The Big Question: Dan Rosenheck argues that baseball encapsulates the bulk of life's experiences...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012
Much of the appeal of sport lies in pushing the limits of our physical capability. Disciplines like track and field or weightlifting isolate specific skills, whereas complex team sports require a broader mix of athletic gifts. But they both make the spectator who could never hope to run so fast or leap so high marvel at what other members of the same species can achieve.
The allure of baseball is precisely the opposite. It encapsulates the bulk of life’s experiences rather than showcasing the extremes. Strength and speed come in handy, to be sure. But they are modest advantages rather than essentials, making the game supremely egalitarian. If you are male, no matter what you look like, there has been a star baseball player who looks like you, from 140lb “Wee” Willie Keeler to the gluttonous Babe Ruth. All it takes is a little hand-eye co-ordination and a heck of a lot of practice.
Most other professional sports consist of a series of high-profile signature events spaced out anywhere from every few days to every few months. But baseball’s regular season reflects the daily grind of a modern routine: it runs to 162 games. Baseball’s finest hitters fail to reach base six times out of ten, and its fielders are pilloried if they make an error even 3% of the time. Unlike most team sports, it is broken up into discrete individual actions—no teammate can help you throw, hit or catch the ball. It was said that the famous hitter Ted Williams personified late-season games "when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance…always threatens its interest, which can be maintained [only] by players who always care…about themselves and their art." That was John Updike: baseball is subtle and interesting enough to attract some great writing.
All that egalitarianism, and then come the three short play-off series in October, which can negate a whole year’s work in a fraction of a second: a compelling allegory for life’s fundamental unfairness. For all his prolific accomplishments, Williams never won a World Series, and failed to deliver in many of his club’s most crucial contests.
As a uniquely quantifiable sport with statistics going back more than a century, baseball places modern society in the context of history. Rather than the steady march of progress in, say, 100-metre times, baseball is forever putting us in our place, reminding us that most of today’s finest players are not as dominant as those of the 1910s or 1920s.
Other sports may reflect our hopes and dreams. But only baseball shows how far we need to go to achieve them.
What do you think is the best sport? Have your say by voting on our online poll.
Read Patrick Barclay on football, Tanya Aldred on athletics, Samantha Weinberg on equestrianism and Sambit Bal on cricket
Dan Rosenheck is the online Americas editor of The Economist