There are reasons to restore baseball as the National Pastime. These are especially important to point out as the seasons of the main alternative candidates, football and basketball, are getting revved up.
1. It is simple enough to explain to a child, yet subtle enough in its strategy to keep even old men guessing.
2. I admit that seeing a great setup leading to a goal in hockey or soccer is a fantastic thing. The problem is, you look down to cut your steak or order another beer, and you’re apt to miss it. And a game that requires such sustained concentration for so long, most of which is filled with disappointment, is asking too much of a free spirit. In contrast, the alternation between action and rest in baseball is a very good thing. It allows for conversation and fixing a hotdog.
3. Basketball has become too tricky. Supposedly it is a non-contact sport, but the reality is anything but that. One must jab, elbow, trip, and otherwise “take out” one’s opponent by guile and trickery, and not be discovered. It wasn’t always so. But it is now.
4. Anyhow, basketball is too cyclical, and thus it is a denial of Christian eschatology.
5. American football has some of the advantages of baseball, but there are two defects, one fatal, the other troubling.
Fatally, at the professional level it is, in short, a violation of the Sabbath Day.
Troubling, is how the game has come to take itself too seriously. The game itself is often an anticlimax. The week before is what really engages the spirit: starting out by Monday-morning-quarterbacking the previous game, then the endless analysis of the upcoming matchups, who will play, what trade is in the offing, on and on. C’mon fellas, you’re taking this way too seriously.
Moreover, the game has taken on a spirit that is alien to its origins. There is still something majestic about the championship games of the 60’s, as proven by their enduring value as re-run material on the sports channels. Vince Lombardy still lives as a mythic figure; the stories that are told about his methods still resonate. Something has changed. It has become both too professional and too savage. I’ll let each reader reflect on why this might be so.
Even so, if the Sabbath problem could be fixed, the other problems are fixable. Let’s not forget that Gresham Machen’s diagnosis of the malaise of the German University was, in addition to their Sabbath problem, (and ironically) that they needed football.
6. A great baseball game is low scoring, or no scoring, until late in the game. The tension builds, as each side is learning about the other’s pitching quirks and trying to overcome it. But it will be played to a conclusion, even if it takes all night. The crushing homerun — yes, in the right context, it is a great thing, but ruined if too frequent — or the great spot hit, savvy baserunning, sacrifices, and final play at the plate, is a rush without equivalent.
A great baseball game is like a great opera: a long, systematic, sometimes even tedious setting of the table, culminating in the crushing climax.
The climax wouldn’t be, without the long setup. You need both. It is maturing and satisfying.
7. Like chess, there are endless combinations, despite the basic simplicity. Why do the infielders set up differently if there is a man on first, versus if there is a man on second? Why do so many great hits occur when the count is full? How should the pitcher act different if the count is 1-2 versus if it is 2-1? And so forth. And all different, depending on how many outs there are.
8. The pattern of threes– 3 bases, 3 strikes, 3 outs, 3×3 men in the lineup, and the same number of innings — may have primal resonances. They become a metaphor for all of life: “three strikes, and you’re out” applies again and again. Even jurisprudence is tempted by the metaphor.
9. The juxtaposition of taking things very seriously, and not taking it seriously at all, is wonderful. The hokey organ music, the clichéd trumpet playing “charge,” the earnest announcer giving the scoring rule and statistics, then everyone standing up and singing for the “7th inning stretch”– like American politics in the old days, there is something self-parodying in all this that captures the great contradictions of the American genius.
Well, nine reasons– three times three — is probably a good place to stop. That’s good.
Ok, one more. (Ten is also a good number.)
The farm system allows small towns to participate in a meaningful way. For whatever reason, this just hasn’t worked out for football and basketball.