So, as an escape from perpetually pondering the perils of politics, I attend, not the All-Star Game, but minor-league baseball, with several friends, and make a big discovery. But first let me say this: Incredible pitching, graceful and adept fielding, a joy to behold – just 10 bucks a ticket to see the Camden Riversharks, plus cheap and convenient parking!
That’s right, Camden, America’s municipal armpit, somehow manages to accommodate this sweet little gem of a 6,500-seat stadium, with fabulous funnel cakes and other irresistible culinary delights, AND real grass instead of Astroturf, which scores big with me. Bobby Abreu’s brother’s on deck for the home team, which gives hope any boy can become – if not president someday– then definitely a Yankee!
What I discover is a whole other level of baseball fan I had never before encountered or even considered – the dedicated aficionados of minor-league play. You could say their fondness for farm teams takes their love of baseball to a higher, purer realm, unencumbered by major-league baseball’s slumping multi-million-dollar players, persistent steroid scandals, ubiquitous labor strife, endless contract negotiations, pricey tickets, crappy food, crippling traffic jams – you get the picture.
My activist-poet friend and retired social worker “Cobb,” not his real name, gets the tickets and organizes these occasional sporting excursions. I ride over to the game with my book-collecting buddy let’s call “Wilbert,” who played in the minor leagues for two years after college until his body rebelled. Now he’s a lawyer, drives a Mercedes and figures human beings just were never built for baseball – pitching, for example –all that repetitive motion. No wonder the arm wears out.
To this day, “Wilbert” ruefully admits he’d have played in a heartbeat, anywhere, for whomever’d have had him – which goes a long way to explain baseball wannabes of all ages signing up each new season for pricey spring training camps in Florida, or even fantasy baseball leagues for the more virtually inclined.
What is it about baseball that has such a hold on us? Is baseball a persistent fetish for Little League leftovers? An atavistic exercise in Zen? Exquisite boredom punctuated by bursts of excitement? A billion-dollar business? Something magical? Or what?
As Bruce Hoffman discerns so beautifully in “Baseball Zen,” for the Pittsburgh Quarterly:
When you think about it, baseball makes no sense. Unless, of course, you think about it too much. Then it makes all the sense in the world. There’s wisdom in baseball. And mystery. Something infinite and indefinable. Like America, contradiction is what it does best. A simple game riddled with nuance and complexity. A team sport in which each player stands alone. A game of excellence in which failure is the norm. Like Zen it reconciles the simplicity of the soul with the complexity of the universe and vice versa. It finds truth in paradox. It’s even got a Yogi and more than its share of koans. … Baseball is infinite. It has no limits of time or space. … No other sport stirs the imagination like baseball. You’ll never hear a hockey rink or gridiron referred to as a “field of dreams.” And baseball inspires far more stories, poems, essays and films than any other game. … My favorite baseball movie’s “Bull Durham” – the only one to capture the game’s fundamental ontological contradictions – timelessness, symbolism, mysticism, simplicity. My wife claims it’s not about baseball at all, but sex. She misses the point. Of course, “Bull Durham’s” about sex. It’s also about religion and poetry. So is baseball. … Simplicity and enlightenment. Forever and the moment. American Zen. Baseball’s all that and none of it. If it were consistent, it wouldn’t be fun.
Yes, baseball marks boys – and some girls – forever.
In his book “Games and Men,” Roger Caillois, a French sociologist, assigned the following characteristics to activities to be classified as a game:
- Fun. The activity’s selected for its light-hearted character.
- Separate: It’s circumscribed in time and place.
- Uncertain: It has an unforeseeable outcome.
- Non-productive: Play as play.
- Governed by rules: Different standards than everyday life.
- Fictitious: Accompanied by the awareness of an alternate or parallel reality.
Meanwhile, home later that night after the Riversharks game, I send cosmic gratitude to Yetta, my late mother, for introducing me to baseball as a kid growing up in N.J. –she’d iron in front of the television set, inevitably tuned to the New York Yankees. That’s what got me watching. Thanks, Ma!
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