Why I Love Baseball
In George Orwell's incisive essay "Why I Write," he says that all writers have multiple reasons for doing what they do. Some they keep to themselves, some they share with others, and some even they don't know about.
Orwell's meditations are pessimistic. To him, all writers are driven by selfishness and vanity mixed with other mysterious motives that may be more pure. "I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest," the author of Animal Farm and 1984 wrote, "but I know which of them deserve to be followed."
I'm a writer. It pays the bills. Strangely, though, when buried under jobs that promise a check and a publication credit, a weblog post ends up at USSMariner.com with my first name under it. Why is this? I've wondered a thousand times.
Leaving aside the smell of the grass or the way a broken-in glove feels -- everybody says that -- I've come up with a few reasons why I love baseball, and why I write about it when for all intents and purposes I should be doing something else.
I love baseball because we share it, all of us.
One of my wife's Okinawan uncles is fanatic about the game, and not just Japan's yakyuu. He checks out American box scores daily, watches all the televised Mariner and Yankee games, and tries to convince me that the Mariners' demise is directly related to the absence of Dan Wilson.
He grew up on a 700 square kilometer island in Asia and became a businessman. I grew up in rural Oregon intending to become a starving novelist and poet, dropping texts randomly into obscure journals and small presses for people to discover. He speaks no English. I barely speak the Japanese and Okinawan languages.
Yet we talk for hours about records, statistics, the arc of a swing or the contour of a pitch.
I love baseball -- odd as it seems -- because we disagree about it. I may think that you have dramatically underestimated the value of Ichiro, or overestimated the importance of a veteran closer, or too easily discounted the chances of the Cleveland Indians. You may think what I say is patently absurd, and your stance may be vindicated by history and logic.
But I'll still buy you a beer and laugh if it turns out that way. About what other than baseball is this true?
My job during college was a 40 hour a week gig at a youth sports organization. I signed kids up for Little League. Black kids, white kids, boys, girls, rich kids with roman numerals after their handles, hippie kids named "Heron" and "Thunder" and "Mountain." I watched them all walk out in new uniforms, glowing with anticipation and thought about how someday I'd like to write anything that gave people that kind of joy, without worrying about whether or not I got paid for it.
I love baseball because of Jackie Robinson.
Sport can be a great unifier, especially a game that's grown up with us. In these times where we -- as families and as a nation -- disagree about so much else, it's wonderful that there is the common vernacular of baseball and an accepted response to any discussion of a team's fate: "If they could only get some pitching." (This useful phrase has elicited many a knowing nod, solving numerous uncomfortable silences.)
Even better, there is an entire community of dedicated people devoted to studying whether or not this old canard is, in fact, true. Not because finding the answer will make them a profit, mind you, but just to see. To know. To learn. To share that learning with others.
I love baseball because Japanese-Americans, interned during World War II, built those most American of structures, baseball diamonds, where they were imprisoned. This embrace of the national pastime was a shining example of perseverance and love of country during a tragic, difficult period.
Then there's the lore of the game, those charming and occasionally apocryphal tales. Like the one about when Yogi Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway, he didn't ask about what deep and complex matters drove him to put words on a page. He asked "What paper you write for, Ernie?"
I love baseball because the Suquamish Indian Tribe sent a team to tour Japan in 1921 -- and is still so proud of those guys that they've got a photo of them hanging in the tribal center's entry hall.
Baseball mimics the seasons. When winter comes, the game goes away, and with Rogers Hornsby, we stare out of the window and wait for spring. At its core, this cycle is about hope. After my favorite team becomes the first in history to follow two 90 win seasons with two 90 loss campaigns, fans like me can get discouraged.
Then we get Felix Hernandez. Whom I love.
I love baseball because it reminds me of what I could be, and what I am trying to become. I write about it because it reminds me which of my motives are base, and which of my motives deserve to be followed.
In January, I'm going back to Okinawa. For a gift, I'm bringing my uncle one of my most cherished possessions -- a bat Mark Grace used during an early '90s spring training game.
His eyes are going to get big. I'm going to bow, and smile, and regret that we don't speak the same language.
You know what, though? We really do.
Jeff Shaw is the fifth-smartest baseball mind on the staff of USS Mariner, a blog about the Pacific Northwest's hometown nine. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer and USS Mariner.]
Great Essay. Thanks.
Please, please, please read The Brothers K (NOT the brothers karamozov), if you haven't already. It's a fantastic book that you will love.
Posted by: solap at September 29, 2005 6:34 AM
Good stuff. Thank you.
Posted by: JMK at September 29, 2005 9:39 AM
Jeff, great article.
I'm wondering though - you write "I love baseball because Japanese-Americans, interned during World War II, built those most American of structures, baseball diamonds, where they were imprisoned. This embrace of the national pastime was a shining example of perseverance and love of country during a tragic, difficult period."
I've read a lot about the origins of the game in Japan, but I have to admit, I don't know a lot about Nikkei (Japanese American) baseball. What I'm wondering is this - did the Japanese Americans in the internment camp see the baseball as an American pasttime or a Japanese one? Or perhaps did any of them identify the sport with their heritage as Japanese Americans, since baseball by this time had caught on so fervently in Japan. Have there been any interviews done regarding this?
Posted by: Will at September 29, 2005 9:48 AM
Good point, and interesting questions. Japanese American baseball is an interesting topic, for sure.
Generally, I believe that baseball was seen as an especially American pursuit -- but one which allowed the expression of one's heritage. The article from the Journal of Sport History I linked talks about this, about how baseball was a way of both expressing pride in one's ancestry and at the same time muting ethnic differences.
Certainly, there was pride in heritage and shared identity expressed by these teams, but there was also an acknowledgement that this particular sport was endemic to America. Community leader James Sakamoto, who started the first English-language Japanese American newspaper, believed that "to play baseball was to engage ... in a cultural test that Japanese Americans should enthusiastically submit themselves to as a proof of readiness for citizenship."
The Mullan article also mentions that baseball was initially a sport for the educated elite in Japan, and most immigrants were not from that social class, so they may not have identified the sport with their ancestral home. You probably knew that, but I thought it was worth noting.
So on balance, it seems to me that most internees saw baseball as more "American" than "Japanese," but there are folks far more expert on the topic than me.
Interviews: let me recommend the awesome book "Through A Diamond" which mixes oral history with other research. The Nisei Baseball Research Project has also produced a documentary film, which I'll admit I haven't seen, but looks great.
Posted by: Jeff at September 29, 2005 10:19 AM
Nicely done Jeff.
Allow me to add two reasons why I love baseball.
1) I love the pace. I know a lot of people that hate how slowly the game moves but I actually love that the game moves slowly enough to allow its viewer to really disect every pitch; every at-bat; every move (or failure to make a move.) Some games (basketball) for instance move so fast that it gives the viewer very little time to dwell on a possession before you have some new developing play to concentrate on.
2) I love the Enlightenment era-like division we are seeing right now between the so-called statheads and the "smallball/intangibles" tradionalists. Its almost like reason v. faith and it represents much of what's going on in the "real world" without the attendant consequences.
Posted by: Someone at September 29, 2005 11:15 AM
Of course it could also be agued that the statheads resemble the scholastics sitting around debating the acane and the minutae that have no practical application (most famous being of course, how many veteran closers can dance on the head of a pin)
Posted by: Chris at September 29, 2005 12:47 PM
All this and he's a great poker player too--nice job, Jeff.
I second the recommendation of Brothers K. It gets borderline oversentimental at times, and it could use an edit of a 100 pages or so, but it's a fine read nonetheless. Not Iowa Baseball Confederacy good, but good.
Posted by: Jonah Keri at September 29, 2005 2:19 PM
Thanks for the response. The social divide between the Japanese that played baseball in Japan (at the college level) and the Japanese who emigrated to the US hadn't really occurred to me, but it makes complete sense.
Thanks for the article links too. I'll be sure to check them out.
Looks like I've got some reading and research to do this weekend while not focusing on the Yanks/Sox/Indians.
Posted by: Will at September 30, 2005 6:09 AM