staggered into the subject of metaphysics, however, I’ll say this about baseball—and it relates to why I’m so uninterested in the play-offs.  To me, the game will always be as static as a beautiful picture in a frame.  You can look at that picture every time you pass through the room and find something new… yet it’s always the same old scene.  That’s a quality shared by all great art, even the kind that overtly consumes time in unfolding.  A piece of music obviously needs time to run from start to finish—yet it can stay with you all day, replaying and re-replaying; or it can put you in a mood that lingers like the power of a blossoming sunrise far into the morning.

One of my earliest baseball memories is seeing Mickey Mantle stroke an upper-deck home run off of Hoyt Wilhelm after fouling pitch after pitch weakly into the dirt.  It was very late September, I think: the game was important.  Very important.  It may have gone into extra innings.  I’m sure the contest ended as soon as Mick connected—what we call a walk-off today (a phrase coined by Dennis Eckersley after he had to walk off the field as Kirk Gibson circled the bases).  I was at a friend’s house in the boondocks, and the friend wanted us to go ride his horses… but I wouldn’t leave the room while Mickey was at the plate.  And then… crack!

I don’t even remember if the Yanks went on to play in or win the Series (although I was a devoted Yankee fan until George Steinbrenner arrived and permanently fouled the air).  What I recall, and will recall on my deathbed, is Mickey uncoiling on a knuckler that he had finally tracked just right.  This is surely why baseball documentaries so often feature those slow-mo, golden-filtered sequences of guys rounding second or sliding home, guys chasing after line drives, guys nodding awkwardly to the camera from the dugout: because, I mean, the action itself is frozen.  You don’t know if the runner was actually safe at home or if the fielder actually caught the ball.  The glory of it all was in how eighteen young men (we might as well call them boys, though some were almost old men) were trying their utmost to win one silly game with the skills that God gave them and that they’d honed through hard work.  Silly? Well, yes, in the grand scheme of things. Even if it was the last game of the World Series (or “World’s Series”, as they said originally), the identity of the winner wouldn’t bring peace to Africa.  It wouldn’t even ensure a good wheat harvest in Kansas.  It was a small thing… but it was eternal.  It was intense, directed, peak-performance action snared in an eternal moment.

That’s baseball, to me.  Not the Series or the play-offs (which usually feature, especially now, a worn-out champion trying to outlast a team that got hot in September).  Baseball is about some nameless afternoon in mid-June, when a kid nobody’s ever heard of has won seven games in a row and a fallen All Star is building a come-back year.  As Immanuel Kant once wrote of great art, it’s “purposiveness without a purpose”. It’s an all-out bid to achieve something in a mortal existence where we have to wonder if we ever really achieve anything.  To that extent, the game belongs more to heaven than to earth.

For how golden can a crown really be when the competition for it will begin all over again in three months—every year, all over again?  Are we kidding ourselves? About the crown, yes… but not about the glory of the sun, grass, and dust in June.  The crown is just a gilded frame for summertime.

It pains me to admit what follows, but you know it as well as I do: we’re losing the beauty of the game.  We were losing it when the boys on the field started taking performance-enhancing drugs to “get better” (i.e., to win longer, more lucrative contracts).  We were supposed to realize, they pleaded, that this was no game to them, but a livelihood—and we were supposed to feel guilty, I guess, that we had made a mere game of their bread and butter.  But maybe somebody else should feel guilty (the cheaters themselves, but also a lot of collaborators) for turning our snapshot of eternity into yet another artificial stimulant: visual cocaine.  The Home Run Derby, the JUGS guns nudging young players into arm surgery, the late trade deadlines (moved up this year, but still far later than in 1950)… and—for our own kids—tournament baseball, the trophies upon trophies, the Little League World Series, the grade-schoolers who already have their own “walk-up songs” and mating-cockatoo celebrations at home plate… each of these, in its own small way and from a different direction, contributed to driving the mystical “higher purpose” out of the summer ritual and turning it into a win-win-win, “for profit” enterprise.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not advocating a trophy for everyone and no scorekeeping.  The participants wouldn’t play their hearts out if they saw no goal line to be reached.  This is the same thing that socialists don’t grasp about capitalism: take away the fat commissions, and you get no Michelangelo and no Rodin—no Sistine Chapel and no Burghers of Calais.  To create something of beauty whose highest purpose we don’t understand, we almost always—most of us—need instrumental lure whose purpose we understand very well.   Most people don’t stand on a stone in the middle of the Mojave to worship God: they build a temple full of human artifice and with a distinctly human design.

There comes a point, though, where preoccupation with the carrot in front of your nose is so great that you forget all about your destination.  Our game has reached that point today.  It’s not a game any more; it’s business, at almost every level.  (And if you don’t think pitching and hitting gurus make a helluva lot of money out of coaching eight-year-olds, you’ve been living in Tahiti.)  Part of the reason I launched SmallBallSuccess.com—the major part—was to give smaller kids the experience of assisting in a complex creation with skills that only they possess.  My objective wasn’t necessarily to help teams win more games.  All things considered, you have a better chance of winning more often with less effort if you only allow big kids onto the roster: that’s true.  It’s also true, as the apostle Paul writes, that people wholly absorbed in the ways of the world can usually run circles around those with one eye on the Other World.

But then, what do you have in December?  Another trophy, a few aches that won’t go away… and in February, it all cranks up again.  For what?  For a chance at a scholarship?  To do what?  To get a Business degree?  What will you do with that?  Wouldn’t you be wiser to commit yourself to studying Physics or Engineering full time?  All things considered, excelling at baseball as a strategy for earning big bucks in later life is about as smart as stocking a team with left-handed munchkins.

What a kid learns from the game when he plays it the right way is that there’s always a path around his deficiencies—an adjustment that can turn them into assets with hard work. Such a lesson transfers well into any degree or job.  But he also learns (and, for my money, this is the more important lesson) that some things you suppose yourself to be doing linearly so as to progress from A to X can become a mystical circle—a scrapbook of snapshots that you’ll carry throughout your life, and that nobody can ever take away from you.  For those who simply watch you playing your heart out on a June afternoon, the same snapshots pass into a kind of i-Cloud that Mr. Jobs never imagined.

Yeah, I remember Mickey’s upper-deck game-winner… but I also remember my son executing a slap-bunt that brought home the game-winner, when the defense was rushing to get him out at first and didn’t see the runner turn third without stopping.  And I’ll forget Mickey before I forget that boy’s joy.