“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” the French philosopher Jacques Barzun once observed, “had better learn baseball.”
Played at many levels, from back lots to school yards, from cozy college ballparks to multi-million dollar domed stadiums, the game embodies many of the values embraced by our nation: team work, individual initiative, social mobility and democracy. Its rich history and traditions also appeal, and the rules and rhythms of the game played by our fathers and grandfathers still largely apply to the one played today by our sons and daughters.
Though it has been years since the sport could accurately be called our national pastime, given the popularity of professional football, basketball and even soccer, for one week every October Americans by the millions turn their attention back to baseball with the playing of its championship, the World Series. A languid game played by teams representing cities large and small over a six-month regular season suddenly gains urgency and fascination with the best-of-seven competition between the champions of the National and American Leagues. Sport becomes theater. Mistakes become tragedy. Heroes are made.
This year’s Series, the 109th, begins this week, pitting the San Francisco Giants against the Kansas City Royals. The two teams struggled during the regular season, but emerged champions of their respective leagues in a run of thrilling victories in play-off games against much higher rated ball clubs.
More is at stake than a sterling silver and gold trophy, however, or the winning team’s bonus money. Civic pride rests on the players’ shoulders and the chance for a city to shine on television broadcasts seen around the world. American cities love their ball clubs and guard them jealously, lest the teams move elsewhere and condemn the community to the unwelcome status as “minor league.”
So don’t tell people in Kansas City, San Francisco and their neighbors around California and the American Midwest that baseball isn’t our national pastime any more. For them and millions of others, its place is secure.