Baseball: An eternal home for writers
Church composer Isaac Watts ends his famous hymn "Oh God Our Help
in Ages Past" with the verse "Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening
As a child, I recall singing this hymn on warm Sunday mornings. Hearing
the words "opening day" at the conclusion always made me wish
that I could bolt from my stuffy pew and go play baseball.
Of course, the hymn was written in 1719 and has nothing to do with baseball.
It is actually based on Psalm 90 and invokes the insignificance and humility
of man in the presence of God, the creator and redeemer.
However, on an admittedly superficial level, the hymn does have some
accidental parallels to baseball. Such parallels are appropriate to discuss
given that baseball's opening day was earlier this week. The hymn illuminates
one of the three primary reasons why baseball appeals to many writers.
In America, baseball has almost a spiritual or religious quality to it.
Add the game's relaxing pace and universal familiarity, and the sport
becomes a natural topic choice for great writers such as John Updike,
George Will, and David Halberstam.
Baseball commands a reverence in our society that is analogous in some
ways to religion. The aphorism "no man is greater than the game"
serves as the golden rule of baseball in the same way that man is humbled
in Watts's hymn. It is under this pretense that the commissioner of baseball
may discipline individuals for violating the "best interests of baseball."
One sees this reverence for the game in many contemporary players as
well. Last year, Cal Ripken Jr. embodied such an appreciation for the
game's history and lore by gallantly accepting the praise and applause
at every city where the Orioles played. The recurring theme(why not leitmotif
here, it means the same thing) was an understanding that the career of
one single player, regardless of his accomplishments, is finite. Even
baseball's magnanimous men are mortal. Conversely, the game qua game is
eternal in the minds of most Americans.
In addition to baseball's spiritual element, author Nicholas Dawidoff
argued on National Public Radio's Sunday Weekend Edition that baseball
appeals to writers because it is a topic familiar to almost every American.
Whether or not one has actually played the game, most are familiar with
its metaphors or expressions. In how many other countries could "Three
strikes and you're out" become part of a penal code?
Baseball also has seasonal and psychological factors that are conducive
to writing. It is a game intended to be played in the invigorating light
of the mid-year months. The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball's seventh
commissioner and former Yale President, wrote that baseball "comes
to us in the spring
it stays with us through summer evenings and
the autumn, and then it leaves us when the cold rains fall to face the
There is indeed something romantic and almost spiritual about the "summer
evenings" Giamatti invokes. Most of us have the memory of either
playing or witnessing games in such conditions. Our parents may even remember
sitting outside on the back porch and listening to games on the radio
on a careless summer night.
Baseball's pace reflects the relaxed weather of the season. George Will
writes that it is "a game of episodic action." It is the only
major sport played without a clock and has many lulls and pauses. Although
some find this aspect of baseball to be boring, I find that it is a perfect
complement to the sport's idyllic summer season. Rather than having to
fixate oneself permanently on the game, baseball offers the fan ample
opportunities for thought, contemplation, meditation, or as one friend
of mine put it recently, "inane banter." All of these forms
of mental exercise facilitate writers in transforming the seemingly prosaic
activity of a swinging batter into such masterful stories as "Casey
at the Bat" and "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
Yet regardless of baseball writing's temporal motivations, the best writing reflects the game's ritualistic element. Like a religion, the traditions and customs of baseball connect generations. I believe this is best expressed at the conclusion of W.P. Kinsella's baseball classic Shoeless Joe, where the son resurrects his father by building a baseball field and plays catch with him. In this scene, as in the American psyche, baseball is eternal. Like God in Isaac Watts's hymn, baseball has a Trinitarian purpose. It is "our help in ages past, our hope for years to come," and ultimately "our eternal home." May we always be safe.