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.
Our recent visit to Safeco Field highlights the fact that America still works for most people, most of the time. Yes, millions of citizens face painful challenges in paying their rent or feeding the kids, but supermarket shelves are still stocked with affordable goods, the majority of planes land on time, factories still hum and lead the world in manufactured goods (China isn't even close), hospitals perform daily miracles in helping the sick, and schools manage to teach the basics to the great majority of their students.
That doesn't mean that everything's perfect in the nation at large, and it doesn't absolve our leaders or institutions for manifold displays of incompetence and corruption. There's also no excuse for Mariners management shelling out one of the higher payrolls in baseball for an epically anemic offense. But strikeouts and losing streaks don't erase the irresistible fun of the game — any more than a wretched economy and stumbling political leadership eliminate the joys and blessings of daily life in America.
Watching the Mariners lose, I came away with two profoundly reassuring messages about our country at large.
First, the traditions of baseball remain precious and satisfying regardless of the on-field fortunes of any particular team. Watching the batters limbering up in the on-deck circle, the conferences on the mound, the manager storming out of the dugout to argue a questionable call — it's all timeless, virtually unchanged from the games I used to attend with my late father some 50 years ago. That's also true of the nation itself, even in this turbulent era: the protest, the indignation, the resilience, the defiant activism, the dark humor about politicos and their misdeeds — all reflect familiar American themes that we could recognize from ancestors some 200 years ago.
Then there's the ever-lasting chant of any fan saddled with a losing team: "Wait till next year." Fortunes turn around quickly in sports, economics and politics. In the '80s we went from one of the sharpest recessions in recent history, to one of the most ballyhooed booms by the middle of the decade. Less than two years ago, Republicans looked doomed to permanent exile as an irrelevant minority, but polls now promise them a major comeback.
In that spirit, there's no guarantee that the Mariners' performance will improve dramatically next season; in Pittsburgh, the Pirates have fielded losing teams without letup for nearly a generation. But in most other places losers transform to winners almost overnight, and every new opening day brings indomitable new hope. The United States may suffer a few consecutive losing seasons, but even citizens who don't follow baseball can understand that before long we'll be back to reclaim our time-honored standing as the world's greatest winners. And meanwhile, it's still a joy and a privilege to watch the game.