It would seem downright un-American not to note the opening of baseball season. Even in the face of evidence that the NFL has overtaken baseball as the nation’s favorite athletic theater; that the NBA and March Madness have (literally) soared to new heights; that soccer has shouldered its way solidly into our sports culture; that doping stars have revealed a contemptible underbelly in all competitive sports . . . baseball hangs in there.
It can be argued that baseball has become over-romanticized and soaked in nostalgia even as the modern game is burdened with maddening statistical overanalysis and major league ballparks regularly bludgeon fans with artificial noise incompatible with the game’s pastoral roots.
As a barometer of where the National Pastime stands in the 21st century, roughly half of the students in my Hofstra sportswriting class each semester typically confess to preferring other spectator sports.
And yet, baseball is unquestionably in our DNA. A strong magnet to some, possibly just white noise to most, but always there through the long season from late March into November. Throughout our lifetimes, really.
When I was 6, I pleaded with my reluctant older brother to attempt hitting my not-so-fastball, and when his subsequent line drive struck me flush in the mouth — requiring the early extraction of a couple of baby teeth — it was a harbinger of my inauspicious baseball career, essentially concluded after Little League days. But it was not the end of my attraction to the sport, somewhere between fandom and appreciation.
Maybe it’s the eloquence of professional observers such as recently retired Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vince Scully, with gems of narrative detail, such as his call of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game, that demonstrate baseball’s hold on us. (Google “Vin Scully Sandy Koufax perfect game” and enjoy 11 minutes of vivid drama.)
Or maybe it’s recognizing the truth in New Yorker magazine veteran Roger Angell’s description, upon accepting the Hall of Fame writers’ award in 2014, that baseball “has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.”
Consider that American slang is loaded with baseball language. A ballpark figure. Batting 1.000. Grand slam. Out of left field. Step up to the plate. Ruthian. And that 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.
In a 2012 essay in The New York Times, “What baseball does to the soul,” Irish-born writer Colum McCann related the experience of a Yankee home run in a pivotal playoff game as “a moment unlike any other, when you sit with your son in the ballpark, and the ball is high in the air, you feel yourself aware of everything, the night, the neon, the very American-ness of the moment.”
Afghan-American writer Mir Tamim Ansary, born in Kabul but raised from his high school days in the United States, wrote that it wasn’t until he was in his 60s that he finally came to understand baseball by seeing it in terms of “the classic American Western . . . waiting for something to happen” and realizing that “if you care” about the result of each pitch, “it’s the purest possible definition of suspense.”
Quite naturally, baseball was the backdrop for the 1950s Broadway hit “Damn Yankees,” for a retelling of the Faustian bargain. In the 1968 song “Mrs. Robinson,” Simon and Garfunkel ask, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
It was baseball’s prominence in society that amplified one of the great advances in civil rights: Jackie Robinson. Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” — sometimes called the best comic routine of all time — of course is baseball shtick. And, through his creator, Charles Schulz, the inimitable Charlie Brown once said, “A hot dog is better with a baseball game in front of it.”
So, play ball.