The first thing I learned about baseball is this: If you raise your hand a man will bring you food. I learned this at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and in my first year as a fan I spent most of the game facing the wrong way. Raise my hand, get ice cream, raise my hand, get popcorn, raise my hand, get peanuts. It was 1958.
Two years later I understood it was a game. On summer afternoons I’d beg my brothers to take me with them to the ball park. I was falling in love with baseball.
If baseball has taken hold of you too, you know it’s about more than your team winning. Sports, like religion, offer consolations: A diversion from our daily routine, heroic examples to admire and emulate and a sense of drama and conflict in which nobody dies. But even now, in the midst of watching Olympic sports on television, we know that one click away on another channel our truest cultural contest is being played out.
John Gregory Dunne wrote that, “Baseball is the couch on which we examine our psyches”. George Will said, “Baseball is the universe”. And catcher Wes Westrum said, “Baseball is like church, many attend but few understand.”
We have these sayings and many more because baseball is one of the greatest sources of metaphor in American life. And understanding metaphor is important because having and using metaphor is what allows us to talk about intangibles like spiritual life.
The historian, E.H. Gombrich, wrote, “Every culture has its favored sources of metaphor which facilitate communication among its members. Any cultures religion is what provides the central area of metaphor. The Olympus or Heaven of any nation will offer language and symbols of power and compassion, of good and evil, of menace and of consolation”.
Americans live so far inside the institution of baseball and so deeply in its metaphors that we can’t even see it. You say you’re not a sports fan? But have you ever said: “She’s always in there pitching”. “You can’t even get to first base with him.” He’s out in left field.” “She was born with two strikes against her.” Listen to people speak. We are talking baseball all day long.
Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Meaning of Sports says baseball is important to Americans because it comes directly from our agrarian past before the tyranny of the clock. Bart Giamatti, former President of Yale and former Commissioner of Baseball said, “Baseball has no clock and indeed moves counterclockwise, so anxious is it to establish its own rhythms independent of clock time.”
Baseball is one of the few sports that remain timeless. A game can be fast or slow. In this one area of our lives the clock isn’t driving; we surrender the clock to the event. But there is something else in this game that asserts the primordial and the spiritual: In baseball we begin and end at home. Home plate is not fourth base. The goal of the game is to get home and to be safe.
We all want that: Home is a concept not a place. Home implies safety, accessibility, freedom, comfort. Home is where we learn to be both with others and separate. That’s what baseball players are: individual athletes with distinct areas of responsibility but also and always a team. We crave this in craving baseball. That is why even while we watch the Olympics and celebrate those athletes we also change the channel and cheer for our team. We are keeping the faith.