Watching the many oblong games—football, basketball, soccer, hockey—might lead one to believe that our human purpose is to prevail in a territorial conquest. All these sports are essentially the same; as David Bentley Hart describes such games, they are contests “played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other’s territory to deposit some small object in the other’s goal or end zone.” Baseball, however, embodies a completely different narrative of the world, one that centers on home.
Perhaps the most articulate spokesperson for the game of baseball was A. Bartlett Giamatti, English professor, president of Yale, and—all too briefly—the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Giamatti links baseball’s unique narrative to its focus on home: “In America, the cluster of associations around the word, and its compounds, is perhaps more poignant because of the extraordinary mobility of the American people. From the beginning, we have been a nation constantly moving. As I have suggested elsewhere, the concept of home has a particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another.” The essay Giamatti refers to here is likely “Baseball and the American Character,” where he asks, “What is baseball, and indeed so much of the American experience, about but looking for home? Nostos, the desire to return home, gives us a nation of immigrants always migrating in search of home; gives us the American desire to start over in the great green garden, Eden of Canaan, of the New World.” The American pastime, Giamatti’s description suggests, offers a balm for our restless, competitive, and often militaristic culture.
Indeed, American culture can be understood as a conflict between the values of the oblong games and the values of baseball. Wallace Stegner observes that the American West was settled by two kinds of people, boomers and stickers. Boomers aim to conquer the land, to “pillage and run,” to win. They follow the narrative enacted by the oblong games. Stickers, however, cherish their homes; they “love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” Stegner hoped that eventually, these two types “will work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health” to their homes. This is the compromise that baseball embodies as each batter leaves home only in order to strive to return safely. It is perhaps significant that Stegner’s father, the quintessential Western boomer, “tried professional baseball but wasn’t quite good enough.”
While the various oblong games appeal to our boomer tendencies, playing and watching baseball might teach us how to get home. Baseball’s narrative teaches us that to return home we must rely on our communities, live according to seasonal time, and attend to local limits.
Baseball may seem like a fairly individualistic game. The duel between pitcher and batter calls forth individual feats of Odyssean cunning and prowess. Yet, like Odysseus, neither pitcher nor batter can succeed on his own, except for the rare instance of a home run. The pitcher needs the catcher and often other members of his team to record an out. If the batter does reach base by a walk, an error, or a hit, he is then dependent on his teammates to move him along; the runner is stranded on an island of safety in a sea of danger. Desperately wanting to continue toward home, he waits for his teammates’ help, which they often can provide only through personal sacrifice.
Similarly, making it home requires individual initiative, but it also requires the help of one’s family and community. Home is not some feat an individual can achieve on his own; rather, it is a gift into which we are born. Yet home is an incredibly fragile and threatened gift, one we can lose either through our own mistakes or through the shortcomings of others.
Many sports cultivate teamwork—although not in the finely balanced sense that baseball does—but baseball’s sense of time is unique. Baseball conditions us to operate according to kairos rather than kronos (although this cyclical time has been marred by the introduction of the clock between pitches and innings). The oblong games end arbitrarily when some clock runs out, treating players like factory workers waiting for the whistle to announce their freedom from drudgery. Baseball, however, runs according to seasonal time, its four bases perhaps corresponding to the four seasons of the year. The batter even progresses counterclockwise, flaunting his freedom from the tyranny of the clock. Because of its freedom from kronos, baseball always leaves time for redemption. Until the final out, the final strike, no deficit is insurmountable.
This cyclical time trains players and spectators in a steady, patient rhythm of attention. With each pitch, the fielders lean forward on the balls of their feet, ready to spring into action. Yet most of the time nothing happens. In oblong sports, the ongoing brawl over the ball makes for arhythmic rises in excitement as the ball approaches the goal or basket. This irregular rhythm corresponds to the frenetic demands our consumer culture makes on our attention—Look at this! Buy this! This is really important! This is even more important! Baseball, on the other hand, trains attention in steady pulses that reinforce a healthy household’s circadian, sabbatarian, yearly, and life-long rhythms. Most of life at home follows regular, repeated actions, and baseball’s understanding of time as a cyclical pattern attunes us to such rhythms.
Finally, like all good homes, baseball embraces local limits. While infield dimensions follow a fixed set of Platonic ideals, the outfield of each park is unique. These variations are unimaginable in oblong games; basketball teams can’t choose how far apart they want to set the two baskets. But baseball adapts to local conditions: Fenway’s Green Monster, Safeco’s spacious alleys, Coors’ field’s thin air, Yankee stadium’s short right field porch. Good teams learn to take advantage of their home field’s unique conditions.
While such local idiosyncrasies may call to mind the annoying quirks of provincial places, they are more akin to the way in which the parochial embodies eternal, catholic truths. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh contrasts the provincial, which is a backwater whose culture and economy depend on some distant metropolis, with the proud localism of the parochial. Thus Kavanagh concludes, “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” It is the local rather than the abstract that embodies eternal truths. As Hart notes in describing the unique dimensions of each park, “All these variations, all these hints of arbitrariness, are absolutely crucial to the aesthetics and moral metaphysics of the game because they remind us that fair territory is, in fact, conceptually limitless and extends endlessly beyond any outfield walls.” The local walls of our homes are not abstract, fungible absolutes but are healthy limits that orient our lives toward eternal verities. Freedom and success come when we learn to work within these limits.
Baseball’s rich narrative of homecoming is certainly marred by the commercialism, steroid use, and nationalism that infect its professional leagues. But as long as the game continues to be played in backyards and community parks, its formal beauty will still illuminate the players and spectators at all levels. Rather than the oblong games’ violent imperialism, baseball is still the pastime our deracinated country needs.
Jeffrey Bilbro is assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University.