Off the Cuff: April 2010

ON PAGE 70 OF THIS issue is a picture of a cap. A baseball cap. It’s an old one, and it is pretty beaten up. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that cap. There is something romantic about it, so crumpled and used and forever, something beautiful and pure.

That cap is whatever we want it to be, I realized, because that’s exactly what baseball is: a game that gets passed from father to son. A game that shows us how to move from possibility to reality. From despair to hope. The game that lets us dream. Now that is some game.

I’ve always liked baseball, and I played it as a kid. But it was never an obsession with me like it is with so many of my friends. Of course, the playoffs and World Series get all my attention — it is, after all, America’s greatest sport. That’s because baseball takes up an entire summer. Even more than that: A season rolls from early April — from the coolest days of spring — through golden early-summer days, through the dog days of August, into September when the nights start to get cooler once again, and on into November, when it’s damn cold for a baseball game. A baseball season is as long, and feels like it tells us as much about life, as War and Peace. A team goes through a hundred ups and downs, players have slumps, or get hurt, fans get disgusted, encouraged, exalt for their team, and end up ultimately disappointed or joyous. Usually, we are disappointed, which sounds a lot like life.

But it’s more than that. It’s more than whether a team wins or loses.

Baseball, in its purest form, is a way for us to hope (while we eat hot dogs and drink beer). A pitcher and a batter in confrontation could not be simpler. One wins, the other loses. Americans have always embraced clearly defined lines of combat. But the dream of baseball, the dramatic possibility inherent in those confrontations within the game, is what really makes it our game.  

Half a century ago, the writer John Updike said this about the hitter Ted Williams:

Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, 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 — since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical — always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by the players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.  

Baseball is a man doing a difficult thing well (in fact, he’s trying to hit a ball with a stick, it’s a game!) just for the sake of doing it. The pursuit of excellence for excellence’s sake seems like a lost art nowadays, but our demand that our baseball heroes play as hard as is humanly possible, and (usually) their desire to do just that, makes the dream of baseball possible for everyone. It is America’s everyman sport.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once famously said: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.”

This issue celebrates the Phillies’ great accomplishments. It’s a team that understands the possibilities inherent in the sport; the Phils’ leader, Jimmy Rollins, after being named his league’s most valuable player in 2007, paid homage to “playing this beautiful game.”

Thank you, Mr. Rollins, for making baseball beautiful in Philadelphia. We have needed you, and you have delivered. And we’ve all risen a little higher together.