March 31, 2004
NOTE: My Word's Worth, and its complete archive, is now at its new home on my own server, http://marylaine.com/myword/index.html. My thanks to Quad Cities Online for hosting it for the past six years.
RITES OF SPRING
Though February did its cold and ugly worst, and March has blasted us with fierce arctic winds, there are harbingers of spring: the birds are chirping madly, the grass is turning green, the new baseball season is about to begin, and all is right with the world. Like John Fogerty sang, "We're born again, there's new grass on the field."
I'm sorry for people who don't like baseball, because they will never really understand America. It doesn't matter that the Japanese and Cubans and Dominicans play it, and play it very well; baseball is our game, American to its core.
It's THE game for eternal optimists. Every year, we put last season's failures behind and start over undefeated, full of hope that, as the New York Daily News proclaimed when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won the pennant, "This Is Next Year."
Baseball is the ultimate game that "ain't over 'til it's over." Because it has no arbitrary time limits, you can be behind 7-0 in the 8th inning and still honestly believe you can pull it out. You might get men on base on balls or hit by pitch, and somebody might bring them home with a double or triple; you might get home runs, or score when the other team's first baseman boots the ball. You might at least tie the thing up and send it into extra innings. Theoretically, there's no reason why the game can't go on infinitely (a notion W.P. Kinsella played with in his wonderful book The Iowa Baseball Confederacy).
It's also a game that balances America's most important competing tensions: our need for rules with our love for breaking them; our love for individual achievement with our need to work together -- the brute force of the home run and the finesse of the well-placed bunt that advances runners.
We love fair play, and in a world that keeps changing the rules on us, three strikes are always out, and the bases are always 90 feet apart.
But we also admire cleverness, and the outfields are where there's room for creative fudging - you have the cozy confines of Wrigley Field where, when the wind is blowing out, even average hitters can send the ball out of the park, and the Astrodome's deep deep outfields where home runs go to die. Each park gives the home team a little edge, and makes a different kind of player a hero.
Your star performers will, of course, be heroes all the time - but they won't win without all the journeymen players and utility infielders who back them up. The difference between a good pitcher and a great pitcher is often the double play combination that puts the runners out.
In a country that doesn't care much about history, baseball is our historical record, where achievement is lovingly preserved in statistics and awards that tie our present to our past and future. We don't say "there were giants in those days"; we say our fresh young phenoms, "future Hall-of-Famers," will join them.
Baseball has been the great equalizer in a society devoted to opportunity for all. It's given talented men from every imaginable ethnic group a chance to rise from poverty to the big time. It's where David has a chance to beat Goliath, where sometimes underfunded upstart teams beat all the superstars the Yankees' unlimited pocketbook can buy.
In a country made by the aspirations and talents of young men, baseball is a boys' game that some lucky men get to play for a living (which may be why it's so upsetting to fans when ungrateful baseball players forget this and go on strike). Baseball is fathers playing catch with sons, and boys playing ball on long summer days that seem to stretch into forever and deny that school can ever start again.
Baseball is boys learning to become men: the sweat and gritty determination required to practice a skill over and over until it's mastered, the willingness to wince at pain and keep on going, the refusal to accept defeat.
For fans sitting in the stands, baseball is all those things, and more. It's summer skies and hot sun, green oases in grim gray cities, loyalty to our teams and towns, the pleasurable sense of playing hooky from daily responsibilities.
For fans who think the last words of The Star-Spangled Banner are "Play ball!", baseball is a lifetime compressed into six months: the youthful optimism of the first games of spring, the ripening of competition in the summer, the death of hope or the triumph of our mature skills in the fall. It's mythic. And it's us.
Celebrate it. Baseball is icumen in; lhude sing "Play ball!
The original version of this column was an Observing US column that appeared on Fox News Online on February 15, 2000.
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