Baseball Night in America

Every five days during the baseball season I watch Clayton Kershaw pitch, and before he takes the mound each time I am convinced it will be a perfect game. It has never happened. The goal of a pitcher is to get batters out. According to a statistic called Walks & Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), Kershaw has gotten batters out more frequently than any other pitcher in history, except for a guy named Addie Joss, who was born in 1880. He is about as good at pitching as it is possible for a person to be. But in every single one of his 283 career starts he has failed at least once at his basic task.

One time he got very close. On June 18, 2014, he retired the first 18 Colorado Rockies he faced, before he got the 19th batter to hit a soft ground ball at the shortstop, Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez fielded the ball, and threw it about a yard past the first baseman, allowing the runner to take second base. Kershaw proceeded to get the final 10 batters out. That one fielding error proved to be all that stood between him and the 24th perfect game in history. That’s baseball for you.

Baseball encourages these sorts of reflections more than any other sport. Reflection is built deeply into its rhythms on all timescales. There’s the (in)famously relaxed pace of individual games, which critics mock, commissioners try in vain to accelerate, and which fans feel lends the game a feeling at once tense and contemplative that is without parallel in sports. We are also presently at the most reflective moment of the season, the annual post-All Star Game ritual of deciding which teams have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs, and therefore which teams will become “buyers” or “sellers” at the trade deadline. The first half is an optimistic burst of enthusiasm set off by an Opening Day saturated with fantasies of infinite possibility and perfect parity; now it is time to take stock.

And as a phenomenal recent longform article by Peter Dreier and Robert Elias in Jacobin emphasizes, the history of the game since its late-nineteenth-century origins is a history of a more critical kind of reflection, pursued by the courageous players, managers, union attorneys, journalists, and others who have fought to reform and reimagine a game they loved that did not always love them back — and occasionally punished them dearly for their transgressions against the status quo. In this sense, baseball, often called the most conservative American sport, is in fact almost exactly as conservative as the nation that produced it, which is to say, it’s complicated: defined both by its tradition of iron-fisted reaction and its tradition of idealism, reform, and revolution; by the patterns of exclusion and exploitation present in its structure at its genesis and the progress extracted by those activists at an excruciatingly patient pace, almost as slow as that of the game itself.

This is why I could never quite sign on to Jon Bois’ preseason declaration that “there is no future of baseball.” By this he meant not that the sport was facing its imminent demise but that, with the last of the game’s famous championship curses broken by the Chicago Cubs last fall, the game had achieved a sort of end of history, a stationary state of the kind that John Stuart Mill thought he could see around the corner in 1848, two years after the first officially recorded baseball game in U.S. history. I do get where Bois is coming from. His piece is as good a summary as any of the strange kind of melancholy that I and some other Cubs fans I’ve talked to felt in the aftermath of the World Series win. But I still don’t think it’s quite right.

How could it be? Baseball is the sport that taught me, when I was so young that I didn’t even have any real conception of sexuality, that there was nothing worse for a man to be than gay. How could baseball be “finished” when the Cardinals still invite outspoken homophobes like Lance Berkman to something called “Christian Night;” when there remain no publicly out major leaguers; when its little leagues across the country still teach the same lessons I was taught when I was a kid? How could it be finished when so many of the same reformers that Dreier and Elias write about are still rigorously excised from official histories of the game; when owners still rip off the public for stadium funds and still inflict punishing living conditions upon their minor league players; when the league still refuses to treat domestic violence within its ranks with the seriousness it deserves; when 70 years after Jackie Robinson’s rookie season the game remains overwhelmingly white in its demographics and even in, as Mary Craig observed last week, the language its media uses to describe players of different races?

To put it another way, how could a sport so intensely bound up with American identity that the early 2000s saw a Congressional investigation held to protect its integrity from steroids ever be finished when America itself is so painfully far from finished, still wrestling with the same demons it has bequeathed to its national pastime?

Bois only sees half of the picture. He understands the fixation on perfection, on symmetry, on closure: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, nine positions; the only sport in which talk of a “perfect game” is even coherent. From this structural perspective, baseball is indeed “finished,” but it has been finished for a long time, perhaps even forever. There are no enhancements to be made to improve its austere beauty and intricate self-containment.

But the mirror image of this Platonism is baseball’s acute sense of the textures of history. It’s that sense that drove my dad to wake me up well after my bedtime to watch the last several outs of Randy Johnson’s perfect game, and to bring me to Wrigley Field to make sure I got to see my favorite player, Greg Maddux, in the flesh before his retirement. It’s a sense that encompasses the legendary championship droughts, yes, but that runs much deeper, flowing ultimately from the inevitable discrepancies between the game’s on-paper fleshless perfection and the overwhelming imperfection of the game as played and managed by human beings.

History — its ceaseless flow of victories and disappointments, its sense of collective memory and collective hope — is baseball’s answer to the cruel paradox at the heart of the game: that the perfect ideal will elude even its best players. Mike Trout will head straight back to the dugout almost seven times in ten. Clayton Kershaw will do absolutely everything right and Hanley Ramirez will still blow it for him. Josh Gibson will pile up more home runs than anyone in baseball history, patiently waiting in the Negro Leagues for a chance at proper pay and proper recognition, only to be passed over, when the opportunity to integrate the major leagues finally arrives at the end of his career, in favor of a younger player named Jackie Robinson.

And in spite of all of that, the game keeps moving. The worst players in the lineup come up to bat just as often as the superstars. The box scores pile up day after day. The disgruntled, excluded, and mistreated make demands on the sport’s establishment that may never be actualized in their careers, if ever, and a new generation of fans decides to fall in love with a game that holds out to them the near-certainty of betrayal.

There’s always next year.

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