According to RealClearPolitics, 63 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. In New York City, people are getting slashed in the face by strangers. In Los Angeles this weekend, activists will protest the racial makeup of the nominees at the Academy Awards. Across the country, friendships are being ruined by poisonous debates over transgender bathrooms, the Flint water crisis, the Supreme Court nominee, and the latest explosive pronouncements of a slightly orange businessman from New York. Both hemispheres of our political brain are inflamed by the unhinged passions of the presidential race.
What could save us from our slow-motion nervous breakdown? Why, baseball of course. Whether it’s an election year, a leap year, or the year the American experiment with democracy finally crashes, spring training always arrives right on time.
Some say baseball is no longer our national pastime. The games are too slow. The season is too long. The whole thing is too boring—just a bunch of overpaid bums on steroids. We’re football people now. We want to see concussions, not curveballs. We want to hear the breaking of bones, not bats. Even boxing isn’t exciting enough to hold our attention anymore. We want mixed martial arts. We want blood.
I don’t buy it. I think we still have a soft spot for our summer game. Sure, the nation’s demographics have changed since the glory days of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Our tastes have evolved, too. Ballantine’s beer, boiled peanuts, and a box of Cracker Jacks just won’t do. When we go to the stadium these days, we expect to wash down our sushi and barbecue with a hoppy microbrew. But these changes are cosmetic. Our baseball heroes still inspire us in a way that the icons of our other big sports can’t—and don’t.
The athletic feats of a Kobe Bryant, a Sydney Crosby, or a Cam Newton seem out of our reach. We may love watching J.J. Watt lose his helmet, beat a double team, and grind a quarterback into dust, but we can’t imagine ourselves doing it. Our eyes may bulge when LeBron James puts home a kingly dunk on his way to a triple-double, but we’re admiring an achievement out of our reach, in every sense.
Baseball is different. It still looks like a game that you or I could play. Fat guys still make the roster. You may be 42, but if you work all winter on your knuckleball, you might get the call. Baseball’s human scale and redemptive qualities bind us to the sport and the players in a special way.
Think of the reception given Derek Jeter on his farewell tour in 2014. To many, Jeter was the enemy—the golden boy of the New York Yankees’ evil empire. And yet, in every stadium in every city, he was greeted with sincere and sustained standing ovations. Baseball fans respected his success. They admired how he had carried himself, and they appreciated how he played the game. There’s still a right way to play baseball. You can’t say that of every game—or even of running for president.
This year will be another great player’s final season. David “Big Papi” Ortiz—the Yankee-killing, curse-reversing Boston basher—has issued an appeal to the notoriously unfriendly-to-visitors fans of the Bronx Bombers. He has politely asked for a standing ovation in Yankee Stadium before he retires. He’ll get it, and he probably won’t have to wait until the last regular season series between the Yanks and the Red Sox in late September, either. The Yankees’ bleacher creatures will surely salute him on May 6, during his first at bat of the year in the House that Ruth (or Steinbrenner) Built. That’s what baseball fans do. They give credit where it’s due.
Spring training won’t solve all our problems. We still have this election mania to deal with. New York’s subway slashers won’t put their knives away when the ball clubs come north. But just think about where we’d be without baseball. We’d probably be like every other country in the world, waiting every fourth year for the World Cup to come around. That would definitely put us on the wrong track.
Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images