Few things are more American than baseball. And today is Opening Day.
Many modern sports have historic roots either in royalty, aristocracy, and political privilege, or uncivilized savagery. Early golf, for example, required sprawling tracts of land, similar to fox hunting, all of which was owned by a crowned sovereign and managed by royal “landlords.”
American football owes much to rugby, which in medieval Europe was a kind of rule-less, tribal, mob warfare between neighboring towns, villages, and clans that often ended in violence and even murder.
Soccer was invented before homo sapiens had evolved opposing thumbs. Why else would a physical game prohibit the use of hands? The inventors of soccer apparently didn’t know a sporting competition is supposed to have a winner. Nil-nil is not a score. It’s a summary of Nietzsche and the abyss staring at each other.
Baseball has no aristocratic past. It’s an eminently democratic, American sport, where all spectators—even those in cheap seats, and without need of a multimillion-dollar jumbotron—can see all the action on the field, all the time.
Anyone, including those from the humblest backgrounds, can play and be successful in baseball if he’s willing to work, practice, and improve, habits that used to distinguish Americans from spoiled or submissive Europeans, as the French aristocrat and writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century — right around the time baseball was being invented.
In no other game could Yogi Berra become one of the all-time greats and set records that still stand. Even today, some of the best players come from impoverished, third-world regimes. For kids growing up in places like Cuba, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, baseball is a way out.
Baseball combines team effort with individual excellence in a way that is almost magical: Only a team working together can make a 6-4-3 double play look artful and choreographed. Yet, in the batter’s box, each individual player stands alone, without any assistance from his teammates. With all eyes upon him, the batter must perform to the best of his ability against unbelievable odds, including fastballs, curveballs, changeups, sinkers, and cutters.
Baseball is a humbling game. The best of the best hitters fail to get a hit two-thirds of the time. The best of the best pitchers sometimes throw twenty pitches, or thirty, or more, just to get three outs. The best of the best teams are going to lose 50 games or more in a regular season.
Let that sink in.
Among the more striking features of baseball is the design of the field and the play that happens upon it. Baseball has little “fog of war”—a term introduced by the great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz—as collision sports like football do. There are no gangs of men piling on top of each other, making it impossible for observers to see what actually happened. That’s why, throughout most of baseball’s history, there was no need for video replay. The game made perfect sense long before TV was invented.
The game of baseball is circular, not linear. Rather than going back and forth, a player scores by returning to the same spot where he stepped up to bat: home plate. Round and round, without end. Like the seasons. Like the planets. Like the cycle of life.
Baseball is civilized in that there’s nothing about the game, intrinsically, that requires the sacrifice of body or limbs in order to compete. Accidents happen, sure, and muscles get pulled and strained, but the game does not require opposing players to launch into each other like missiles.
To boot (or to cleat), every championship is a series rather than a single game, recognizing the American way that while a man might have a bad day, he can dust himself off, learn from his mistakes, and try again tomorrow. For one team to best another and be named champion, they must demonstrate their superiority four times out of seven. And that is after a grueling regular season of 162 games and multiple playoff series. There are no fluke winners in baseball.
These are but some of the reasons I love the game. Baseball is beautiful. If Socrates was here today, talking with Plato, they’d be well-served to turn their attention to baseball. There is much ugliness in our modern world. I doubt anyone denies that. And, so, something that helps us remember what is true, good, and beautiful seems especially precious now. For me, that’s baseball.
Happy Opening Day, 2023.