I greet the spring like characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: with relief, weary gratitude and ebullience. As the month of March expires I praise the sky and salute the sun. I smile toothily at forlorn pansies that cross my path.
Yet there is one rite of spring which leaves me decidedly glum. I refer to the start of baseball season. Compounding my despair is the veritable Cult of Baseball that predominates in the newsrooms of America. Question: How do you know it’s Opening Day? Answer: When half the (often secular) pundits nationwide are writing columns about baseball being like religion. Like their religion.
Why credible opinion makers lack any modicum of objectivity when addressing this subject is beyond me. But it has not escaped my attention that nearly every psalmist of The Diamond lets slip something to the effect of “My dad used to take me to the ballpark.” The infection sets in early.
Baseball may indeed be like religion. But religions, I have been saying all along, are bewildering admixtures of negative and positive attributes. In the name of righting certain journalistic wrongs, allow me a brief departure from the campaign trail to restrict my attention to the former as they pertain to our national pastime.
Let’s start with the basics. The game is slow–a dance of stasis. With the exception of the pitcher and catcher, most of the players on the field scarcely move. In terms of the ground they cover baseball players are not that different from chess pieces, albeit ones that that spit and scratch their unmentionables.
If teamwork is defined as “individuals making sacrifices for their team,” then there is very little teamwork in baseball. Aside from a sacrifice bunt or purposefully sticking one’s head into the path of an oncoming fastball, little in the sport demands that the individual suffer for the greater good. (One wonders what a “Wedge Buster” in the NFL—the concussion-addled chap instructed during kickoffs to hurl himself at top speed into a wall of four very large men who also happen to be running at top speed—would make of baseball’s liberal conception of “sacrifice.”)
The season is pointlessly long, stretching from Grapefruit Leagues of February to the final out of the World Series in November. This has never once prevented a journalist from declaiming on New Year’s Day: “only a few more weeks until pitchers and catchers!”
The ball is actually in play for about three minutes of a tortuous five-hour ordeal. Indeed, few sports do so much to prevent their players from displaying their wares as this one does. Why would an athlete–and I don’t doubt that many baseball players are phenomenal athletes– who is neither a pitcher nor a catcher want to participate in a sport where his talents are activated for about the length of a commercial break?
Perhaps, the tedium accounts for the curiosity that baseball players often consume snacks during the game. Peanuts, sunflower seeds, beer, popcorn, Osso Bucco, Flan–few other sports provide so much time and space for culinary explorations. Which brings us to a major embarrassment: First- and Third-Bases Coaches who are part of the “action”. No strangers to Osso Bucco and beer, these men actually instruct players to do something that most athletes know instinctually: when and when not to run.
One could forgive the game’s allergy to movement and physical exertion. One could ignore that recurring visual trope of the spectacle: the center field camera gazing lovingly on the pitcher’s immobile backside. But the unspeakable truth is that baseball is a threat to homeland security. The sport is still inexplicably popular among the nation’s youth. As such, it becomes something of a feeder program for advanced careers in sloth and obesity.
Compare, if you will, the post-game rituals of seven-year old soccer and baseball players. The footballers are spent. Some are sprawled out like Marmaduke. Others are voraciously inhaling pre-sliced tangerines. The little leaguers, by contrast, are numbed. After an afternoon of standing around in the sun and consuming SlimJims some ponder the possibility of going home to do some exercise.
Let me conclude by returning to our religious metaphor. It was one of the greatest insights of the sociologist Emile Durkheim to recognize that people don’t usually know the real reasons motivating their thought and action. Baseball, I submit, is the prooftext for this “theory of misrecognition.”
Few games could be duller than this one. Few deserve the devotion of their supporters less than the national pastime. But the quasi-religious awe for the game remains. I submit that this awe is inspired by motivations which agents rarely understand. “My dad used to take me to the ballpark”—therein lies the best explanation I know of for the Cult of Baseball. For that bond is sacred. And for the health of the nation, we can only hope that today’s families forge that bond through different sports.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
April 8, 2008; 8:07 AM ET
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