Monday, June 9, 2008

Why I Love Baseball

I was recently asked to blog at the NL Central blog, part of a new sportsblog network. This prompted me to reflect on why I love sports so much, in particular the sport of baseball. To many non-sports fans, I am sure watching professional athletics seems like a great waste of time. It is a form of entertainment, a distraction, no different from any other TV show, movie, or other hobby. Why do folks spend so much time and energy discussing and debating sports? I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself.

I grew up in a very athletically oriented household. My father played basketball (briefly) at Indiana University and was a Green Bay Packer fan during their great years in the 1960s. Sports were always important to him and it reflected in our household.
Both my sister and I were strongly encouraged to play organized sports. As a young person, I played baseball, soccer, basketball, football, and ran track for community and school teams. I was never the best, but I was usually good enough to start and had my share of the thrill of victory. Additionally, I picked up golf and volleyball along the way. Sports were a family event and one in which we could all participate in some way.

Watching sports was also important. As one might expect, we were huge Indiana University fans, and became Reds and Bengals fans. We even hit a few Cincinnati Stingers games. As with many households, sports are a gendered affair, not so when I was growing up.
I would put both my mother and my sister (as well as many of the female members of my extended family) up against any guy in a contest of sports knowledge. It was a powerful force of bonding in my family.

Part of it was just the culture of our family. But as I grew older, I became increasingly aware that sports was one way in which folks debate issues of right and wrong, morality, and instruct their children in issues of basic fairness. It is an oft stated cliché that sports “build character” whether they do or don’t, I don’t know, b
ut they are certainly a cultural form through which cultural values are transmitted—for better or worse. Although I can’t recount all the lessons I learned from sports, generally, it taught me about commitment, teamwork, cooperation. On the negative side, it showed me how bullies can take advantage of the weak. Although one can take many lessons from these experiences, I always viewed sports as an arena of competition, but one in which there are agreed upon rules. It also taught me there is little joy in winning if you cheat; and that after the game is over, your opponent is not your enemy and can be your friend. In different ways, I apply these lessons to my life.

Baseball in particular has a special place in my heart. Much of it is due to its cultural significance to America. Baseball is one of America’s oldest organized professional sports. Loosely based on Britain’s cricket, the game took on a life of its own in the US. Because it requires a large space to play, baseball has always had a rural heartland feel to it—the smell of the grass, the smell of the hot dogs, the feel of the sun on your face, the crack of the bat, and the taste of a ice cold beer. Growing up in Cincinnati, it was easy to become enthralled with baseball. We had the first professional team—something the city is very proud of and in the 1970s fielded one of the best teams ever.

Although baseball if often considered a “traditional sport,” I have thought that this
isn’t really correct. It is true that baseball has been around for a long time, but it has been hardly “traditional” in its practice. Baseball’s rules have been constantly in flux, attempting to accommodate fans tastes. Through the 1890s to the 1920s, baseball changed the rules about foul strikes, the definition of an error, the design of the ball, and the location of the fences to help promote run scoring. Baseball racially integrated itself in 1947, a risky move to say the least, seven years before Brown v. Board and seventeen years before the civil rights act. Rule changes continued through the 1960s—altering the elevation of the mound and introducing designated hitters. Most recently, baseball has increasingly become a truly international sport—I just looked at my fantasy team and over half the guys are either Hispanic or Japanese. Although one can debate the effects of these upon the game (and in the case of integration, society), it is hard to argue that baseball is reluctant to change with the times.

Of course, baseball is hardly without its problems. Recently, changing with the times has been all that great. Baseball has become a mega-business, like most entertainment industries. The biggest stars are paid gratuitous salaries, teams charge astronomical amounts of money for tickets, food, and paraphernalia, and often hold hostage their fan base for new stadiums and sweetheart deals regarding taxes. These problems seem particularly acute in baseball. Baseball has led the way with the corporate sponsorship of stadiums, has no salary cap, and has become increasingly uncompetitive because of it—the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This trend has led many baseball fans to become more interested in local semi-pro teams (Go Washington!)

Even with all these problems, there are few things that compare than a day at the ball park. Baseball still retains its Americana feel and somehow no hot dog tastes any better, no beer is any colder than one from the ballpark.

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