Those of us who love the sport insist that baseball's status as our distinctive "national pastime" means that a visit to any major league game can help place America's present predicament in proper perspective. That's particularly true if your favorite team has been going through a lousy season that mirrors the nation's own recent economic and political struggles.
My hometown Seattle Mariners certainly qualify as major flops in the world of baseball: Though tabbed by many pre-season experts as likely winners in the American League West, they're mired deep in last place, 25 or so games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers, while scoring fewer runs than any team in baseball. If any club could sour you on the pleasures of the game, this listless, punchless, strikeout-prone gang of overpaid underachievers would be the group.
Nevertheless, my wife and I went to a Mariners game in late August and enjoyed a grand and glorious time. Of course the hometown anti-heroes managed to lose (5-3 to the Los Angeles Angels, another disappointing team) but 20,545 excited fans still made their way to handsome, 11-year-old Safeco Field, a few blocks from glistening blue Elliott Bay, on a golden, sun-kissed evening of late summer. They watched fan favorite David Pauley (who won his first major league game a few weeks ago at age 27) struggle through five gutsy shutout innings (before allowing three Angel home runs in the sixth, but that's another story). The familiar foods (hot dogs, peanuts, pretzels, beer) and the more exotic offerings (sushi) all looked fresh and tempting. The crowd happily indulged, high prices notwithstanding. A few alert fans made impressive catches of foul balls that found their way into the stands, drawing big applause. The mood remained cheerful, despite the Mariners' stinking season and their 89th loss to date.
Leaving the stadium with our friends (we stayed till the final out, with the Mariners scoring one tantalizing, futile run in the ninth), I couldn't help contrast this pleasant experience with the dire pronouncements about our national condition that have become a staple of news media and political discourse.
Anyone who says America is broken, dysfunctional and doomed hasn't been to a ballgame lately. The people who come out to such sporting events aren't just the superrich or the privileged few: They represent every economic and ethnic segment of the society. When 20,000 enthusiasts can still find the money to come out to cheer a last place team, it's inappropriate to peddle apocalyptic visions of a nation made up primarily of the destitute and desperate.