The Baseball Desert

Saturday, April 02, 2005

An ocean of consolation

Thomas Boswell: Why Time Begins On Opening Day (1984)

Why baseball?

Millions of us have wondered. How can baseball maintain such a resolute grasp on us? My own affection for the game has held steady for decades, maybe even grown with age. After twenty-five years of attachment, I have no sense of wanting to be weaned from this habit. What seems most strange is the way so many of us reserve a protected portion of our lives for a game which often seems like an interloper among our first-rate passions. What is baseball doing here, tucked on the same high shelf with our most entrenched emotions?

If asked where baseball stood amid such notions as country, family, love, honor, art and religion, we might say derisively, “Just a game.” But, under oath, I'd abandon some of these Big Six before I'd give up baseball. Clearly, a game which becomes one of our basic fidelities is something more than “sport.” Perhaps the proper analogy is to our other joyous, inexplicable addictions.

A thread runs through all these idle loves. Each, like baseball, brings us into a small and manageable world chocked with intriguing and unambiguous details; we are beckoned into tiny universes where the areas of certainty are large, where the regions of doubt are pleasantly small. The cook must wrestle with tarragon and basil, the gardener agonizes over his pruning. The baseball fan knows every batting average, down to the thousandth of a point. What steady ground on which to stand, if only in one corner of our lives! Each pastime has its own unstated set of values. That part of us which is a fly fisher or a curer of hams or an habitué of the bleachers shares fragments of a common viewpoint with others of the same tastes.

When we meet a bona fide fan – and baseball fanciers can be as snobbish as wine sippers or prize rose gardeners – we start from an assumption of kinship. Implicit is the sense that you endorse a whole range of civilized modern tastes; if you'd lived in the sixteenth century, you would probably have liked Montaigne. By and large, baseball fans tend to prefer pastoral, slyly anecdotal, proven-if-slightly-dated things over those which are urban or pretentious or trendy. We choose the gentle grandstand conversations, beer in hand, on a soft spring night over the raucous forty-yard-line scream, whiskey-in-fist, on a brisk autumn afternoon. Our presumption of comradeship is considerable. Anyone who shares our range of wise opinion must do dastardly deeds to lose our good will.

In sum, what baseball provides is fact. Fact in a butter sauce of tone. Fact as in the sense of detail and correctness. Tone as in style and spirit.

In contrast to the unwieldy world which we hold in common, baseball offers a kingdom built to human scale. Its problems and questions are exactly our size. Here we may come when we feel a need for a rooted point of reference. In much the same way, we take a long hike or look for hard work when we suspect what's bothering us is either too foolish or too serious to permit a solution.

Baseball isn't necessarily an escape from reality, though it can be; it is merely one of our refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms. Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket.

In those moments when we have had our bellyful of abstractions, it is detail, the richness of the particular, which restores us to ourselves. There are oceans of consolation, seas of restored appetite, in as humble a thing as a baseball season. This great therapeutic wash of fact and anecdote draws us back to ourselves when we catch ourselves, like Ishmael, water-gazing too long.


Baseball offers us pleasure and insight at so many levels and in so many forms that, when we try to grasp the who sport in our two hands, we end up with nothing. The game, because it is no one thing but, rather, dozens of things, has slipped through our fingers again.

As each season begins, we always feel the desire to capsulize and define the source of the sharp anticipation that we feel as opening day approaches. We know that something fine, almost wonderful, is about to begin, but we can't quite say why baseball seems so valuable, almost indispensable, to us. The game, which remains one of our broadest sources of metaphor, changes with our angle of vision, our mood; there seems to be no end to our succession of lucky discoveries.

When opening day arrives, think how many baseball worlds begin revolving for seven months.

As history, baseball has given us an annual chapter each year since 1869. Each team will add a page to its franchise's epic. Countless questions that attach themselves to the baseball continuum will be answered. Will Pete Rose find a way to break Ty Cobb's record for hits? Will Reggie Jackson get his five hundredth home run? Will Terry Felton – oh-for-sixteen in his career and back in the minors again – ever win a game? Yes, we walk with giants.

As living theatre and physical poetry, the game will be available in twenty-six ballparks on more than two thousand occasions. Baseball is always there when we want it – seven days a week, seven months a year. All the tactile pleasures of the park are ready, when the proper mood strikes us: evening twilights, sundowns, hot summer Sunday afternoons, the cool of the dark late innings of night games, quiet drives home as we decompress and digest.

Then, just when we think the game is essentially mellow and reflective, we find ourselves looped in the twists and coils of a 5-4 barn burner between two contenders. When the centerfielder jumps above the fence in the bottom of the ninth and comes down with the ball and the game in his hand, we realize that two or three hours is just the proper amount of time to tighten the mainspring of tension before letting us explode in one, final cheer. We leave with a glowing tiredness, delighted by the memories of this impromptu and virile ballet, all choreographed by the capricious flight of a ball.

Despite all this, baseball may give us more pleasure, more gentle, unobtrusive sustenance, away from the park than it does inside it.

With breakfast, we have our ten minutes of box scores – enough to travel to thirteen cities, see thirteen games in our mind's eye, note at a glance what five hundred players did or failed to do. Dave Righetti, five walks in four innings, still can't get his delivery in synch. Tony Armas, three for four, out of his latest slump, will probably go right into a streak and hit five homers by next Friday.

On Sunday, the breakfast process takes an extra ten minutes, since The Averages must be consumed. We imagine the state of mind of dozens of players and their teammates. (Who ever thought that Seaver had another good season in him? Kingman's down to .196; bet that bum's a prince to be around.)

Then, in odd parts of the day, the game drifts into the mind. Who's pitching tonight? Is it on TV? At worst, the home team is on the radio; catch the last few innings. “Double-play grounder to Ozzie Smith deep in the hole, Billy Russell's chugging toward first, Steve Sax trying to take out Tommy Herr.”

Why, it doesn't even have to happen to be real.

The ways that baseball insinuates itself into the empty corners, cheering up the odd hour, are almost too ingrained to notice. Tape at eleven, the scores before bed, the Monday and Saturday games of the week. Into how many conversations will Steinbrenner's name creep, so that we may gauge the judgements of our friends, catch a glimpse of their values on the sly? The amateur statistician and the armchair strategist in us is roused. What fan doesn't have a new system for grading relief pitchers, or a theory on why the Expos never win?

Sure, opening day is baseball's bandwagon. Pundits and politicians and every prose poet on the continent jumps on board for a few days. But they're gone soon, off in search of some other windy event worthy of their attention. Then, once more, all those long, slow months of baseball are left to us. And our time can begin again.