Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It's All Baseball, Really

by Alan Eliot

Baseball is America's pastime. As such, its magic lies partially in its ability to keep us on our toes for at least 6 months out of every year, with the dizzying highs and lows of the season as it unfolds. Many sports have become popular since baseball was branded the "pastime", namely the other three major sports- and granted, many would argue that baseball is not the most popular sport in the US anymore. However, let's face it: basketball, football and hockey may be exciting, and may even be "faster-paced", but while they spend the fall and winter bickering amongst themselves for fan attention, baseball stands alone much of the spring and summer (Arena football and WNBA notwithstanding).

And that's important.

For baseball fans, this is pure heaven. No having to wait through boring Tampa Bay Lightning highlights- "SportsCenter" and "Baseball Tonight" are pretty much the same show for months on end. For more than half of the year, only two days are without professional baseball games- the day before and the day after the All-Star Game. And if you grow up a baseball fan, this is a lot of baseball to take in- unchecked, at that. How can it not leave an indelible mark in the collective imagination of the youth that grow up around it? Over and over and over. Baseball, baseball, baseball.

For non-baseball fans, I would imagine the reaction to this annual basketball/football drought would be less than enthusiastic. But think for a minute of the non-stop hardball playing on repeat- even for the child who will never grow to love it, just by exposure alone it becomes part of you and your upbringing.

Baseball seeps into everything. That is something very quintisentially American.

What do those poor British children use as a system to brag to their friends about their youthful conquests? Certainly they don't tell each other about getting to first base. It's a rare child in the US indeed who doesn't have some rudimentary (if oft-mistaken) understanding of the ubiquitous baseball = sex metaphor. So engrained is this little nugget into our culture that Meat Loaf himself used it in his hit "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" - when he overlayed a play-by-play of Phil Rizzuto describing a player making his way around the bases, just as Mr. Loaf describes himself as a teen trying to awkwardly seduce a girl.

And when that same British boy gets negged for a date, would his friends understand that he struck out? I guess that would depend if she were in his league. Would California's "three strikes" legal system make as much implicit sense to a Parisian? If that Parisian (who spoke fluent English, of course) were in a business meeting, would she ask her colleague to touch base with her, about an offer that she wants to make off the bat? Of course, the other side of the negotiation could throw her a curve, reject her offer and decide to play hardball.

So it's clear. Baseball's influence on each of us goes well beyond the game itself. The truth is, where there's an American, there's baseball. It's in them- fan or not.

Of course, for those lucky enough to also understand and enjoy the game, i.e. the fan, comes an extra part of the American experience: making baseball out of nothing. For the fanatic, following the game and knowing pop-culture references referring the game are hardly enough. Those who truly love the game know that there's baseball always a moment away, always waiting to be played.

The baseball's in you.

As a college sophomore, the wall behind my residential building was both sturdy and functional. For all we knew, it had never been put to any decent use other than for its intended purpose. However, for myself and a few friends, we put it to fine use as a home run fence in our weekend wiffleball home run derbies. And the funny thing is, from the moment we eyed it, a grey, slightly mossy, dirt speckled wall perhaps eight feet high, we could see no other purpose for it than for baseball.

I recall studying for an embryology midterm late at night with a friend, Tristen, in a student lounge. When fog of mind made FGF and Hox genes and VEG-F's all start to sound like the same substance, we decided to break. And there, in the deep pit of an empty college building, baseball was born. A ping pong ball was found. An impromtu strike zone was created out of a bulletin board and some paper. Time magazine made a fine bat. Rules were designated. Outs were defined. And baseball was played. I couldn't touch his fastball- the whoosh of the "bat" would embarrassingly coincide with the knock of ball on wall. And my curveball, with a big sweeping downward motion of the shoulder, was a thing of beauty- unhittable, but always in the strike zone.

This country, then, is lucky to have a sport as engrained in its national identity as baseball. Generations of children will follow the game, play the game, identify teenage milestones with the game, and generally do as we've done before them.

And for those who fail to appreciate the nuances of the finest game? Who insist that basketball or football are superior sports?

Tell those screwballs that their ideas are way out in left field. Be careful, though. They might not get it.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays


Blogger Doug Silversten said...

All I remember about those wiffleball games is that I always beat you.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Alan Eliot said...

Sergio beat both of us so who cares?

However, if you'd like to recall baseball-related domination, let's recall Super Bases Loaded for a moment.

You couldn't beat me in that game if your team was STOCKED FULL of Mussio's from 1-9.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006  

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine