Joel Hoard: Lamenting the loss of an American institution

BY OEL HOARD: OH YEAH?

Published February 16, 2004

“People will come, Ray. The one constant through all
the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an
army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt
and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field,
this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of
all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will
come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Mira Levitan

 

It’s been 15 years since I first saw
“Field of Dreams” and heard James Earl Jones intone
those lovely words, but they still get me every time. I’ve
never cried during a movie, but whenever I hear that speech, I come
awfully close. One of these times I’ll lose it. You see,
I’ve long held a romantic notion that baseball is
America’s lifeblood, the one constant in an otherwise chaotic
world. Baseball is the national pastime for a reason; it holds a
special place in our collective heart.

At least it used to. As Sean McAdam writes on ESPN.com,
“More out of habit than anything else, we still refer to
baseball as the national pastime.” Now baseball is somewhat
of a relic, something Americans hold in their minds not because
they necessarily enjoy it or appreciate it, but because it’s
a part of our national identity. It’s a lot like the national
anthem: It holds true significance to but a few; to the rest
it’s something we pretend to care about for the sake of our
nation’s wellbeing.

I consider myself among those few who still relish baseball for
the institution it once was. It’s one of the few things that
get me through the winter doldrums. The second the first snow
starts to fall, I remind myself: Just wait until March. Baseball
will be back. The snow will melt; the grass will turn green; and
the boys of summer will return. No matter how hard I try to escape
it, I have to face the fact that I’ll always be just a dorky
white guy. I can explain the infield fly rule and why it exists. I
can tell you how slugging percentage is calculated. I can give you
Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average. I can write you a
5,000-word essay on how the A-Rod-to-the-Yankees trade is the
best/worst thing to ever happen to baseball.

Call me a baseball junkie, which is why I felt a pang of sadness
when I read McAdam’s piece. Because football — and not
baseball — as he explains, is America’s sport of choice
in 2004. To be sure, it’s not a novel idea that football has
replaced baseball as the national pastime. Even the most casual and
uninformed fan can tell you that football now dominates the
American sports landscape.

It would be easy to blame it all on baseball itself. The players
and owners are greedy and constantly at odds, and there may or may
not be a steroid epidemic.

But most of the blame falls with modern American society. We are
a people obsessed with violence and anger, and we like cheap
thrills and flashiness. It’s a fact that’s reflected in
our preference of football to baseball. We turn to football for
release. We relish in its violence.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. I
enjoy football as much as the next guy, but it can never be the
intellectual pursuit that baseball is. After watching a baseball
game, I feel enlightened, and the world makes a little bit more
sense. After watching a football game, I feel stupider, and I crave
raw meat.

The contrast between the two sports was perhaps best described
by Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell in a piece he wrote in
1987: “Football is played best full of adrenaline and anger.
Moderation seldom finds a place. Almost every act of baseball is a
blending of effort and control; too much of either is
fatal.”

But Americans no longer desire moderation and restraint. The
very mention of the concepts is enough to make most people cringe.
How else can we explain why the football championship game has such
a gaudy word as “super” in its name?

Unfortunately, this has become a nation of meatheads. Americans
don’t want to think about anything on any level, especially
not when they’re watching sports. There’s no other
place in the world where guys like Terry Bradshaw and Sean
Salisbury would be labeled “analysts.”

I hope that one day the average American will come to appreciate
baseball’s refinement and sophistication once again. But for
now I’m left to ask, what happened to my country?

Hoard can be reached at "mailto:j.ho@umich.edu">j.ho@umich.edu.