Baseball’s past is frequently fantasized and categorized as a game of purity, as the American Dream symbolized in pomp and sport. I believe with all my heart, that the game of baseball reflects in majestic detail and intricacy the state of the human experience. Yet, I find that perhaps we have misconstrued the ideals of what the ‘purity’ of baseball is, and because of our misunderstanding are missing the full gamut of the game and perhaps ourselves.
When baseball was young and raw, the game ‘purely’ personified uncivilized brutality. Much like the taming of the wild west, early baseball was filled with ruffians and roughnecks, immortal giants that would just as soon fight you as pitch to you. Players often played drunk, received little-to-no pay, cheated to win, and were as apt to stab the umpire as to argue with him. True to its time, the early days of baseball personified an age of the American experience that was simultaneously uncouth and rough around the edges. Yet under this ruffian veneer, it was forging the future of law and governance. It was an age when the umpires weren’t infallible, yet the finality of their call was an integral part of the game’s pageantry. A time when the divide between the game and fan was never narrower. Fans were likely to engage in fisticuffs with a hated (or beloved) player after the game, and managers ran the risk of having to sneak out of town with an unruly home crowd hot on his heels. That was Baseball. That was America. An era when government only went so far on it’s own before people fought back. A time when many would implement their own justice, and govern themselves by a pervasive unwritten code of manhood that had been shaped by the hard fists of survival and harsh experience. An era where new technologies like trains and automobiles raced side by side with the stylized archetypes of our past such as horse drawn buggies and ass-pulled plows.
Many today, myself included, love the idea and picture of ‘purity’ of the game from previous eras. However, I think what we are often saying is that we miss that form of America, that context of society. We miss forging a path based off of an inner code and simultaneously exploring the boundaries of our identity at the edges of the extremes. It’s easy for a person to find themselves reflected in the game, idolizing the “purity” in that past-time that so closely mirrors our own progress as a country. We long to be wild at heart, to still find success, a place of our own, and sometimes even leave a legacy. We neglect to recall the pain & the suffering, the unbalanced injustice of life itself & the broken & torn places that hard lives on the edge are often disposed to leave behind them.
Baseball isn’t a static game. It isn’t pure. It never has been. As time turns, it is not the constant reminder of all that is good that James Earl Jones opined in Field of Dreams. Instead, baseball has changed with every evolution of society; an ardent drama of spectacular emotion and impassioned disbelief that reflects a story of good and bad that ripples around it. Baseball is the satire, the tragedy, the comedy, the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave outlining life itself in broad strokes and deep shadows on the canvas of the field. No, baseball has changed quite a bit, but it’s ability to reflect the world around it has only been refined. Baseball is a reflective surface taking on the image of any who dare walk past its face. At times we glance in the mirror, surprised by the dramatic details, at once familiar and esoteric. But the youth, the timelessness of the game ultimately shines through.
In the 50’s and 60’s, one might say baseball evolved. A more organized game with little patience for the original wild bunch. Baseball became a stage for the pen of the playwrights. America was a reeling nation searching for a way to fill the holes left by the most deadly war the world had ever seen. The actors set the stage for the taming of new lands and the breaching of new frontiers. These were different frontiers than the past; racial integration, free love, and the birth of the celebrity voice as television overtook radio, marked radical unexplored territories with new unwritten rules. For the first time, people all over the states could see their heroes, and while the groundswell of the background orchestra reached a crescendo, the audience held its collective breath as the play on the stage of the ballfield echoed throughout the country with the resounding impact of a Harmon Killebrew home run. Tension, anger, drama and, ultimately, unity echoed across the stages of carefully manicured grass as dark skinned players first set foot on the most hallowed grounds of worship across the United States. Yet, the play wasn’t the ballgame. Instead the drama that was so punctuated by Jackie Robinson, was merely the detailed and honest reflection of a nation struggling to find a new identity. The game reflected the blemishes on the face of America that, without its mirror, might have gone unnoticed.
The 70’s and 80’s reflected a new face in the mirror. If they were to be heroes, if the actors in this great reflection were to lead, then they should be paid for leading, not just for winning. Free Agency, unionization and fighting against the corporate stronghold of major league baseball reflected in vivid detail the fight of the common man to stand up to corrupt politicians, price-gouging oil companies and the rise of a modern suburban society. The bastions of tradition that immortalized the glamorization of the lifetime worker model of society began to crack and crumble. America was reaching back to an era of roughnecks and wayward souls, not to replicate the story, but instead to embody the attitude. This was the era of “nasty” ballplayers and definitive badasses. Men like Dave Parker, Pete Rose, Oscar Gamble, Dave Winfield, Dock Ellis and many more challenged the traditions of baseball as they had been handed to them. These guys fought at the drop of a hat. They didn’t care if the fight was on the field, off the field, in their own dugout, or at the bar after the game. They were rugged individualists. Much like the American spirit of the time. “Up yours Moscow”, “piss-off Gaddafi”, “we’re just that much better than you world.” America was a nation recovering from the confusing end to a strange war, international fear and uncertainty leading to raucous nationalism, with color television vividly amplifying the reality of every individual hero and the game they played. Dave Parker firing up a heater on the bench with his thick beard and a Pirates hat, still feels like the perfect capture of the American spirit of individualism and even piracy that rebelled and excelled all at the same time.
The 90’s and 2000’s would further polish the mirror to its most brilliant sheen, but now instead of being a bad mutha-shut yo mouth … players were nice guys. They were heroes. Superheroes to be exact. They did superhuman things. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco. These guys were the best. And they did whatever it took to stay the best. Was it just some pervasive PED culture in baseball? No, it was once again a polished personification of the surrounding culture. A divine tragedy that saw the gods fall to their own power. The cocaine epidemic raced through cities. People finding ways to live life in superhuman ways of their own. New technologies raced to advance culture in ways never before seen. Brokenness and pain massaged the airwaves with the rise of grunge and alt rock that offered escape through drugs, sex and fighting for the right to party. The internet would set the world on fire and dramatically change lives at a speed never before seen. Constant advancements drove companies and people to the edge, pushing them to be the best, to get more out of themselves, to evolve the standards of what was possible. Baseball pay rose with the standards and players were rewarded for their superhuman efforts in unprecedented ways. Heroes weren’t just heroes by nature anymore, heroes were superstars, kings, they were paid like royalty to play a game. They became gods for hire. A pantheon of mercenaries of the diamond. People in the everyday world struck it huge in the tech bubble, living far beyond what their character and production could healthily sustain. When these new “gods of baseball” came crashing down from their lofty heights, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, they quickly discovered the hard reality of insatiable gravity and an unforgiving ground. Their burial no longer set on pyres of the fallen warrior, but instead disregarded to the trash heaps of cheaters and liars. Their legacy marred and forgotten. The very playwrights who built their cults now condemned their existence.
Today, a new stage is set. The lights are on and a new cast of characters saunter onto the stage. The mirror stands before us in the dim light of a dusky evening. In this scene we find an entirely new drama. This one, Macbeth, played by not only general managers and players, but by fans themselves. For the first time, fans now have access to the ‘prophecies’ of data about players and how they will perform. Fans, players, managers, front offices believing that by cleaning the mirror or polishing its surface they will smooth away the blemishes that it reflects. They fall in love with stopping the prophecies (or fulfilling them), constantly fighting to perfect their own team, their own identity, their own tribe.
The truth is, that’s the state of far too many lives. Wives and husbands are never good enough, parents are never wise enough, jobs are never fulfilling enough, the nation begins to fall in love with the prophecy/data of the ‘other’. If only they could fix the mirror somehow, the reflection of their fears, inadequacies and lusts would be perfected. They fail to realize that a crown procured through vile trickery is no crown at all, but a circlet of thorns. An obsession with perfection production drives the national narrative. “Out damned spot!” becomes their cry, as they polish the mirror incessantly, trying & failing to remove a stain that is on their own soul. Who cares if players strike out, as long as they hit dingers. It doesn’t matter if he hits .220 if he smashes 45 home runs. Strikeouts, for the first time in history, set a pace to tally higher than hits in the league. The heart of the game has been sacrificed on the altar of productivity. Results are all that matter. King Data reigns supreme.
Now “the Braves way” is defamed, detested by fans that no longer remember it. Winning is the only thing that matters now. Making the reflection perfect, not honest is the purpose that drives us. The only stories we know are the numbers and the prophetic predictions of player projections. If a player doesn’t live up to hitting 30 home runs and being the best defender in the league then he is washed out, and should be traded or discarded as quickly as possible. Fans detail any move they don’t like in the harshest of terms. “Racists”, “cheap”, “spiteful to fans and players”, “they really don’t care about fans at all”… just a few of the hyperbolic insinuations of fans. Because the team doesn’t think like me, or make me happy, or do what I want them to do then they are the worst of mankind. They are everything to be hated and despised. They have no value unless it is the definition of value that aligns with my own. A world of data driven emotionalism & prophetic fervor frenzies the mob and the individual alike. “Trade for this one”, “call up that one,” “this team is racist,” “that team is trash,” “this player I don’t like and have never met is a terrible human being.”
Baseball teams are never good enough, we are obsessed with making them better. Hyper-heroicizing every actionable move, not just the person. Heroes have become numbers, because people can’t be trusted. The mirror has betrayed us, reflecting the unflattering truth.
Again, baseball is merely casting its reflection of society.
There was a time that community, culture and tribe meant something. Your neighbor was a person you knew, not just another empty house with a car parked in the driveway. We collapse into the prophecies of our lives, reading the punditry and prophecies of twitterpated political and social dreamers. Obsession grows. How to have the perfect life, wife, marriage, kids, job, yard, house. Obsessions driven by tribalized and data-driven emotion. Our heroes have become non existent numbers, ideals, and false prophecies that we prefer to run blindly towards rather than building on what is real and tangible in our hands. Then our heroes fail us because they aren’t real. They are simulations of a simulation of a simulation, totally dissociated with reality.
Aristotle argued that the ghost of the simulacra is dangerous, because it gains life without roots in reality. If we don’t realize that what we are handling isn’t real then we can’t even know where the simulation stops and reality begins. It’s in a ghost-like state that we find far too many fans, and friends. Obsessed with constantly making a better version of the team, life, family. A better non-existent version of the original, because of the fallacious mentality that numbers and the simulation can somehow fully embody the original. Sometimes a baseball team doesn’t need to fall in love with maximum productivity. You can have maximum productivity and still lose. You can have subpar productivity and still win.
If baseball becomes only about productivity, think of what could be lost. The Culberson walk-off would be a thing of the past. The story of unlikely heroes fades to a lost pillar of the game, reminiscent of some cheap dime-store novelty. The story that is the heartbeat of the game itself becomes threatened. If productivity is the only thing, how long before we give up from lack of it. In our own lives, how long before we wall ourselves off from neighbors that might hurt us or cause us grief as we share in the pains of their lives? How long before we fail to have conversations with our wives and kids, and simply live in the same house as roommates and not family? The American story, the human story matters far more than the American success. It’s the story that created the success, not the success that created the story. The Braves and teams all around the league are a reflection of the story being played out in the hearts and lives of the fans that watch them.
So take a moment and breathe on your mirror. Remind yourself that it’s a reflection. Watch the play on the grand stage. Fall in love with the moment and not the future, the team and not the productive possibilities, the piece you do have and not the pieces you don’t. The greatest stories ever told are not of the perfect hero winning the day, but instead it is the underdog, the worst to first, the Sid Bream rounding third, the Mark Lemke World Series Assassin, the unexpected greatness that we find in the world, and in ourselves. It’s the story of the marriage that almost broke, but didn’t because love was stronger. The family that was almost broken by drugs or alcohol, but instead put each other first and fought back from the brink. It’s the job that you almost quit or went bankrupt in, that you now have stabilized. Sometimes it is the story of when those things don’t work. When the marriage breaks and yet you live on. When the kid doesn’t get off drugs, yet you fight on. When the business goes bankrupt, yet still you survive. Those are the stories that last. Real Cubs fans (not the cheap ones who jumped on the bandwagon from Buckhead), waited 108 years to get a World Series. That is a hell of a story.
At the end of the day, the human story isn’t about success and production. It is a story about a journey. A journey that goes on in spite of. In spite of falls, in spite of disaster, in spite of hurt, in spite of pain, in spite of failure. Who knows what tomorrow’s play will bring, maybe it will be a purer game, but not because it goes back to the roots of baseball, but because we go back to the roots of life, love, and community and the things that matter even when we don’t win. This great game that I love, baseball, is pure because it never fails to reflect my heart. It shows me the good and the bad. It reflects the deepest worn places in my face and the sadness that might dance in my eyes. Friends, the goal is not to change or perfect the image in the mirror, but to smile and enjoy the reality that made that face, me, to begin with, and on occasion to take a look at myself and fix my hair, wash my face, and use the mirror to celebrate what I already am.