Baseball is such a strange phenomenon. To begin with, there’s no clock and no limit to the number of innings that can be played to conclude a game. At least theoretically, this places the game beyond the bounds of time.
For those who aren’t hardcore fans, the notion of an endless baseball game probably conjures up visions of Dante’s nine innings of Hell. (Surely it’s just a coincidence that a typical game is nine innings and that there are nine Circles of Hell.)
Even as a hardball fanatic, I admit to not having the stamina for something like the Kansas City Royals record-holder: An 18-inning, six-and-a-half hour affair against the Texas Rangers, in 1991. (Unless, of course, it was a postseason game. That might keep my hyperactive arse in the chair for that long.) And when your team loses in extras – like the Royals did on Friday night in Detroit – the pain of a loss seems magnified.
The game that used to be our national pastime has qualities that exceed the sum of its physical (and parks’) dimensions. In addition to its potential for infinity (Field of Dreams or The X-Files’ “In the Big Inning,” anyone?), it also holds and reveals truths about us as humans. And about America and Americans, in particular.
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By one justifiable measure, 2015 marks 170 years since baseball became America’s pastime. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright wrote a set of 20 rules to be followed, including 90 feet between bases, not throwing the batted ball at the player who hit it to record an out, three-out innings, and a host of other rules that still exist.
Reading about the history of baseball is like reading a parallel universe of America. Baseball is America in microcosm: Our history of race relations, immigration, labor vs The Man, popular culture and patriotism, wide open spaces … it’s all there.
A ballpark brings together total strangers, like the immigrants who populated the nation. Since the first recorded game, baseball has blurred the social barriers of age and race (eventually) and language and social status. It unites people in highly vocal rivalry (known as “heckling” and also referred to as a two-party representative democracy). It’s an urban game played on a wide open, grassy field. And it is a game that’s as much about the mind as it is the body.
And look at all the words and phrases we use every day that come from baseball: “In the ballpark” or “a ballpark estimate.” “Batting a thousand.” “Big league” and “bush league.” (I’ll take a pass on swinging at that easy change-up hanging out over the middle of the political punditry plate.) The term “Charlie horse” was first used in association with baseball. “Cover all your bases.” The media threw him a “curve ball.” “Way off base.” “Rain check.” “Pinch hit.” And that’s not even getting into all the sexual innuendos taken from baseball terms.
It’s fitting, in this era of sharp divisiveness, that American football has taken over as our actual national pastime. It is much more violent, and with its war-like pageantry and simulation, is better suited as a reflection of who and what we have become.
I love baseball. And perhaps this is a partial reflection of who I have become: A middle-aged man waxing nostalgic about the past. I appreciate the game now more than I ever have. Something outside the lines beckons to me from the days when Whitman was sounding his barbaric yawp, whispering to me from when my father took me to games, stretching out to this summer and fall, when my wife and I and friends try to catch glimpses of the game, always with an eye on our three-year-old son running frenetically from the merry-go-round to the fountains to the playground and back.
We seem to catch more glimpses of the future he will be a part of – one in which we are just memories – than we do the games. And, while we are there, at The K, that future looks as welcoming and beautiful and hopeful and full of potential as Opening Day.
No matter that the Royals are in a funk. Johnny Cueto finally threw another good game. We have another game today. Right now, we have the best record in the American League. And now is all we have.