Baseball's unbreakable ties to the American psyche

Yankees fans celebrate opening day at Yankee Stadium Yankees fans celebrate opening day at Yankee Stadium on Apr. 1, 2013. Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

A 6-year-old, taking a line drive squarely in the mouth from his older brother in a backyard game, might have been expected to swear off the sport forever. This is not the case. Though football -- specifically high school football -- was king in my Wink, Texas, home at the time; though two front teeth were lost to the local doctor's pliers (there was no dentist in that small oil town in the early 1950s); though the accident was advance evidence of my fielding deficiencies, a strong regard for baseball has persisted.

Perhaps this is a DNA thing. In our lives in this nation, baseball -- at least since the 19th Century -- has been judged to be our communal pastime, a fairly unavoidable presence. Maybe a strong magnet to many, white noise to others, but always there, building a mythology and setting down deep roots long before the National Football League came along with its fancy Roman numerals.

And long before the NBA emerged from home bases in such outposts as Fort Wayne, Ind., and Syracuse, N.Y. Or ice hockey evolved beyond just being a Canadian game or soccer ceased to feel foreign. Boxing and horse racing have had their heyday come -- and mostly go -- and college football long has had its passionate tribal following.

But baseball always had real clout. Household names. When my family moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the same year the Dodgers resettled there from Brooklyn, this kid's connection to the sport was cemented. Especially since the eloquent Vin Scully was broadcasting Dodgers games, offering stories and descriptions that could provide the riveting drama of a great storyteller.

Newspaper reports of the games were grand entertainment. Participation in Little League and, more fun than that, neighborhood Wiffle ball games -- in which one could imitate the batting stance of every Dodger -- were second nature.

To grow up in that time was to understand French-born American historian Jacques Barzun's 1954 declaration that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

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American slang is loaded with baseball language. A ballpark figure. Batting 1.000. Grand slam. Out of leftfield. Step up to the plate. Ruthian. American popular culture is littered with baseball references. When Philip Roth tweaked the ongoing search for the "great American novel," that theoretically perfect crystallization of the country's spirit and identity, by calling his 1973 book "The Great American Novel," he made it about baseball.

Baseball provided the backdrop for one of the great advances in civil rights: Jackie Robinson. What is sometimes called the best comic routine of all time -- Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" -- of course is baseball shtick.

So another season is upon us. And though I long ago traded emotional ties to any one team in favor of journalistic neutrality -- and while it reasonably can be argued that the NFL has become the nation's favorite athletic theater; that soccer has shouldered its way solidly into our sports culture; that doping stars have revealed a contemptible underbelly in all competitive sports -- there is no getting away from baseball's immutable presence.

It is over-romanticized, the stuff of poetry and nostalgia and increasingly maddening statistical overanalysis. But it's a nice game. And it's our game.

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