There is nothing inherently good about baseball, at least not in a spiritual sense. It doesn’t make men better in and of itself. There is no dogma in baseball. There is no creed. And, as we all know, there is no crying in baseball, either. But that’s not the end of it. For baseball can act as a conduit for the goodness of the Creator, as anyone who has been fortunate enough to have played baseball will know.
If you’ve been to a baseball game, you know what it is about it, but you don’t know where that ‘it’ is to be found. There’s the scuff of the cleat on the rubber; the clipped breath of the runner dangling off the plate; the grunt of the pitcher; one of the sweetest sounds you’ll ever hear, the crack of the bat; the roar of the crowd or, if there is no crowd, the impossible silence as the ball lofts up into the tent of the sky, and the feeling—it almost makes a sound within you—of liberty.
And baseball will heal you. Bring a box of tangled wire, a ball of knotted twine, a heap of broken heart, a clutter of twisted misery to the baseball diamond and spend enough time listening to the thump of the ball in the glove, the sound of the wind on the dust, and looking at the blue salute of the indivisible sky, and baseball will make you whole again. Bring your defeated soul to baseball, and baseball will, by the unchangeable truth of its geometry and the eternal vectors of its freedoms, speak to you, call you by name, and—not teach—but allow you to remember who you have always been.
That’s what draws boys to the game, makes knights of them and tutors them, inducts them in the ways of men that no one can enumerate, or even guess at. It’s the very wordlessness of it all. There is a square, a diamond, bounded by two dirt lanes and stretching off into a semicircle beyond. There is an interaction. Someone, who is your adversary but who is not your enemy, shows his respect for you by throwing his most difficult pitch at you, and you show your respect for him by trying to hit it so far away that, hopefully, the ball will never be found again.
This is the tabula writ in all men’s hearts, this yearning for excellence that the Greeks knew as arête. We must strive, we must contend, we must throw and swing and run as hard and as fast as we can. If we can do this while also respecting our rivals, then we can know honor, that rarest of things that even the old Olympian deities were forced to envy, because it is found only among mortal men.
Baseball is thus best when both teams are at their best. Some baseball games are played by hulking, drugged men with bad attitudes, millionaires with endorsement contracts for athlete’s foot cream and erectile dysfunction pills. This is one form of baseball, but the best baseball games are played either by young boys or by old men; for, when the object is arête and the prize is glory, it matters very little what the numbers on the scoreboard say, if at all.
Baseball doesn’t care what color you are, or what shape or size, or how old or crippled or infirm. The essence of the game is written in our hearts—there is a deep etiological significance to this, if we would only stop to think about it for a little while. There is a reason that the Vikings imagined their heroes locked in eternal combat in Valhalla. It wasn’t because they were belligerent or bloodthirsty or deranged—no, far from it. It was because they knew that there is goodness in the striving. And it is on the baseball field that we remember this, and understand.
Jason M. Morgan teaches world history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.