Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rodriguez, 13

It is the baseball season again.  The time is here to go to the parks and buy $12 beers and $6 hot dogs. I like baseball, though I wouldn't consider myself a genuine fan of the sport, or of any sport really.  I never have the foggiest idea of which teams are part of which division, or where they sit in those divisions in terms of wins and losses, which players are on their team, or even which team is from which city.  But I love going to and watching the games like almost nothing else.  My favorite structures are often constructed by Christians and sport's teams.  A baseball stadium is a sacred national structure. 

I have said before that sports are where excellence meets insignificance, and this is a partial truth. Ultimately who wins or loses matters very little, some would say not at all, though I'm uncertain if this significance can be truly measured.  It doesn't matter to me. I'll leave it at that.  But to witness athletes performing well, and in unison, is a fantastic thing. To witness the heartbreak of a child whose team is in trouble gives one all the necessary insight into the sometimes special significance of sports.

I question whether outsiders (and by outsiders I mean foreigners) can easily understand the subtleties of the game.  Not being a baseball fan has not kept me from appreciating the game along the way, even playing it as a child.  Playing the game helps one to understand it, something many Americans have done as they grew up.  Just going to a professional game without any frame of reference can be a difficult and trying experience, often requiring nearly perpetual intake of beer.

It is the heroic ethic come to life.  It is divided on the team level into locales or regions, some regions even having two teams (New York, Chicago and L.A.). But the sport itself is as national as it is possible to be and as such it is infused with as much national pride.  For all of the occasional meatheadedness of its fan base the game itself can be very intelligent. It requires a finesse and precision very few sports can lay claim to.  Older players can continue to play not because it requires an enormous amount of athleticism, though that doesn't hurt, but rather because the special skill set needed to excel at the game develops over time so that older players can be more valuable than younger players, an inversion of the usual sports message about life. 

The teams represent their regions and their nation in an entirely unique way.  Golf is one player against the rest of the world. Tennis is the same, though with an occasional partner doubling the number without changing the essential dynamic.  All the way up to American football where there is essentially a war machine fighting to move the line of battle into the opponents territory, with great effort committed by a great many people.

Baseball is a very modern arrangement. The individual player has a portion of the field that is their responsibility and they are separated from the other players by sometimes great distances, granting a semblance of individualism which requires an incredible unity of purpose to prevent from lapsing into team failure. When the inning is complete they surrender the field gracefully to the other team. It is won by skill rather than force and direct opposition, though it does become occasionally necessary to make contact with the other player when in possession of the ball and advancement to the next plate is not required by the presence of subsequent players achieving a base run.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid descriptions of the rules of the game, but it is difficult to do.  The rules of the game are a big part of what makes the game so unique.  For this same reason my European friends will criticize American's general lack of interest in soccer.  The rules seem arbitrary and the conflict between the two teams obscure and oftentimes difficult to detect. The various team playing styles in baseball are likewise difficult to perceive and understand without previous knowledge.

A quick aside, another major reason that Americans are turned off by soccer is the acceptance of feigned injuries in the sport.  The dramatics with which a player will appear injured to draw a foul, only to jump right back up to action the second after the whistle is blown, strikes the American mind as unacceptably corrupt.  If a basketball or football player were to lie down after physical contact with another player then they would be expected to be taken off of the field, usually to not return during that game as they are injured and no longer able to perform for their team.  It seems abhorrent that falsely dramatizing an injury is an integral part of how a team wins a game.  One need only watch Italy play to understand their singular role in the creation of opera.

(Also, there is the possibility of a tie in soccer, a perplexing situation which requires knowledge of the team's standings for the season, and where the game was played, whether at home or away, and certain intricacies of sports diplomacy that perhaps escape the American mind. A tie simply does not fit into the Manichean worldview of most Americans. There is only victory or defeat that will be renamed victory. Just like in war.)

So, baseball:

As I had said previously, a player can continue to play as they get older, and even show visible signs antithesis to athleticism (Pete Rose's waistline expansion being a perfect example).  But speed is an integral part of the game and there is only so much of it a player can lose before they become entirely ineffectual. Speed and accuracy,  these are the cornerstone qualities of the game, though an individual player must orchestrate several skills in direct unison with other players to achieve the desired "outs" to end the inning.  It is in this orchestration that the real poetry of baseball can be witnessed. A double play is one of the most exciting plays of the game. This is where the team on the field achieves two of the needed three "outs" to end the inning, and along with it the chance for the team at bat to score points.  

The opposite of this action would be a triple accomplished by the team at bat. Nothing in the game is more exciting than a triple.  It almost always requires at least one error by the team on the field, and it creates an expectancy of things to come like no other in the game.  Home runs are boring in comparison. Most fans do not even bother to watch the batter round the bases after a home run. It is immediately accepted and tallied in the mind of the fan and the batter/runner rounding the bases becomes merely a ceremonial function. It has the effect almost of a live commercial break when witnessed at the park.

Well, I'm out of time today.  I had hoped to attempt a summation of the game here but there is still far too much left unsaid.  Perhaps tomorrow I will give the literary operatic version of the game, distilling it down to only the easily understandable components, those that are recognizable through gesture across a great distance, accompanied by music, and song.