There is something to be said for the graceful athleticism of the NBA, the awesome physicality and violence of the NFL, and the plainly indescribable emotion that comes from watching rednecks turn left in NASCAR. But America’s defining sport is and has always been baseball. While the tradition and mythology gets people like George Will misty-eyed, baseball is so transcendentally American for reasons the purists tend to ignore or overlook. Baseball is a petty, petulant, vulgar, self-serious, hyper-competitive, and comically superstitious game. It is a game often played by meat-headed half-wits, coached by fat ex-ballplayers spewing tobacco “juice,” and always romanticized by unathletic nerds whose best attempt at throwing a curveball bears a striking resemblance to a backyard toss of a three year old girl. That’s what makes baseball our quintessential national game—it is who we are.
Professional baseball thus serves as America’s mirror: so many people of varying levels of talent performing in an imperfectly meritocratic system, governed by hypocrites who work to maintain a foundation myth, and covered by sycophantic journalists who fan the flames of feigned outrage when the game’s participants show themselves to be the commodified anti-heroes obscured by the myth they propagate. (Indeed, while it would take a suspension of disbelief worthy of Trekkies convention to believe that McGwire and Sosa naturally doubled in muscle mass without steroids fifteen years after they finished puberty, the poor baseball writers were apparently the last to know and were shocked—shocked!—that players would use such trickery to defame our most hallowed pastime. Sigh.)
Beyond the collective metaphor, the reflection works individually too, as fans get to see themselves expressed on the field. Maybe a fan envisions himself as the unappreciated workhorse utility infielder that doesn’t get heralded like the prima donna stars; or perhaps he sees himself in the veteran pitcher that uses wisdom and guile (and perhaps a little Crisco in the brim of his hat) to work his way through the batting order now that he’s lost a little juice on that fastball; or he’s that pissed-off never-was ballplayer-turned-manager who just told the ump in no uncertain terms where he could stick that bad call—and, incidentally, that his mother does unsavory things for money—before storming off to the locker room to thunderous and approving applause.
In fact, baseball fans take their game so personally you can see grown and presumably rational men sitting in the stands in the ninth inning, wearing their hats turned inside-out to spark a rally—as if their chosen method of displaying haberdashery will lead to the cosmic alignment that will bring their team back from the three run deficit. Unequivocal atheists will knock on their wooden living room coffee table or yell “don’t jinx it!” if someone mentions that his team is in the middle of a no-hitter. And decades of teams’ post-season failure can be blamed on the curse of a long-dead ballplayer who was foolishly traded;or any one of a series of unfortunate events that seek to explain the bad luck haunts teams for generations. The victors thank Jesus, the vanquished blame Bartman.
No nostalgic baseball-as-America column can do without mentioning the unique joy that is taking your kid to the ballpark for his or her first baseball game. Yet, anyone who has been to a ballpark outside of St. Louis—a town that, as far as I can tell, has the most polite fans of any sport in any city—knows that the grandstands and bleachers of a baseball game are about as family-friendly as a Sam Kinison monologue. I went to game one of last year’s American League Championship Series between my beloved New York Yankees and the Los Angeles California United States Angels of Anaheim, or whatever that team is calling itself these days. Hundreds of drunk fans chanted “ASS-HOLE” and pointed at a 14-year-old girl walking back to her seat because she was wearing a Phillies windbreaker at the House that Jeter built. Wholesome Lake Wobegon Americana, this ain’t.
Likewise, in the spirit of Wall Street versus Main Street, the elites evoke just as much scorn in baseball as they do in our daily politics. Indeed, the rich and powerful Yankees are universally loathed while their rivals, the not-quite-as-rich Boston Red Sox portray themselves as lovable everyday “idiots” battling the “Evil Empire.” Yet given the Sox’s $120 million payroll, the ‘team of the people’ image is about as blue collar as John Kerry’s windsail. But, as the late Chicago journalist Mike Royko put it, “hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers, and cheating on your income tax.” So the poor little rich team narrative endures.
Ultimately, however, baseball’s national reflection is a lovable one. The game’s idiosyncrasies give it the character so many of us embrace and which captures our collective imagination. Okay, so our favorite players aren’t really heroes, the purity so many ascribe to the game never really existed, and the otherwise touching father-daughter moment may be marred by a drunk guy loudly requesting to be fellated to make-up for that throwing error, but that’s all part of the game.
After all, this is America, where what we imagine ourselves to be is just as important as who we actually are.