Let’s be honest. The most popular game in America these days is brutal. I’m talking about the incessantly broadcast game of professional football, a game, as they say ‘won in the trenches’, a term borrowed from WWI and the Maginot line. Today instead it is the offensive or defensive line. Yes, there are thrilling plays in football— elegantly arched passes to diving receivers, runners weaving their way through traffic heading for the endzone. But most of the actual play on the football field is not beautiful. It involves holding, pushing, shoving, tackling, hitting— especially hitting these days. The game’s name should be changed from tackle football to hit football. Launching one’s body at another human being, outside the football field is called assault. It is not beautiful. It is ugly.
Football, if it is possible, has become even more of a bloodsport today, than it was when padding was not nearly so good. It does a good job of feeding our lust for the dramatic, for a thrill a moment, and our voyeuristic joy in watching someone else crash and burn. Baseball, except for the occasional collision on the base paths or at home plate is not about players smashing up other players. It’s about beauty, and it’s about life and what is good in human striving.
If you have not been under a rock, and have watched this truly memorable World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers, you will see lots of amazing individual and team achievements. Say, Albert Pujols’ three monster home runs in Arlington which conjured up images of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. Or say the hometown boy David Freese made good, almost single-handedly staving off elimination in Game Six when the Cardinals were down to their last strike, twice. Or watching a guy built like a lineman, a catcher named Napoli, time and again lift his team with his bat or throws as the crowd chanted Napoli, Napoli, Napoli.
The problem with football, especially college football, is that with one loss even at the beginning of the season, you can be out of the championship hunt. That, frankly, is not merely a buzzkill, its cruel. Contrast that to baseball.
The St. Louis Cardinals, for a great deal of the season were not very good. Indeed, on Sept. 1, they were so far behind in the wildcard race, they weren’t even in anybody’s rear view mirror. And even after 161 games, the issue was not settled as to who would be the wild card team. It turned out to be….wait for it….. the Wild Cards.
Baseball was and is about redemption after losses, even devastating losses. It’s the game that is most like life. It is a game of children played by adults. In what other sport can you get a hit only one try out of three, failing two thirds of the time, and end up in a Hall of Fame? None. None that I know of. Thank goodness life is more like baseball than football. In what other sport can you fail magnificently, completely, repeatedly, in double digits, and still go on to win a world championship?
In an age of individualism, and rampant narcissism, baseball remains a team sport. There are some baseball players, even today, who have exactly one specialized skill. They don’t look like athletes, they can’t run like athletes, they would never make even a semi-pro team in other sports. But there they are, playing professional baseball. I’m talking about players like Darren Oliver. A big man who has played in the majors twenty years. What does he do? He is a relief pitcher who comes in, usually to get exactly one or two hitters out. That’s it. Or take one of my favorites– Eric Hinske. He can’t run worth a darn. His fielding is no better than mine. But put him in as a pinch hitter when the chips are down— and watch him hit yet another miracle home run in the clutch. That’s beautiful.
Most of us cannot identify with transcendent athletes like a Michael Jordan or a Deion Sanders, or an Albert Pujols. They are way beyond our reach or pay grade. But if you love baseball, you can dream of being little Ryan Theriot, a good fielder. Or an Eric Hinske. The thing about baseball is it really does confirm to you that even the ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances can do the extraordinary, can transcend the mundane and shine for a moment.
People complain that baseball has long stretches of play that are boring. We are used to instant everything these days, and have no patience at all. But in fact baseball is not boring, if you actually bother to learn the game. Baseball is only boring to those who completely lack imagination, or the patience to learn the game. It is a game of inches, of positioning, of strategy moment to moment. And it is the only major untimed game where the play always begins with the ball in the hands of the defensive player, not the offense. Life is very much like that— the deck is stacked against the little man standing in the batter’s box hoping to swing away. Will he beat the odds?
Well last night, our faith in humanity was restored once again. The Cards did not merely beat the long odds… they stomped that sucker flat. They refused to die, refused to quit, refused to give up. Sometimes athletes just go through the motions, day after day. They have lost their joy of playing, lost the child-like glee in doing something well for its own sake. Not so in this World Series. Both those teams to a man let it all hang out and left it on the field. They did not play like professionals. They played like kids (see the picture above). They played like Ernie Banks did, who once said “let’s play two”.
Our country and our American culture has become much coarser over the span of my lifetime. When I was a child, you could never see WWF body destroying bloodsport on TV. You would never glorify taunting. Indeed you could be kicked off a team for bad sportsmanship. Today however it is not about ‘how you play the game’. It’s all about just win baby, at any cost— even at the cost of cheating with drugs, or deliberate attempts to harm someone else by throwing your body at them.
But frankly, life is not all about winning at any and all costs. It’s about character, shown even when no one is watching. It’s about the good, the true, the beautiful. It’s about sportsmanship, about caring about others. It’s about not even wanting to win unless it could be done in the right and moral way. It’s even about loving your noble and worthy adversaries.
We got glimpses of the good, the true, and the beautiful during this World Series if you were watching. Both teams left their hearts and souls out there on the field, for the good of the common cause. They knew the game was not about them as individuals so much as it was about the good of the team. Baseball is a morality play…. not a video game. But then life is a morality play as well.
Long after Albert Pujols is in the Hall of Fame, there will still be a living memory of the hometown kid who grew up idolizing Jim Edmonds, grew up not far from old Busch stadium. Long after Pujols signs another mammoth contract there will be a living memory especially in St. Louis of David Freese. On a down and rainy day. On a cold winter’s night many years from now, someone will simply say to his friend in a St. Louis restaurant— ‘David Freese’…. and they will both smile, and remember, and think what a beautiful thing it was to be alive to see one ordinary person emerge from obscurity and help his hometown team do the improbable….showing the resiliency of the human spirit.
Yes baseball is beautiful not merely because it can involve remarkably elegant play. It is beautiful because it is a parable of what we can be—- our best selves, even under pressure, our most winsome selves. Thank goodness.