Baseball and Civic Virtue

A few weeks ago, young Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden launched into a verbal tirade against Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s crime? Stepping on the pitcher’s mound on his way back to first base. Braden was widely (though not universally) criticized for being arrogant, and perhaps he is. But he was trying to defend the foundational common law of a sport which, according to Diana Schaub, is “a mirror of American liberty and of the virtues necessary to sustain it.”

In a recent article in National Affairs, Schaub argues that baseball is better than other sports at instilling civic virtue. Most sports have their basis in war; either they were invented to keep the troops occupied during peacetime, or to train their instincts in some way. From runners and gladiators to football players, this is usually obvious. (In this sense, activities like golf or tennis are not sports; they were designed for leisure and recreation.) Baseball, according to Schaub, has another value—rather than training soldiers for war, it trains citizens for self-government.

Schaub contends that there is no such thing as a purely bodily pursuit—all physical activities have implications in the social, psychological, and often moral spheres. Again, this is fairly intuitive; mothers drive their kids to practice in part because they know the kids will learn values like teamwork and perseverance. But Schaub takes it a step further. “Granted that a wide variety of sports can help inculcate virtues of body and soul, we still ought to ask, are some better at it than others? Are there qualities of character that belong especially, perhaps even uniquely, to some sports?”

With this question, the particular sport to which Mom drives starts to matter. Schaub notes that soccer’s virtue-neutral aspect partially explains its universal appeal. Soccer is played in every kind of regime. Kids can run around in a confined space for an hour, have fun, and not run much risk of humiliation. While they eventually have to learn some ball-handling skills, “soccer is never psychologically demanding or politically formative in the way that baseball is.”

It’s difficult to deal with Schaub’s question about character because anyone who likes soccer is immediately opposed to her inquiry at this point. Soccer is awesome! If she says that, she just doesn’t understand it!

But Schaub is not focused on demeaning soccer; she supports her argument by enumerating traits unique to baseball. “For a beginning player, baseball involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of heart-stopping terror.” She notes that baseball requires the development of coiled attentiveness, unflappable self-control, and individual excellence. While the flow of many sports can hide a multitude of mistakes, every time a baseball player—on offense or defense—comes near the ball, the entire team is counting on him. He has had to develop a dizzying array of skills—battling, throwing, catching, running the bases—and must employ them in 0.417 seconds in the face of a fastball capable of killing him.

Baseball also requires intense mental activity. Far from being a slow game, George Will notes that in baseball, “there is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required.” And yet Schaub contends that the sport is fundamentally a leisure activity (in the Grecian sense).

How she reconciles these two ideas is significant. Most other sports are played by the clock. This suits the pace of modern life; dash to the game, then to violin practice. Yet baseball’s innings create an internal rhythm; “whereas a quarter is a fixed increment, an inning is shaped by the action itself. An inning is a timeless, alternate world of human agency.”

In this sense, baseball provides people with a psychological foundation for T.S. Eliot’s claim that “history is a pattern of timeless moments.” Baseball, like all true leisure, “conquers time,” but simultaneously equips us to understand truths in time. And it is these truths—beyond things like courage and patience—that make baseball significant.

Kids, Schaub points out, don’t usually play sports as a career move. They play them because they love them, and baseball isn’t as instantly accessible as soccer or basketball. But loves can be cultivated, and Schaub contends that in this case, the cultivation is worth it.

Once again, some reasons are more obvious than others. Unlike soccer or basketball, the focus in baseball is not the ball. The object is not to put a ball in a specific location, but to bring your teammates home. Schaub notes the value this places on human life—“a sacrifice fly conveys deeper lessons than an assist does.” In a sacrifice fly, a player essentially falls on a grenade to save his buddy. Why? So the buddy can come home. “The baseball diamond…teaches the priority of home. Baseball knows that war, though both necessary and ennobling, is for the sake of peace. The offense in baseball is non-imperialistic in character. There is no unseemly gloating at home plate as there is in the end zone of the enemy [in football].”

This point opens up another point, one that Schaub does not make but could. In baseball, there is an unwritten tradition of respect—respect for other people, and for tradition itself. Schaub does note that baseball’s umpires are more like an independent judiciary than the “policemen” found in football or soccer, and that baseball conduces respect for the law while instilling a taste for “speaking truth to power.” But she underemphasizes the unwritten law—the common law—inherent in baseball that is found almost nowhere else in sports. It is this law that Braden felt was violated.

In baseball, there is no rule against the pitcher pumping his fist after striking out a batter. But every player knows that if he does, the batter is going to clean his clock. Why? For the answer, look at infielder Mark Grudzielanek’s comment on Rodriguez’s road trip over the pitcher’s mound. Grudzielanek said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. You just don’t do it.”

Baseball has a strong sense of “you just don’t do it.” Rodriguez hadn’t done anything illegal, or morally wrong—he had done something improper. Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield bemoans the loss of a sense of the proper in American society even more than the loss of a sense of the wrong—because propriety indicates a culture of shared values. Baseball has that culture, which perhaps is why (unlike in football) the rules hardly ever change. Like America itself, baseball takes people from cultures across the world and builds in them a unified identity. There is a foundation and a bottom line, found not in the formal rules but in the organic development of a culture.

This organic development is both a cause and a product of baseball’s identity as a “cultivated” sport. In a world with a natural order marred by human imperfection, the most important things must be taught. Perhaps for this reason, baseball has always been a generational sport; fathers teach their sons (and Schaub claims the disappearance of black men in baseball and the preceding disappearance of black fathers is no coincidence). The sons learn the game as not only a game, but a culture. While boys can name few if any dead soccer players, try finding an American boy who hasn’t heard of Babe Ruth. Fathers point out great character traits in past heroes, and the boys long to be like them.

Because they do, they develop an appreciation for the past. Baseball is a game of memory. Schaub writes, “By encouraging reverence, baseball goes against the dangerous democratic tendency to forget the past and celebrate the new. …Paradoxically or not, it turns out that conservative virtues are needed to sustain the democratic experiment. Baseball shows the way: It has a constitutional soul that secures the future by preserving the past.” And, again suggestively, this respect for the past leads in fact to a sense of hopefulness about the future. “Baseball is a game of surprises, extra innings, and, should all else fail, the promise of spring.”

Baseball is not a game of what things are done; it is a game of how things are done. A bad player is less of an embarrassment to the sport than a player who breaks the code. And in a country where self-government depends on the health of civic institutions, baseball’s code is worth defending.

2 Comments

  • Brian Brown
    May 6, 2010

    Brian Brown

    This didn’t really fit anywhere else, but I also appreciated (minus the overly Athenian lottery reference) Schaub’s disdain for the designated hitter:

    “Of course, there are key moments in other games: You get the ball in the final seconds and must score. But often those moments can be scripted or engineered; a coach goes to the player he thinks can deliver. In baseball, however, the offense is fixed from the start by the batting order. It’s your turn and no one else’s. Although there are strategies involved in setting the batting order, there is also an inescapable ­element of chance in how the order plays out in any particular game. It is a lottery — and lottery is the quintessential democratic mode. The assumption behind the batting order is that each individual deserves an equal chance. (The violation of that fundamental assumption is why the designated hitter is an abomination; it points in the repellant direction of football-like specialization: the pitcher as special-teams player.) There is no taking turns in other ball sports. Kids will naturally feed the ball to the best players or their friends; in other words, they adopt either the aristocratic or the oligarchic principle. Baseball’s batting order is ­salutary in that it insists upon and demonstrates just how difficult democracy is. Especially at the younger levels where natural inequalities are more pronounced, stronger hitters must learn to cheer on their teammates and weaker hitters must learn to conquer dread, learn to draw the walk, learn to bunt, learn even to “take one for the team.” ”

    And of course, there is the fact that the designated hitter was an innovation, and a product of the 1960s at that (finally officially adopted by the American League in 1973). That’s enough censure in itself.

  • Avatar
    June 3, 2010

    Jeff

    Brian,
    I wonder whether this unique baseball culture (which anyone who has played the game knows definitely does exist and which is a defining thing about the sport) that emphasizes tradition and consistency over time is not also what leads to — albeit through a mostly benign perversion of what is really important about tradition — the characteristic superstitiousness and obsessiveness of baseball players relative to players of other sports?