In the United States the love of baseball is reverential, a nearly religious sentiment. Modern baseball is one of those uniquely American inventions that—unlike movies, or blue jeans, or jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll—has never quite translated to the rest of the world. There are strong pockets of enthusiasm in Canada, South America, and East Asia, but baseball has never caught fire on a global scale to the degree that other sports have.
America’s pastime has its roots in English games of the early-and-mid 1800’s. Immigrants brought this proto-baseball to the North American continent, where it was quickly adopted and shaped and codified. By the end of the 1800’s, baseball had established itself as a fully, traditionally, wholeheartedly American sport.
Baseball has always been a beautifully scalable endeavor. Kids play it in empty lots and fallow farm fields, just for the immense fun and glory of it. The better athletes go on to play baseball in high school, then college, then for farm teams and the minor leagues. The best-of-the-best may be invited to the pros. This trajectory accounts for the immense local and national fervor that baseball fuels.
Nine players, nine innings, a bat, a ball, a glove. A simple game that any kid can pick up, yet woven with nuanced complexities. Baseball is a game of both muscle and strategy, both patience and lightning reflexes. Like music, baseball is often played during its intervals. Pitchers and catchers communicate via a secret, silent language. Basemen and base runners glare each other down like duelists, like gunslingers, of a bygone age. Games are often defined by the rhythms of those intensely quiet moments when nothing much seems—but only seems—to be happening.
The magnificent hushes of each game are punctuated by explosive cracks of the bat, by leathery clonks of a ball hitting a glove’s sweet spot, by the crunch of earth under a runner’s feet as he tries to steal home. Fans cheer or groan as the fortunes of their teams rise and fall. These sounds are the notes of baseball, the harmonies and melodies that demarcate the intervals. They are sometimes anticipated but often unexpected. Baseball is a form not of classical music, but of jazz.
I am not an expert in baseball other than as all Americans are experts in baseball: I love the game, and I played it around the neighborhood when I was a kid. Every year, my brother and pulled our gloves out of the garage attic as soon as the snow melted and we could see the grass. With our friends—our little sister often tagging along—we played catch in back yards, front yards, and on quiet streets where cars only passed every ten minutes or so (such are the rhythms of life in a small Massachusetts mill village). We took a bat and ball to the Little League fields when there were no games on, practicing our pitching, our batting, and our fielding.
Our baseball equipment was nothing to speak of. We had bats, balls and gloves purchased on the cheap at King’s—a kind of Wal-Mart decades before we would ever hear of Wal-Mart. Cheap as the gloves were we treated them like real big-time gloves, stretching them and breaking them in as carefully as if we were pro players. We had blue plastic batting helmets emblazoned with Red Sox logos; these were treasured possessions. Wearing the Red Sox helmets we could imagine ourselves at Fenway Park, playing in the big leagues, jumping to snag pop flies before they sailed over the Green Monster.
We played ball with the passion of big leaguers. We hurled the ball as hard as we could, swung the bat as hard as we could, and dove for every ball as if missing it would mean a World Series loss. We were just a few kids running around a back yard, a grassy field, a Little League diamond. We were like millions of other kids playing ball those summers, demonstrating more heart than skill—but what heart. Those games were as glorious to us as if we were really playing at Fenway.
My brother did play Little League, at least one season, maybe two. Being a girl I couldn’t play. Girls didn’t play ball in small Massachusetts mill villages in the 1970’s. I remember being proud of my brother as he took the field. He wasn’t destined for the pros (any more than I would have been), but he played earnestly and deliberately and well. The sun shone hot on the ball fields, the air heavy and humid with a smothering density that descends on rural New England in the heart of summer.
I wished I was playing, and comforted myself that the uniforms looked uncomfortable, those uniforms that local businesses—insurance companies, power companies, hardware stores—sponsored and splashed with their business logos. It was a wound, not to be able to play, the kind of wound that scabs over but never fully heals. It is a salve to read, in these more enlightened times, about young athletes like Little Leaguer Mo’Ne Davis who show that girls have a place in baseball, not as tokens but as stars.
Major league baseball has had some rough going in the last two decades. It was celebrated by documentarian Ken Burns in his elegiac 1994 PBS series “Baseball”. But as Burns acknowledged in his 2010 documentary “Tenth Inning,” big league ball has been tainted by steroid and doping scandals that tar some of its most revered players, and call into question the records set in the last quarter century. And baseball has been tainted by the specter of greed as top (and even middling) players demand—and receive—multimillion-dollar contracts that would have been unthinkable even twenty-five years ago.
Babe Ruth was something of an anomaly. Traditionally, players have been lean, lanky, hungry-looking gladiators. Modern players have been increasingly—suspiciously—muscle-bound. Many of the star players are multimillionaires. They tend to jog nonchalantly between the bases, not racing with the desperate greyhound grace of their predecessors, but ambling with a well-fed ennui. The notes of the game have become muted, and the intervals, no longer crackling with electric intensity and meaning, are slack silences. Modern big league baseball simply lacks the heart of playground ball. All across the country, kids swing at and dive for every ball as if lives depend on it.
The shine is off today’s bloated and blunted professional game. There are still great players, great moments—even great games. And the fans are still great—witness their loyalty during the last two decades of tribulations, their willingness to keep the faith. But the league as a whole, the pro apparatus, no longer feels great. That greatness has been diminished, and in some measure lost.
But everything cycles, and the pendulum always swings. The future saviors of baseball are, literally, the kids in the vacant lots and grassy fields, the kids on the playgrounds and Little League diamonds right now, right this moment, even as I type these words. Some of these kids are going to play college ball, and a smaller percentage will go on to the minors, and a golden few will make the pros. Play hard kids. Run your hearts out. Leap for every line drive and fly ball. Play baseball like everything depends on it—because in some ways, it does. America is baseball and baseball is America in a weirdly and beautifully reflective way. Let’s hope the next generation of ballplayers restores hunger and jazz and glory and honor to the game. Because as baseball goes, so goes the country.
[Leslie Le Mon is an American author. Raised in New England, she has lived in Los Angeles since 1992—but still roots for the Red Sox.]