“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers.”
Written in 1982 by an American author, W.P. Kinsella, immortalized by James Earl Jones in the 1989 blockbuster Field of Dreams, these powerful words from Shoeless Joe seem more apt in today’s world, after the recent tragedy, after the suspension of nearly a week of baseball games. This suspension of America’s game was the longest since the entire last month of the baseball season was cancelled in 1918 because of American involvement in the First World War. And yet, in the hearts of Americans everywhere, in the minds of baseball fans and players alike is the knowledge that baseball will, like America, live on forever.
With the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and the honest purity of America’s game, we are at home. We are comforted by the likes of Cal Ripken, Jr., Frank Thomas and Tony Gwynn. We grew up watching giants, legendary demigods that seemed to surpass the normal abilities of humans everywhere. As young children, their pictures were both idols and gold to us. And when those legends cease play, when they have to mourn, it reminds us of the impact of New York’s tragedy.
The suspension of the games last week seemed to reinforce the tragedy, seemed to underscore the impact this event would have on the world. But baseball had to stop. Even if Bud Selig could protect every fan, even if he could guarantee that no stadium would fall prey to the barbarous acts of terrorists, baseball needed to stop and mourn. Baseball is a living thing. It lives and breathes off American freedom. Liberty and American pride are the sustenance upon which baseball lives. And when these are challenged, when they are attacked, baseball needed to stop, to rest, to pensively reflect on America.
But it would resume. It would return to comfort America, it would return to stand by our sides. Baseball would be our safety blanket, the first sign of life returning to normal. Kinsella said, “[It] is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables.” When, 30, 40, 50 years from now, our children, grandchildren look back to see who took home the October Classic in 2001, they will note that October was played into November ? they will remember. Six days’ rest, six days without America’s game. It is a missing part of the thread of baseball history that will remind us of Sept. 11, 2001.
The first baseball league was founded on March 17, 1871. American professional baseball is 130 years old. It has seen two presidents killed, five wars, a World Series scandal, a season-ending strike and now the most horrendous terrorist strike in American history. But it has survived. Even as its legends walked off to war, the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, baseball remained at home. And it, like America, will survive this.
It is a clichÃ© to say that baseball is a metaphor for America. It is a clichÃ© to put baseball on the level of apple pie, summer road trips and fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is a clichÃ© to match up the history of baseball with the history of greatest nation on Earth. But behind every clichÃ© is a popular acceptance of its good reasoning. Like America, baseball has survived because of a foundation in integrity and strength. Its complexity and nuances intrigue Americans. It is no mistake that, in general, most Europeans find baseball confusing and utterly boring. Americans have made baseball our own. Even as it spreads across the world, as its magic infiltrates Latin America, the Caribbean and Japan, young players yearn to play in the likes of Fenway, Wrigley and Yankee Stadium.
Spirits from the cornfields of the Midwest are constantly reincarnated. “He’s got the swing of Joe.” “That one has the looks of the Babe.” “He throws the heater like Ryan.” Baseball recycles itself off of its past. Joe DiMaggio has gone nowhere; he lives in every game played today, in every pitch, in every victory. Look around the next time you’re in the house that Ruth built, or in the Jake, take it in and live with it. In every bleacher seat and hot dog, you will find a little bit of America. And that is why it feels and tastes so good.
Even if one doesn’t like the game, even if one can’t stand it, one has to respect it. One has to be able to have some common knowledge of the game, of what it stands for in the very least. One has to be able to defend it in front of its critics. Just like America, baseball has its problems ? free agency, money grubbing, Alex Rodriguez ? but it transcends its little conflicts. Baseball is anything but temporal.
Immortalized in American culture, the sport has taken on its own life. When designed, it was not the American game. When commissioned, the first baseball leagues did not expect to survive like they did. Baseball exists inside its own universe and it has survived because of its fans. And the best fan is the little boy, sitting in right field, tugging at the tiny leather straps of his well-oiled glove, hoping that he might be able to make the play of the day, wishing that everyone would set him upon their shoulders and carry him off the field, dreaming.
How does Kinsella respond to his monologue, to his treatise on baseball and what it stands for? “You talk a good dream.” And he does. He talks our dream. And that dream is baseball, America.