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An Opening Into the American Psyche

March 29, 2004|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele wrote the story for the film "A League of Their Own."

The game of baseball embodies the poetic grace of finely trained bodies in motion and is a reflection of larger social and philosophical concerns. Perhaps that is why it is the only American sport that merits the sustained attention of intellectuals and some of our finest novelists (in his novel "Of Time and the River" Thomas Wolfe described the feeling of entering a baseball stadium as "instant, whole and wonderful") and offers Hollywood a dramatic enough backdrop for the production of baseball films with some regularity.

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale University and commissioner of Major League Baseball, took the highfalutin approach to baseball when he wrote that the game offered possibilities for self-knowledge and community that helped fulfill the American promise to "cherish the individual while recognizing the overarching claims of the group." The redeeming of democracy is a great deal to ask of a mere game, but there are many who greet opening day with the belief that anything is possible.

Perhaps the reason baseball looms as large as it does in our cultural landscape is not just that so many of us -- the "us" now including increasing numbers of women -- played it in our youth. There is also a sense that the broader contours of U.S. history can be viewed through the prism of baseball.

The expansion of professional baseball teams from the East Coast to the West and South reflected the movement of the economy and the populace. Next to the 1960s civil rights movement, wasn't Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's "color line" by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 the most important modern symbol of the fight against second-class status for African Americans?

And I cannot think about the feminist movement without considering my mother's participation in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940s. Many of the women who played alongside my mom got their first taste of economic and social independence through baseball. If you add to the story the corporatization of baseball, labor strife and globalization (now, close to 30% of professional ballplayers were born outside the U.S.), you get a pretty good idea of what has happened to the nation.

There is even a left/right political split in how baseball is regarded. The conservative writer George Will embraces the widely held belief that baseball is an inherently conservative game and should remain that way. Excellence is achieved, Will believes, through hard work, attention to detail and obsessive practice. In his 1990 book, "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball," he opined that "America's real problem is individual understretch, a tendency of Americans to demand too little of themselves, at their lathes, their desks, their computer terminals.... If Americans made goods and services the way ... [Tony] Gwynn makes hits ... you would hear no more about the nation's trajectory having passed its apogee."

But the late baseball-loving paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who knew a great deal about how Darwinian science could be misapplied to the world of politics and economics, believed that although baseball might in fact imitate life, it would be a mistake to apply its lessons too rigorously. Some of the consequences of "losing" in life, Gould pointed out, "include death and starvation."

Scholars of mythology tell us that rituals of repetition are important; communities repeat what they regard as sacred, hoping to preserve the exemplary models that will regenerate society. But I worry about the sacred repetition of opening day this year. What "exemplary model" can we still worship today?

"Excellence," Gould argued in referring to the odious human being but great ballplayer Ty Cobb, "must be praised, despite the toll extracted on the achievers and the victims of their obsessions." That is all well and good. As far as I know, Cobb achieved what he did through finely honed talent and a maniacal competitive drive. But I have to wonder as I watch Barry Bonds at the plate whether there is more than just adrenaline pumping through his veins.

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