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.

baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Faith, Reality, and Baseball

One of the enterprises I wanted to pursue in retirement was my work on involving boys of short stature in baseball.  The game itself, and the instruction surrounding it, has turned as regimented and mechanical as everything else in our digitally obsessed society—yet learning complex games is no small part of a young person’s education.  The child learns fast and hard rules, he realizes that certain rules put him at a disadvantage to other players, he figures out how to turn a liability into an asset, and he emerges from it all—with honest, sustained effort—in a triumph of self-discovery and successful adjustment.  These moral lessons are terrifically important.

Football and basketball virtually require extraordinary natural endowments: skills there are an adorning cornice, not a foundation.  By no accident, these latter two sports are also much the most popular with spectators on college campuses.  As spectators, we seem to be growing ever more distant from the spectacle’s participants.  They almost represent a different species; and perhaps, with the aid of hormones and nanobot supplementation, they will soon become precisely that.

I think it well worthwhile, then, to persuade young people that they can excel at a game by identifying their particular (if not spectacular) strengths, perfecting these through practice, and offering a significant contribution to the team’s effort that draws more upon reflection and self-discipline than upon raw sinew.  That’s where baseball comes in—and where boys, especially, come in.  Contemporary Ivory Tower propaganda (which quickly filters all the way down to kindergarten, make no mistake) wails about “toxic masculinity”, labels all males as rapists-in-waiting, and applauds only the gender-uncertain who cede decisions, authority, and initiative to the Nurturing Mother. Now, mothers are great, as we all know; but boys, if they are to become independent and upright young men, need to learn a regimen that introduces them to self-control and vigorous persistence.

Unfortunately, the history of baseball has almost always garbled this hygienic message with incidental static, at least in the United States.  (In Japan and Korea, the game appears to have followed an educational trajectory more like what I should like to see.)  In America’s late nineteenth century, professional players were viewed as rowdies who shirked the productive labor of farm and factory.  Early in the next century, its practices were submitted to a considerable clean-up before any pay-at-the-gate contest was thought fit for ladies to attend. Even as figures like Babe Ruth (and Ty Cobb, too, before Fake News claimed him as one of its early victims) ushered in a heroic era, baseball’s practical and commercial parameters continued to gravitate against a positive moral message.  Games were played almost daily in numerous far-flung venues, so the players’ normal Circadian rhythms—eating habits, sleeping habits, and other bodily demands that needn’t be specified—were forever being nudged hither and yon.  As a result, late-night frolics and heavy drinking became associated with the pro athlete’s life.

Mill teams or municipal squads that squared off on Saturdays (never on Sundays!) somewhat counterpoised this unflattering image; but on the whole, women even of my mother’s generation did not wish to see their sons inking a professional contract.

Today the interference with the constructive message comes primarily from different sources.   The obvious one is the professional game’s saturation in money (following the demise of the nefarious Reserve Clause, which legally classed players as virtual slaves of their owners).  Fathers are so eager to see their sons get the free scholarship ride through college—with a shot at being professionally drafted—that, in a couple of cases I have seen personally, they start the boys on the syringe at the age of ten or eleven.  Even in less depraved cases, dads push their sons too hard to succeed in Little League, thinking that they are helping the boys get a huge headstart on money-making and all the happiness supposed to come with it.  But, Dad, if you will stop and think about that oath that the kids are uttering before each contest, it’s not drawn from the Gospel of Mammon.  On the contrary… search your Bible for the verse, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”

That our boys need a moral lifeline of some sort thrown to them has been underscored for me during the past two weeks by the grotesque volleys exchanged over a Supreme Court nomination.  I have my own very strong opinions about where the truth lies; but in the context of this discussion, I will say no more than that the addiction of both men and women to alcohol and sex as a routine path to social integration on elite college campuses is a national disgrace—and even more: an epidemic of moral degeneracy such as no nation can survive. To the extent that my own son was able to steer clear of debauchery during his college years, I believe his devotion to baseball was the cause.  I would like to write, “his devotion to the Christian faith”… but the organized Church, as represented by most mainstream denominations, is itself in vital need of an infusion of backbone.  St. Paul was fond of comparing the spiritual life to the athlete’s rigorous program of training—but I’m afraid that today’s Church more resembles the party-animal superstar whose contract guarantees him a fortune whether he stays in shape or not.

I posted a very sophomoric video a few days ago (which became 1st part and 2nd part when I overshot YouTube’s time restrictions) entitled “Faith, Reality, and Baseball”.  I truly hate addressing cameras… but I attempted to speak on these issues with what eloquence I could muster off the cuff.  Young men, I find, will actually watch such a presentation with infinitely higher probability than they will read an essay like the one before you; and some of them, even, will be quite generous to the stammering old fool trying to reach them through their generation’s preferred avenue.  It’s clearly not the singer: it has to be the song.  Let’s sing it louder.