If I Never Get Back

“Baseball is like church: many attend, few understand.” – Leo Durocher

This spring opened the 115th season of Major League Baseball in America, and the words of legendary manager Leo Durocher resonate as clearly as the crack of the bat. If you look among the crowds today you see heads turned down, focused on smart phones rather than the game.

The majority of fans are just there for the excitement; they only look up to see the home runs, double plays, and flashing leather. They don’t really care about the shortstop’s batting average or the rotational axis on a curveball or whatever part of the arm is your Tommy John. In the moments between pitches they are snapping selfies—so much so, in fact, that MLB parks have been required to put up additional protective netting to prevent America’s Next Top Instagram Model from catching a screaming liner to the kisser.

But interspersed among the crowd are the few who do understand, who study every moment of the game with a joyful seriousness. It is these students of the game who elevate baseball to that level of religious experience invoked by Durocher. They understand that the ballpark, like the church, is not a place for mere enjoyment, but a place of contemplation and participation in something greater than the self. Baseball is not merely a game, but something noble and virtuous, and everyone who attends participates in the mystery. Former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti invoked this sacred nature of the game when he wrote Take Time for Paradise, a book that argues baseball is reflective of the American character.

If Durocher and Giamatti are right, then it should come as no surprise that we call baseball “America’s pastime.” The game still carries with it the virtues of an earlier age, the mores of a self-governing people, and the principles of free and equal men. Baseball—perhaps more so than any other sport—makes it nearly impossible for a single player to dominate the game. The positions all matter equally, and the players have historically policed themselves when one steps out of line or gets too big for his pinstripes. Its code—written and unwritten—is one of honor, discipline, and gentlemanliness. It is truly the game of self-governing people, so it should only make sense that it matured in a nation of self-governing people.

In many ways the game’s progression has mirrored that of America, equally rich with tradition and mythos and marred by curses and scandals. Knowledge of this great legacy is as essential to understanding baseball as history is to understanding America or Holy Scripture to understanding Christianity. In 2014, Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter even made a prospect write a full report on Frank Robinson—a Hall-of-Fame ballplayer and African-American trailblazer—after the rookie confessed to not knowing who Robinson was. Showalter understood that the heart of baseball is impossible to comprehend without a knowledge of its history.

The trouble is that fewer and fewer Americans are taking time for paradise. Baseball attendance—like church attendance—is trending at a record low, and the league has started to feel the pressure to get with the times or get left behind. The dominating will of the ignorant majority has begun to shape baseball for modern appetites as clearly as a church changing its doctrine on the whim of its congregation. Tradition is being readily disposed to feed America’s growing appetite for pleasure and declining capacity for leisure, ultimately resulting in the decline of the game’s integrity.

The changes to Major League Baseball in the past decade or so have been mainly directed at making baseball safer and speeding up the game. These include adding protective netting, limiting coaching visits, adding a time limit between innings, and outlawing hard collisions between runners and fielders. Much like America herself, the MLB today is determined to placate all of the general public’s concerns through regulation. But as with doctrines of faith, it is not baseball but we who must change if its virtue is to be preserved.

Americans are a people who pride themselves on self-government. If we are to keep our republic, we must every day demonstrate discipline. Baseball gives us 162 regular season games exemplifying that discipline—when we let it. Let the players police themselves. Let the teams decide for themselves what their logos should be and how to provide adequate safety in their stadiums. Let the pace be leisurely that it might be thoughtful and strategic. These traits teach us something about American virtues that never should have been lost.

For us fans at the ballpark, we would do better to close out Snapchat and pull out a scorecard. Phones have no place in church. Perhaps the same manners ought to be extended to a game sacred to the American people. Maybe then we might understand the game wholly; maybe then we’ll be less inclined to demand the game change; maybe then we’ll start to recover some of the virtues that have been forgotten in the chaos of modernity. If we cannot find joy in baseball, then it ought to be a signal to us that there is some corruption within ourselves.