Late last week, as I stepped into a faculty meeting a few minutes early, a colleague told me it had been 9 degrees when he'd arisen that morning to feed his chickens. But then, after the collective groan, he gripped a yardstick, swung it a few times in slow motion, and used the phrase "quick wrists." Ah, news of Spring Training has reached the barren north! In the media this news has been bittersweet, but I have vowed I will not lament the coming of the baseball seasonlike Jason Giambi at his press conference, I will not even mention the "s" word that hovers over the game. Nor will I mention Juiced, nor the Bash Brothers, nor syringes, nor "the Cream," nor "the Clear"no! Fie on it, I say! This is the time of hope, of rebirth, perhaps even of a finite sort of redemption (read: A-Rod) or recompense (read: Carlos Beltran) or, dare I say it, reconciliation (read: Washington, D.C. and baseball in the beltwayPres. Taft, where are you, throwing from the crowd in a bowler hat?). As my remedy, I will instead ascend to the sphere of metaphysics: to wit, Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box, edited by Eric Bronson, the latest volume in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Ah, metaphysics, the pleasing retreat from the darkness of flawed particularity.
But I've found, in reading this volume, that baseball resists Cartesian reduction. If the philosophic task is to address the universals, and the literary task to celebrate the particulars, then the close and enduring connection of baseball to literature makes sense. So also does the resistance of baseball to philosophy, except the anti-philosophies of a Yogi Berra or a Casey Stengel.
Hence, this volume feels a bit contrived, an intriguing idea that doesn't quite measure up to the magnificently simple complexity of the game itself. I didn't get a good feel about the fit of this volume when I saw among earlier titles in the series The Matrix and Philosophy and Buffy the Vampire-Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. It's an interesting enterpriseto explore the cogency of pop culturebut does baseball, the grand pastoral game, really belong in such company?
The volume is structured in nine "innings" of paired essays loosely linked by a theme for every inning, followed by a rather diffuse set of "post-game conference" hot topics set up in point/counterpoint format. No central theme emerges, except the attempt by the various authors to bring some aspect of their philosophical training to bear on some aspect of the game of baseball. This confluence often seems unwieldy, with some of the discussions forbiddingly jargon-laden (and not baseball jargon, which would be welcome more often). Strangely, the essays that are most engaging are those that fail to keep the philosophical agenda, and that dip down into the particulars that make baseball so beloved.
One highlight occurs in the "Bottom of the Third" (an inning devoted to umpires), in the essay "Taking Umpiring Seriously: How Philosophy Can Help Umpires Make the Right Calls" by J.S. Russell. When he leads off his argument by claiming that "What umpires do is philosophically fascinating," I must admit that he has opened new ground for me to ponder that problematic role. I'm intrigued by the notion of different interpretive levels at work here, such that "a call in baseball is also a witness's report or description of events. It is, in effect, a first-hand statement about a fact or an event, as well as a call." But Russell's appeal to the legal philosopher R.M. Dworkin and his notion of the law's integrity doesn't really elucidate the shadowy endeavor of umpiring. Instead, it is the account, still vivid in my memory as a virulent teenaged Yankees' fan, of the Pine-Tar Incident, wherein Billy Martin forced the umpire Joe Brinkman to function as a legalist in disallowing George Brett's home run. Ah, here was great theater, and the quote of Brinkman's that Russell offers here"'It didn't seem right to take away Brett's homer because of a little pine tar, but rules are rules. Rules are all an umpire has to work with"is perfect baseball-ese, plain but cryptic. So also the overruling decision of AL President Lee MacPhail that, as Russell paraphrases, "following the rules was not in the spirit of the game in this case." The maddening rightness of all this seems to trump Russell's attempt at deeper philosophical exposition. The particulars hold up on their own here.
So also with the essay in the "Top of the Eighth," Jay Bennett and Aryn Martin's foray into the sacred baseball ground of statistics titled "The Numbers Game: What Fans Should Know About the Stats They Love." Here, the late 19th-century's "second scientific revolution," which the historian of science Thomas Kuhn identified as "concerned with generating an 'avalanche of numbers,'" has interesting resonances with the emergence of baseball as the ultimate game of measurability. But somehow the application of statistical theory and the discussion of randomness miss the charm and mystery so bound up in baseball's statistics. When the essayists point out that Terry Pendleton's 1991 NL batting championship was by a mere .0011 points over Hal Morris, and that one more hit in Morris's 478 at-bats would have given him the title, our response is not statistical but visceral. And there is something further to the discussion of baseball and superstition than can be extrapolated from numeracyBennett and Martin offer another gem of John McGraw lore, and a particularity that stands all on its own, when they relate that "In 1911, Charles Victory Faust told John McGraw that a fortune-teller had guaranteed the New York Giants would win the pennant if he pitched for them. Although Faust had no skill whatever as a pitcher, McGraw kept him on the Giants payroll from 1911 through 1913 as a good luck charm. Faust warmed up for every game (though he never started) and the Giants did win the pennant in each of those years." Here is anti-philosophy, or perhaps the better word is lore, and I believe it is of such stuff that our baseball imaginations are made. I much prefer Bill James's quirky player profiles in his Abstract to the more algebraic formulae that he has derived.
Having complained enough about what seems the imposition of theoretical constructs on baseball, I want to add that Baseball and Philosophy does offer some moments where the game is elucidated by speculation. Randolph Feezell's wonderfully subtitled mock-Socratic dialogue in the "Top of the Fourth" essay, "Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition: Would Kant Cork His Bat?", provides a helpful fleshing out of various perspectives on what exactly should be allowed as "just part of the game." As Abbey the Absolutist, Ron the Realist, and Trev the Traditionalist (who represents an Aristotelian "middle way") hashed out the issues in conversation, I found myself wrestling with such inviolable violations as catchers framing pitcheshow should we navigate such subjectivities? Another essay that touches upon rules and fairness is R. Scott Kretchmar's "Top of the Ninth" piece "Walking Barry Bonds: The Ethics of the Intentional Walk," wherein the author makes an interesting case for baseball's moral and aesthetic superiority over all the other major "time-regulated" sports, since these sports devise stall tactics and manipulations of time to effect competitive advantages, whereas in baseball, as Kretchmar beautifully phrases the point, "Ballplayers have to honor the nine innings. They have to play to the end. The team that is batting always has hope. Sharp breaking balls still come to the plate. If first base is open, Barry Bonds or the mythical Casey will undoubtedly be intentionally walked. And despite the unfavorable odds, Barry's and Casey's teammates will continue to take their lusty swings. Aesthetically, for the fans in San Francisco and in Mudville, this is a far more pleasing way to end the story."
Phrases like these seem to match the integrity of the game, to honor its mysterious attraction in the midst of the furious pace of modern society. Indeed, the best moments in the volume evoke that same sense of nobility that baseball can summon, even in the midst of sketchy rules and morally feeble participants. The father and son team of Alex and Rob Ruck deliver such a piece in the "Top of the Sixth" essay "The Negro Leagues and the Contradictions of Social Darwinism," where we find an indictment of 19th-century theorists who "justified segregation by pointing to how poorly African Americans fared when compared with whites in most endeavors," and where we find the response of black America poignantly drawn up in the development of Pittsburgh's two Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. On the baseball field, in ephemeral barnstorming games lost to memory or to the archives, such teams and such players disproved the myths of racial inferiority with eloquent and often superior play over the very white rivals they were not allowed to join in the Major Leagues. The Rucks end the article with appropriate sobriety, noting that "These discussions of genetics are not based in genetics but in social attitudes. Sport has yet to transcend the politics and philosophies of race. It remains inextricably linked to its social context and will for the foreseeable future." Here are problems worth wrestling with both in philosophy and Realpolitik.
* * *
All this to say that the season fast approaches and, amidst the ethical and metaphysical brouhaha, grown men are taking grounders and hitting tee-balls with outrageous exuberance in Florida and Arizona. What will the 2005 season hold? We are assured of certain certainties, at least: the Yankees and Red Sox will fester in enmity and play the most emotionally charged games of the regular season (although a Curt Schilling-Randy Johnson duel on Opening Day feels a bit like Diamondbacks Reduxgreat competitors, and in the case of Schilling even a "curse-breaker," but with a hint of free agency ennui hovering over the scene). The Mets have assembled another witches' brew of free agents and media fodder (I love visiting my in-laws on Long Island in the summer to imbibe in a little Newsday fervor), while many a fan for many another team laments the loss of the dynamic Carlos Beltran into the recesses of Shea. Cubs fans out here in the Midwest are "cautiously optimistic," while my colleague the Tiger fan has assented to the title "cautiously pessimistic." Out west the Dodgers and Giants have both lost steam and perhaps esteem as well (the Giants for "you know what" and the Dodgers for letting Adrian Beltre skip town for Seattle).
Well, now that the dust has settled (except on the I-95 stretch from the Bronx to Beantown), let me offer up some predictions. In the AL East, the lines are drawnpeople will be interested to see if Sosa and Palmeiro will reach 600 homers side by side, but I see A-Rod tearing out the heart of the Red Sox staff late in the season and vindicating himself with his bat instead of his forearm. The AL Central is intriguing, because the Twins keep making Bud Selig blush with their limited-income success. They may very well do it again. And my AL pick, not only to win the West but also the pennant, is the resilient and newly/oldly named Los Angeles Angels. I love the mix of scrappers and stars, and I think Vladimir Guerrero will show elements of both this year in leading them past the emotionally drained Yankees in the ALCS. Wildcard pick? Doesn't Boston have a long-term contract for this spot?
The NL is shakier for me to pick, so I'll start out in the West and say the Padres are going to make that quirky new stadium rock with pennant fever. The NL Central is usually the fiercest battleground, but with Houston down a notch and the Cardinals deflated from World Series humiliation, I see the Cubs sneaking their way into a divisional title by moderating the work on their young pitchers in midsummer, and then riding them in the fall. The NL East is the traffic-jam of competitive teams this year, with the Braves, Mets, Phillies, and Marlins all capable of winning 90 games, and the Nationals as a sentimental pick (can Frank Robinson still wield a bat in the five-hole?). I like the working-class character of the PhilliesJim Thome represents everything enduringly good about baseball, plus he looks like he played in the 1890's with that face and body. The Marlins should win the wildcard this year, and out of the fray I like Philadelphia emerging with a pennant, but alasthe Sixers of a few years back, and the Eagles of late, have dashed the Philly fans against the walls of bitterness, and so also this year. Curses upon the Thunder-Stix and the Seventh Inning Scoreboard Monkey and "Happy Trails to You" and Disney-rama and L.A. to CA to Anaheim to LA identity-crises, but the Angels will emerge as World Series champions, with Vladimir Guerrero as MVP and poster-child for the quiet, "bare hand on the bat," free-swinging baseball archetypea sort of Yogi Berra, though regrettably without the anti-philosophic philosophy. And here, at least in February, the game can begin again as nobly and significantly as we long our own lives to be.
Michael R. Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Michael R. Stevens authored last year's baseball preview. He picked the Blue Jays to be AL champs, saying they had "enough shrewdness to let the Yankees and Red Sox lose focus on the pennant race in their antipathy for one another."
Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
CT Managing Editor Mark Galli wrote about the steroids controversy surrounding this year's preseason. Galli's Play Ball column includes:
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review, appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Gut Check | Blink makes the case for intuitive judgment. (Feb. 22, 2005)
Wayfaring Strangers | Set in Mexico, Anita Desai's latest novel is a compact but multilayered tale of pilgrimage. (Feb. 01, 2005)
What Do You Mean, 'Moral' Fiction? | John Gardner, Martin Amis, and the ethics of the novel. (Jan. 25, 2005)
Taking the T.U.L.I.P. Out of the Garden | Relating Calvinism to "the complexities of contemporary life." (Jan. 18, 2005)
Booking Ahead | The conclusion of our seasonal roundupand, at last, truly, this time we mean it, The Worst Book of the Year (Jan. 18, 2005)
From the Big Bang to my Office | More books to note from 2004. (Jan. 11, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2004 | And a warning about the risks of reading. (Dec. 28, 2004)
Modern, All Too Modern | Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will. (Dec. 14, 2004)
Unfashionably Good | A savory collections of essays by Alan Jacobs. (Dec. 07, 2004)
Communicating Communication | A roundup from the National Communication Association's annual convention. (Nov. 30, 2004)
"Summer's Ebullient Finale" | A richly varied anthology offers a "spiritual biography" of autumn. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Autumn Books | Some that stand out in this season's plenty. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Reaching the Light | A review of On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi. (Nov. 09, 2004)
The Prayers of a Self-Governing People | A psalm for Election Day. (Nov. 02, 2004)