Business Maverick, Sport

Baseball’s back to the fields of dreams

Baseball’s back to the fields of dreams

Across the big ocean, baseball's many fans are preparing for another mouth-watering season of action. But baseball, like cricket, is also much more than just about hitting and catching a ball. It is a true timeless metaphor for American life.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair.
The rest clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat…”

And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow….

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s magnificent 120-year-old faux-heroic poem, “Casey at the Bat”, was the first literary work to set out all the elements of baseball’s enduring mythology of sporting skill, hope, redemption and noble failure. In the decades after Thayer, in countless public readings, reprinting, Disney cartoon versions and rote memorisations by millions of children across the country, “Casey at the Bat” helped imbed baseball firmly in the American psyche.

In the years that followed, writers as varied as David Remnick, James Thurber, Stephen King and John Updike all turned to baseball for inspiration – and scientists as influential as Stephen Jay Gould sought out baseball as a statistical wonderland to evaluate the profundities of Darwinian evolution.

America’s professional baseball teams have just wrapped up their pre-season training in Florida and Arizona after all the off-season testimonial dinners, the endless rounds of winter rules golf, reading the stock market pages and replaying in the mind all those hundreds of games played in 2009. Now they’ve begun to play the games that count. In spring training pitchers worked to bring some precision back into lazy throwing arms and the hitters struggled to refine their reflexes. Their “eyes” need to be ready for the newest season of 162 games, played from April to October. In even the worst teams, hope still springs eternal. There is always a chance to reach the playoffs, and maybe even the World Series, if the gods are kind this year.

Photo: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth – the two most feared hitters of the famed murders’ row of the ’20s and ’30s New York Yankees. Until Hank Aaron broke the record, Ruth was the all-time career leader in home runs.

Spring training is that brief span when veterans hope they can squeeze just one more good season out of their aging bodies; young players, meanwhile, hope this will be the year they make their break into the big leagues – to taste of the cornucopia of money and fame that has been tempting them, but dangling just beyond reach since they began their quest to be one of about 800 big-league players. These temptations of baseball, transmuted into a witty retelling of the Faust story, powered one of Broadway’s great musicals, “Damn Yankees!”

There it is: “the quest” as governing metaphor. Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, draws on the Greek legends of the quest: Jason and the Argonauts in pursuit of the Golden Fleece; Odysseus and his journey; Hercules’ (or Sisyphus’) labours. Baseball also echoes the wounding of the centaur as older players inevitably are challenged and ultimately replaced by newer, younger ones, new hopes for fans as they call out,  “Get ’em again next year!”

Watch: President Obama throws out the first pitch, Opening Day, 2010

On Monday night, President Barack Obama threw the first ceremonial ball in Washington as the Nationals faced the Phillies. Of course, the defending National League champions crushed the Washington Nationals in the game 11-1. This year is the 100th anniversary of American presidents throwing the ceremonial first ball at the start of the season – a task first performed by William Howard Taft in 1910. 

Of the start of the season, George Vecsey, one of the country’s best-known sports writers, has written, “There is no sports event like the Opening Day of baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League.” Written like a true baseball fanatic. And, this season’s first game, a riveting battle on Easter Sunday evening between two of the game’s best teams, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, was a contest that swayed back and forth until the Red Sox finally won in front of yet another sold-out stadium crowd in Boston.

Photo: Two of baseball’s great African American stars – Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson. Aaron hit 755 home runs in his career – the all-time record for an individual, (although the steroid drug-tainted Barry Bonds has now hit a few more) and Jackie Robinson was the player who integrated major league baseball as an inspiring team leader with the Brooklyn, then Los  Angeles Dodgers

Boston and New York’s intensity of fan support demonstrates the almost tribal nature of American feelings for their home teams, the teams they grew up with, the teams whose radio broadcasts they listened to as children deep into all those tranquil summer evenings. For teams in older cities like Boston, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, one’s loyalty is automatic, wordless and primordial. For other teams, in cities that have grown quickly in recent years like Phoenix, Houston, Denver or San Diego, a baseball team gives new migrants a way to get in sync with one’s new home.

The legend says General Abner Doubleday, from the bucolic town of Cooperstown, New York, in a moment of protean genius, gave the game to a grateful nation in 1839. The legend is nice, but baseball (and cricket too, so you Anglophiles can stop your muttering out there) actually evolved from origins in “rounders”, “town ball” and “base ball” – all played in England and America from the 1700s.

American baseball took on its near-contemporary form during the American Civil War as young men from across the nation were brought together in large armies. When they weren’t in battle, organised sport was a way to build military unit cohesion. After the war, the first full-time professional team was formed in 1869 and it took on (and mostly beat) challengers across the country for decades. The game seemed to fit a buoyant, growing America like a glove. Soon, teams were in every big (and some not-so-big) city. By the end of the 19th century, the rules were codified and the structure of two major leagues was in place, generating a multitude of statistics that have been kept religiously ever since. With this wealth of data, players, fans and sports writers can spend endless hours comparing players and teams over a 100 years’ of play in thousands and thousands of games and millions of individual plays.

Photo: Following DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle (L) became the team’s star player. Mantle was the Yankees great switch hitter (i.e. hitting both as a left and right-hander) and was near flawless outfielder. Joe DiMaggio, the famed  “Yankee Clipper”, became the New York Yankees’ great star in the 1940s and early 50s. DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games – a record that still stands and that many believe will never be broken. Willie Mays was the great challenger to Mantle and Aaron as a home run hitter and the peerless fielder for the New York (then San Francisco) Giants.

These very records underscore one of baseball’s ugly sides. Mirroring the racial segregation of the US, baseball’s major leagues excluded African American players, relegating them to “Negro Leagues” where conditions were hard, the players poorly paid and records rarely kept.  It took a few brave team managers and owners to bring integration into American baseball after World War II, but the long-term result became the internationalisation of American baseball.

Photo: Robert Clemente, seen here after he made his 3,000th hit, was the game’s first great Latin American star. Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and – in the off-season in 1972 – died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission delivering relief supplies in the Caribbean after a major hurricane.

While the game does not yet rival soccer for universal popularity, baseball is widely and furiously played in many Latin American and Caribbean countries and, increasingly, throughout East Asia and even in European nations such as the Netherlands. Japan and Korea’s baseball rivalry is already legendary. Hundreds of players have come from all these countries to play in the major leagues now. There is even one South African – Gift Ngoepe from Randburg – on the roster of one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lower division “farm” teams.

The very textures of baseball have become thoroughly woven into American society and language – even for people who aren’t baseball fans. To hit a home run, to call someone a screwball, to throw someone a curve are all universally understood metaphors for aspects of real life. And then, of course, the way young men will ask each other if they managed to get to first base, or further, with a girl is pretty well understood too. The obverse of this is, of course, one’s inability to even get a “loud foul” or, worse, to totally strike out.  One can strike out with lots of things, but the baseball origin gives the phrase its full texture of total futility. Baseball and a longing for its long-gone stars infiltrates popular culture in strange ways, as in the poignant refrain of loss in one of Simon and Garfunkel’s best-known songs, “Mrs. Robinson”:

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away”

Baseball’s labour relations have increasingly been the subject of bitter struggles including the astounding cancellation of much of the 1994 season, the first time the World Series professional championship match-up hadn’t taken place since 1904. At the heart of the sport’s labour troubles were disputes over salaries – no surprise there – with its best players increasingly able to negotiate extraordinary salaries with the financially strongest clubs, even as team owners in smaller cities and media markets claimed to be in growing financial distress. The labour troubles of the sport left a sour taste in the mouths of its fans and it took many years for a significant percentage of its fans to re-embrace the game – at least in its increasingly highly paid professional version.

Photo: Hideki Matsui – already a great star in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants (as shown) – moved to the US where he became an even bigger star, playing for the Yankees. He is now playing with the Los Angeles Angels in California. Reuters.

But this author’s favourite story about baseball, however, is mostly about what might have been in the history of Latin American communism. Fidel Castro, when he was a young, radical, leftist medical student, was also baseball mad. He tried out for a contract with the old Washington Senators. They were a truly hapless team, their endless failures gave rise to a jibe that went: “Washington – first in war, first in peace (recalling the life of that other Washington, George), but last in the American League.”

Anyway, the young Castro was desperate to be a big-league pitcher. But at his tryout, according to the scouts, while Castro had a blazing fastball pitch, he had no curve ball as backup pitch (or, for all you cricket fans, no googly). Sadly, his life’s desire would go unfulfilled. Truly frustrated, he and a few dozen of his friends retreated up into the mountains to plot the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista instead. Now, just imagine how different the world would have been if Castro had had a second pitch to go with his good fastball?

Photo: Fidel Castro in 1959.

And so, it is spring and we are filled with a sense of possibility. Sing along with the chorus of what could be the world’s best-known sports song (besides those songs appropriated by some of those soccer teams).  “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written by two songwriters 100 years ago; two men who had never even been to a baseball game, but who knew a really good thing when they saw it

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

The umpires yell, “Play ball!” – the crowds roar again and another year of America’s cycle begins anew.

By J Brooks Spector

For much more, go to the Washington Post for a report on Barack Obama at the stadium, the sports section of any American newspaper like The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Sporting News, the Baseball Almanac, or the New York Times’ roundup of great baseball books.

Main photo: Atlanta Braves rookie batter Jason Heyward watches his three-run home run which was his first ever home run, in his first at bat off of Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, in the first inning of MLB baseball action in Atlanta, Georgia, April 5, 2010. At left is Cubs catcher Geovany Soto. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Watch: CostasNOW: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays (HBO)


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