The major league baseball season opened its 112th season, on March 31. The World Series will go into October. The playing seasons major sports now encroach on each other; the distinction between winter and summer sports is less pertinent with domed stadiums and air travel to better climes. The endless playoffs, designed to enable the best team to win, often have the best team exhausted by the end of the season.
Yet the beginning of the baseball season has its charm. Traditionally, the president tosses out the first ball in Washington. We hear the great names again—the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Phillies, and the Cardinals. When we speak of “world champions,” we still usually mean baseball.
Our language is replete with baseball language: “There is no tomorrow” of the Series’ seventh game. “You’re blind, Ump!” “On the mound.” “Steals second.” “A foul ball.” “A sacrifice fly.” “A home run.” “Batter up.” I asked two students in class who Ted Williams was. Neither knew. But most do not know who wrote the Epistle to the Romans either, even with a cell phone on which they can call it up.
Baseball is a game that does not begin with the roll of the dice or the toss of the coin. And baseball is unique in that it has no time limit. Modern college basketball lasts forty official minutes, which, with timeouts and breaks, usually stretches to two hours. The Super Bowl is supposed to last exactly one official hour, but we all know it lasts four, three of which are devoted to “entertainment” or advertising time-outs.
What is the reason that football, say, begins with the toss of a coin? It is an aspect of justice. The wind, the condition of the field, or the psychology of the game makes a difference. To obviate bias if we left it up to mere human beings, we have the beginning coin toss. It is arbitrary yet rational, provided the coin does not have two heads or two tails. To prove this two sidedness is the reason the referee in football shows both sides of the coin before tossing it.
In baseball, this problem is solved by custom. In one’s home field, the visitor bats first, the home team last. So it is balanced off when the home team goes to the visitor’s field. The visitor bats first.
Chance is a part of games. Recent efforts to have “replays” of close calls are efforts to control arbitrary or chance mistakes. Whether it is a good idea to eliminate them is a question worth asking. We can come close to making our games into robot shows if we are not careful. I am a little bit on the side of the famous “blind umpire” who misses a call now and then. Over the long run it will even out. Some mistakes and injustices are part of games, just as they are part of human lives. Games quietly teach us more than we know.
Many chance elements exist in any game. The game may be called because of lightning. The opposing pitcher, who is usually lousy, is brilliant on the day we show up. The point is not that we try to eradicate chance. It is part of our lives. We learn to live with it. If we call heads but it turns up tails, well, so be it. To change the metaphor, we play with the cards we are dealt. The home field advantage is usually a real advantage. But in two weeks we will play on the other team’s home field.
The rules of sports are based on fairness and justice. This premise is what the umpire or referee stands for. That’s also why I like to read the sports’ page. When a game is not played “according to the rules,” we hear about it. It is not unworthy of us to wish our lives would also have a just measure and order.
When I was a boy, we used to yell, “Cheaters always choke.” Well, they don’t always, a problem that worried even Plato. Contained within that yell was both the fact that cheaters exist and that my team is seen as closer to doing no wrong than the opponent’s.
Yet, nothing is quite like a good game. Nothing so takes us outside of ourselves. Aristotle hints that this riveting attention to the game is close to contemplation. We want to win, but not against patsies. Losing also has its nobility. In the end, most teams lose. But we play to win, or no real game can be played.
Is there justice in this world? Not in Mudville tonight, no justice, no joy. “Mighty Casey has struck out.” Baseball reflects the human condition. Sacrifice hits sometimes mark the margin of victory. But Mighty Casey strikes out. Very few pitchers once hurled a perfect game—no hits, no runs, no errors, no one left on the bags. We learn something from them, but we learn more from Mighty Casey, who struck out.
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