The great American pastime, they call it. I’m not sure it deserves to be. But that doesn’t stop them. Just a game, but it commands presidential attention. It captivates historians, filmmakers and pundits. Bart Giamatti was a lifelong scholar of Renaissance literature. Eventually became president of Yale. He left that job to be president of the National League.
Why would someone do that? Why do the Cubs fans suffer for decades? Why do the Royals or Pirates fans bother at all? Why do all of them let the Yankees continue to exist?
It’s because of Ted Williams, taking eight years in the prime of his career to fly for the Air Force. It’s because Stan Musial turned down a raise after a bad season, and said it would be an insult to his teammates if he accepted.
It’s about the son of immigrants who didn’t speak English until he was five. He went to Columbia University, then played more consecutive games than anyone before him. Or anyone after him for nearly six decades. He won six World Series and died at 37. But not before telling us that he was the luckiest man on earth.
And he was—except for all of us who thought he was brave and not very lucky. And it shames us because we know we’re just the opposite.
So is the game, sometimes. That’s why we keep watching. Why we kept watching when we knew all the home runs weren’t legitimate. That’s why we kept watching the juiceheads—the ones on the field, and the ones hawking memoirs.
It’s a game where racists slide with their spikes up. And where pathbreakers slide in safe at home, and integration takes root. It’s a game of they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to and a game of he’s-the-best-I’ve-ever-seen.
It’s a game where loyalties never die. And a game where I’ve had two home teams in my life. I was rooting for the second one while I was still living in the first city. It’s a game of infidelity. A game of red, white and blue. A game of navy pinstripes. Then it’s a game of deco pastels. A game for the Rust Belt. A game for the Sun Belt. Hell, it’s a game in Canada.
It’s a game where you can’t get away from centuries-old tradition. Unless you’re the wild card. A game where players used to play their whole career for one team. A game of loyalty. Or a game where they were held hostage by the club owners. Free agency changed that. It’s a game where things change.
It’s an admirable game. A thinking man’s sport. Where the announcers are old raconteurs. And it’s a money-maker that is forever damn near becoming just another sport. And it’s hard to reverence a game being delivered by a generic pretty boy with an oddly deep voice.
But we still love the game. It’s baseball. It’s not the great American pastime. It’s the great American story. It’s our story. And it’s still being told. Play ball.