Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor
“Why baseball? Because it is like charity – it never faileth. It is always there.” – old Los Angeles Times article, quoted in Baseball, the Ken Burns documentary
It isn’t true, though; it is not always there. In a flash from now, baseball will be gone. It goes with the leaves, you see, abandoning us when we need it most: when the air turns cold and the days short, when the cruel routine of class and study renders summer’s endless blue skies but a distant memory of a younger, more innocent time.
The arc of a baseball season is poetry itself. It begins sometime in February, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Ah, “spring training”! These may be the two happiest words in the English language. For those of us from far northern climes, it delights the soul to know that in Florida and Arizona springtime has come again, and baseball may return.
March, the month when winter gives way to spring’s chilly warmths, is the month of exhibition games down south. He is a lucky northern boy who flies with his father to Scottsdale or Port St. Lucie to see baseball in its most relaxed, some would say most pure, form. In March we learn to watch baseball again; we reacquire the virtues it demands.
Patience: for “baseball has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms,” as David Bentley Hart puts it, so “it ain’t over till it’s over,” as another philosopher noted;
Attention: for every sinker, every slider, is chosen with a purpose, much as the slight shading of a shortstop can tell you all that you need to know about the player batting;
Humility: for even the best team will lose more games in a single year than a football team might lose in 10 seasons;
Undying faith and unyielding love: for heartbreaks will be aplenty – continuous for more than a century, perhaps, as Cubs fan can attest – yet made bearable by the love that never ceases to believe.
Baseball, you see, asks nothing more of us than that we be saints.
In the meantime, though, it brings us joy. As I was saying, March prepares us for April and those other two most happy words, “opening day.” With that first look at an impossibly green field and that first jubilant cry of Play ball! we find ourselves in our shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon, as when we were children, and it’s as if we dipped ourselves in magic waters. In baseball as in no other sport, the past lives in every present moment. This is in part because baseball, as George Will wrote, is a game of moments, whereas other sports are games of flow. After each play in a baseball game there is a pause; you can catch your breath and talk about what you’ve just seen. You mark your scorecard (ever at the reference to remind you of what happened in earlier innings), and you talk about what you’ve seen before that’s just like this, and what you would do now if you were the batter, the pitcher, the manager.
The players have time to talk too, even with their opponents. At home plate the catcher chats with the batter; at first base the first baseman talks up the runner. There is a wholesome collegiality in baseball, an unspoken understanding among the players that while what they’re doing will take on in their and our minds an almost infinite significance, it is ultimately trivial. In baseball it is hideous excess to utter profanities and slam one’s rival to the ground; in other sports it’s part of the M.O. Violence, as philosophy professor Dr. Simmons puts it, plays about the same role in baseball as it should in real life: It’s there in the background as a permanent possibility – in collisions at second base and at home plate – but is rarely actualized.
After spring, an idyllic time when the future looks bright for even the lowliest of contenders, we enter the long dog days of summer, that slowly but surely intensifying stretch that makes the heart of the season. You can set your clock by baseball now. Truly it seems like charity; your team plays almost every night! And the season takes shape. Rookies called up after injuries have breakout months; old veterans show they’re not yet spent; teams unexpectedly rise; the All-Star break comes and goes; teams predictably fall – or they don’t. Or they linger into September and make a run for the pennant. When a long-suffering fan base sees its team endure till the final weeks, it isn’t sure what to think, but in its heart it believes.
The long-suffering faithful of Baltimore, that city by the bay – the long-ago masters of the American League who haven’t made the postseason since 1997 – are the lucky ones this year. After far too long, they are back in the playoffs, fighting for a place in the Fall Classic. As a Yankees fan, I wish them naught but ill; but if they fall short I can remind them of the game’s perennial wisdom:
This being baseball, hope springs eternal.