Field of dreamers: Why baseball is an idealist’s-and America’s-sport

By Stephen Caruso / Columnist

When I was in high school, I remember seeing a senior’s quote under a smug athletic face that read, “Baseball is what America was. Football is what America is.”

If that’s the case, then I’d suggest avoiding mirrors, America.

The last six months have been nothing but a disaster for the NFL. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner — who seems to do a better job of ignoring problems than solving them — admitted that “It has been a tough year.” Every issue has shown that the NFL seems to care more about how it is perceived by the public than the actual character of the sport. The NFL only hit Ray Rice with a harsh punishment after the release of the elevator video displaying him punching his then-fiancee and the subsequent public outcry. The Vikings only suspended Adrian Peterson for hitting his child after sponsors began to back out. Meanwhile, Marshawn Lynch has only become an issue because the Seattle star running back refused to talk to reporters — i.e., he refused to let his personality be sold to the public for the benefit of the league.

In a column I wrote in the fall, I suggested we boycott the NFL this year. Well, overall, I tried my best. It was tough, given how well the Bills played, and the whole being a suffering Buffalo fan. I sneaked a few hours of football into my schedule, I’ll admit. But now that football season is finally over, I can feel the warmth of spring approaching. And with spring comes a truly American experience: baseball.

Nothing captures the American spirit better to me than baseball, save perhaps jazz and barbecue. All three embody innovation, individualism and egalitarianism to the core. Just as anyone can slather some generic sauce on ribs and call it barbecue, or scat sing to a jazz piece, anyone can pick up a bat and play the national game. In the words of Bill Veeck, one of the greatest owners in baseball history, “[baseball] is played by people, real people, not freaks. Basketball is played by giants. Football is played by corn-fed hulks. The normal-sized man plays baseball and the fellow in the stands can relate to that.” Stars in baseball can come in all shapes and sizes, from 2014 AL batting champion José Altuve, who stands 5-foot-6, to Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, who loomed over his competitors at 6-foot-10.

Since most people of even the slightest athletic ability are   welcome, the become a star is to have talent and excel. Even as juiced-up players in the ‘90s succeeded, players like Greg Maddux, Craig Biggio and Pedro Martinez showed that biceps the size of cantaloupes were not necessary to be a hall-of-famer. Channeling Biggio,  Altuve is great because of his ability to make contact with the ball when the rest of the hitters are struggling with the highest strikeout rate in baseball history. Randy Johnson is an all-time great because his ability to dominate hitters when hitting 40 home runs was commonplace, leading him to strike out 4,875 batters — second most ever.

Innovation is also a key to winning in baseball. Everyone by now knows the power of empirical baseball analysis, such as “moneyball” or sabermetrics. Clubs implementing these new techniques, like the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, have won six world championships between them in the past 10 years. The teams that master trends win, and those who don’t fall behind.

Finally, baseball is entirely a sport of individuals. Yes, they play together on a team. But each accomplishment is an individual accomplishment. A batter hits a home run by himself. He doesn’t need blockers. While you need all nine players on the field at once, each soldiers his responsibilities by himself. The team is not  a blunt instrument, with each individual losing his identity for the greater goal of winning. The team in baseball is only a metaphor for how we interact in America; different people coming together of their own volition to achieve a shared goal.

America is a nation of ideals, From “all men are created equal” to “a government by the people are for the people.”  That is our greatest strength and worst weakness. Why should America’s game be one that indulges in our weakness, the denial of actual problems in favor of promoting false ideals? Just as the NFL ignores brain damage to its players, the U.S. covered up the torture of detainees, in the name of keeping the “brand image” sparkly.

Steroids certainly taint this idealism, but steroids also did not make Hall of Famers out of anyone. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire would have still gone down as all-time greats without a single injection. Their drive to use questionable means to accomplish these goals deserves criticism, but the 19th-century Industrial Revolution America that gave birth to baseball itself was built on the backs of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, men who likewise sacrificed some moral scruples to accomplish their goals. A nation of opportunity like America will attract people of great ambition. History will punish them accordingly for their blind pursuit of it. 

Baseball is America. More than that, it is America’s conscience. Both baseball and America have fallen short of their lofty ideals, but true strength is acknowledging flaws and addressing them, not covering them up. Baseball has addressed issues in the past, from gambling to integration to drug use, and it still has issues to address, which it will improve upon. But having that conversation is distinctly American. We have a constitution that is meant to give us guidelines, but written into that very constitution is the ability to amend it to fit changing times. Change is as American as anything, and baseball has been changing for as long as America has.

So, when America looks in a mirror, let it always see a sunny day, a green field and nine people playing its greatest game.

Stephen Caruso writes on varying topics, such as economics and social issues. He is also the Layout Editor for The Pitt News.

Write to Stephen at [email protected].