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Wednesday, April 04, 2001

Sports and War, Baseball and Innocence: An Opening Day Meditation

Don gets misty thinking about “our celebration of the human need to seek transformation and renewal.”

As you may already know, this column (entitled “Swinging From The Heels”) is
  more about the verb in that title than the prepositional phrase. Though I dearly
  love ballplayers who will take a pitch, my job in this space is not to draw
  a walk. As valuable as that may be on the baseball field, it’s not a workable
  concept in writing. Following an odd connection between things—as I’m
  about to do now—might well be seen as “bad-ball hitting,” to be sure.

But possibly I’ll wind up with a hit anyway. Let’s see what happens.

Linking the two phrases in the title evolved from a chance encounter with two
  books that compete with thousands of others for my fleeting attention in my
  vertiginous library/office. The first—sports and war—came from my
  dipping into The Paths of History (Cambridge, 1999), by noted Russian
  historian Igor Diakonoff.

In his book, which is a sweeping overview of the evolution of world civilization,
  Diakonoff makes one very interesting reference to sports and its function in
  the more recent stages of culture:

Putting an end to wars, which satisfied the social need for
  aggression, must lead to the growth of aggressiveness in everyday life, as terrorism
  and crime, and of the popularity of such sports as football, hockey, field athletics,
  karate, etc.

Diakonoff, of course, touches upon themes here that are at least as old as
  Plato. We might ask ourselves how organized sport in modern times differs in
  its structural relationship to society than its analogue in ancient Greece.

More relevant to us at this point, possibly, is to consider why sports came
  to be invented in the first place, and how their professionalization has affected
  our view of them, especially in the last 150 years. The incessant use of the
  term “warrior” in conjunction with professional athletes (even occasionally
  in reference to women athletes) is but one superficial reminder of the connection
  between these two forms of aggression.

Diakonoff refers to (post-)modern society’s need for controlled, “safe” violence
  when he makes his commentary on the decline of war that he envisions as a consequence
  of mankind’s development of nuclear weapons. It’s interesting to note that he
  omits several sports from his (admittedly cursory) list.

One of those, of course, is baseball.

Less violent than any other major sport, baseball was also the first to be
  professionalized in the modern sense. Possibly in 1870 the game was violent
  enough for a country that had just endured a bloody, culture-wrenching civil
  war. In 1970, the game was considered passe by many of America’s most influential
  sports pundits. Too boring, they said. Not enough action.

Thirty years later, war and our views and memories of it have changed. (Diakonoff
  writes that while we are not guaranteed of an end to warfare, he describes an
  emerging phase of thought that operates as a strong deterrent to future prospects
  for global warfare.) Baseball’s most violent wars of the past forty years have
  been fought in the press and at the negotiating table. Despite all this, the
  game is close to its all-time level of popularity.

Why has this happened? There are some partial explanations to be found in Richard
  Skolnik’s
Baseball and the Pursuit of Innocence (Texas A&M Press,
  1993). Baseball has always appealed to that segment of the fan population with
  an intellectual bent—the sabermetric movement that blossomed in the 1980s
  has a long, subterranean pre-history. On a more primal level, though, baseball
  manages to combine two elemental principles of life into a uniquely aesthetic
  quality. (There are a proliferation of poets who have been attracted to baseball
  as a subject; prior to the invention of rap, few if any rhyme-makers focused
  their attention on football or basketball.)

Those principles, as Skolnik explains, are “innocence” and “order.” Baseball’s
  relationship with innocence is more consciously manipulative today than it was
  in past times, as it uses its rich and unique lore to blur the distinction between
  innocence and nostalgia; despite this, however, “innocence” is still resonant.

And this is true in spite of the off-field wars that escalated to the point
  of seeming self-destruction in the 1990s. Baseball’s unique connection to “innocence”
  may yet prevail as a means of avoiding its equivalent of a “nuclear winter.”

Skolnik captures this best in the following passage:

Baseball, a game respectful of traditions, has managed somehow
  to retain at least the flavor and fervor of an era now long gone, one with fewer
  shadings, more stringent requirements, exacting standards and greater commitment
  to matters of individual responsibility.

What’s interesting here is the strong undercurrent of “order” that creeps into
  any discussion of innocence. To be free of society’s rules and regulations is
  to be considered “innocent” in a Edenic sense; baseball’s appropriation of “innocence”
  is much more secularized than that. There is the lingering sense that baseball
  is a game played by boys who grow into men, while all other sports are played
  by adults. One of the dissonances in the game today is that this notion, which
  always involved some amount of suspension of disbelief, is increasingly harder
  to achieve in the context of labor strife and increasing salaries.

Yet somehow, most of us find a way to do that. There is comfort in the interplay
  of these elements, and this curious conflation of “innocence” and “order” gives
  us some respite from darker matters, and from the increasing din of life itself.
  Baseball appears to have survived the encroaching shadow of more aggressive
  sports, and with any luck it will survive its own internicine struggles. While
  we may wonder how the game will “play” in the century to come, we are best advised
  to immerse ourselves in the “play” of the game on-field.

Whatever draws you to the game, feel free to examine it, and feel free to append
  your own thoughts on this subject as we celebrate the beginning of another baseball
  season—an event that affirms, as both Diakanoff and Skolnik suggest in
  their quite different contexts, our celebration of the human need to seek
  transformation and renewal
.

Play ball!

Don Malcolm Posted: April 04, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 1 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Rickey! In a van on 95 south... Posted: April 05, 2001 at 12:03 AM (#603621)
Damn, Don. That's possibly the best thing I've read on the philosophy of baseball since Giammatti's "Take Time for Paradise." Honestly, I didn't know you had it in you. Great work.

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