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PERSPECTIVE ON BASEBALL : A Religion That Goes to Our Roots : The game is so much more than the greed and arrogance of its major league players and owners.

<i> George Grella is a professor of English and film studies at the University of Rochester. </i>

“I believe in the church of baseball,” says Annie Savoy in “Bull Durham,” one of the best films on the subject, and most fans share her belief. With a strike imminent, we must conclude that the money changers have taken over the temple; because of its wealth, organization and popularity, the collective entity officially known as Major League Baseball deludes itself that it actually represents or even somehow possesses the game. To presume that the sport really resides in the major leagues, however, is rather like some devout worshiper imagining that God dwells only in the great cathedrals of his faith.

Since all ball games seem to have originated in ancient religious practices, the analogy is entirely appropriate; certainly all true fans know that baseball retains its sense of the mystical and marvelous. Once the ritual stick-and-ball contests filtered down from the priestly classes to the common folk and spread across Europe, the game itself split into innumerable competing sects, many of which survive in one form or another in the present day--hockey, polo, cricket and golf, for example, obviously share some common elements with baseball. Its long and complicated history suggests that baseball can never belong to a special group, a single wealthy and privileged class, or in contemporary America, to a bunch of whiny, greedy owners and players.

More important, no matter how high the salaries and how enormous the profits, baseball cannot soil itself with economics; all that money, which constitutes the central issue between the two sides in the dispute, changes hands outside the boundaries of the game. In its purest sense no game can involve money. The contest takes place within certain limits that mark it as a game, a field that become a free and sacred space. The only possible exchange within that arena is an essentially mystical transaction, the process of victory and defeat--a team wins or loses an intangible object, a ballgame, a precious something of no apparent value.

Some of the most important reasons for baseball’s special prominence in American culture derive from its assertion of freedom. Limited only by two diverging lines that never reach an end, it opens rather than encloses space; played without a clock, it suspends the progress of time. Promising an infinity of space and an eternity of time, it expresses fully the grandest, most liberating dreams of the national spirit, which must not be enchained by the greed and arrogance of the professional baseball people.

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Contrary to the beliefs of those who run the major leagues, the game need not be conducted in great stadiums or manicured fields, before thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers. Like the nice ordinary neighborhood kid who struck it rich and moved to a snooty part of town, Major League Baseball has forgotten where it came from.

Its origins lie not only in the distant past of ancient civilizations, but in the living history of American culture, where it evolved from a children’s game to an artistic endeavor uniquely suited to the nation’s spirit.

True baseball, after all, simply doesn’t belong to the plutocrats who think that owning a profitable franchise and extorting money from compliant municipalities qualifies them to speak for the sport. It belongs to the American people, who play it in its purest form, far beyond the concrete walls of someone’s ill-gotten ballpark, in all sorts of odd but appropriate places--schoolyards, vacant lots, concrete playgrounds, perhaps even on some farm field stretching to the distant horizon.

Uninhibited by the bureaucratic nonsense of officialdom, that game needs no leagues or umpires or uniforms, but simply a bat and ball and maybe a glove; often without the full complement of players, often with one field entirely forbidden, or some confusion about the exact distance between bases, it is amateur, unorthodox, unorganized baseball, the very best version of the game.

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That’s the game that fans should play and watch and believe in. That game will continue as long as the nation exists, the people will continue to love it and the Republic will remain intact. No strike can destroy the purity, joy and significance of the essential game as practiced in the church of baseball.


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