Why we love the game

Posted: Sep 11, 2006 12:01 AM
Why we love the game

"You know how, when you fly from coast to coast on a really clear day, looking down from many miles up, you can see the little baseball diamonds everywhere? And every time I see a baseball diamond my heart goes out to it . . . ." -- Donald Hall

Another one of those little diamonds you see from the air closed down last week. The Arkansas Travelers of the Texas League have played their last game at classic old Ray Winder Field here, for next season they move into their spiffy new riverfront stadium. But there was something special about this classic old minor-league ballpark, and scarcely a dry eye in the more-than-capacity crowd that turned out for The Last Game.

Why have so many Americans through the years had the same thought/prayer as they watched a ballgame: "God, I love this game!"

The love of baseball is as hard to explain as the game itself to someone who doesn't share it. To explain baseball's peculiar charm would be like an Englishman trying to explain the fascination of a cricket match. Maybe you just have to grow up with it.

This much is for sure: Baseball's attraction involves a lot more than just the sight of all that grace and youth and power on the field. It's the game itself that calls out to you. Contrary to superficial impressions, there's something going on in a baseball game even when nothing is, much like the dog that didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes story.

Part of baseball's attraction has to be tradition. Childhood memories evoke a sense of duty about going to a game to root, root, root for the home team when you're an alleged grownup.

Not that it matters, but the Travs would win this last home game 7-3 against the even more hapless Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals. But it's not the wining or losing that matters to the true fan, but the graceful geometry, the timeless clock, the beauty of the game itself.

As with cricket, baseball's appeal also has something to do with the intricacies of the game itself, the shared secrets, the rulebook that some of us studied the way parliamentarians do Robert's Rules of Order.

One reason Americans love baseball is because it's so . . . American. An Italian exchange student who wanted to get a quick take on this strange country once asked me what he needed to know in order to understand America.

The best I could come up with on the spot was the U.S. Constitution, jazz and baseball. And not necessarily in that order. (Come to think, they all have this much in common: Each is a whole, interlocking composition made up of discrete riffs, the effect of which is much greater than the sum of its parts.)

You go into a baseball stadium with a certain childlike anticipation, and you should leave it with a certain mature wisdom. We go to baseball games for the same reason the Greeks went to tragedies. Baseball offers something of the same catharsis, the same sense of elevation after a game well played. The feeling was palpable at this final game at the 74-year-old ballpark.

The 8,307 paid customers -- the third-largest crowd in Ray Winder's history -- were outnumbered by all the ghosts, all the memories of games played here, all the Texas League championships won and mainly lost here.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball commissioner and philosopher but mainly fan, readily understood the game's sense of tragedy, being a Red Sox fan.

To quote his little book on the subject: "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, you rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

But win or lose, we never stop loving the game. We love it as we love something better than ourselves. We love it because it is whole as we want to be whole, as we want our country to be whole. As with love, there is no rational explanation, not a complete one, anyway, for why we love this game, this essentially pastoral pursuit in a now urban America, this most intellectual of physical sports.

In the end, baseball's appeal must be felt, not demonstrated by some pallid Euclidian proof, and if you can't feel it, then there's something missing, and not in the game.