More Than a Game

Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His new book, "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality," will be out this fall

From imprecations to invocations. That's how far baseball has traveled in the last three years. From a suicidal strike that shut down the season and canceled the sacrosanct World Series to the national chorus of hurrahs for Mark McGwire as he clubbed his record-breaking 62nd home run Tuesday.

Even McGwire understood there was something in those cheers that superseded his achievement. It was the euphoric high that the game itself, which was once so much a part of American life, had finally returned to us, a sense that all was right with the world again.

In a way, McGwire's feat spoke not only to our desire for heroics but to our desperation for what had been lost when baseball self-destructed. "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," the historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote in 1954. He was right. The game was both an invention and an expression of the country: in its pastoralism; its unique combination of individualism (batter vs. pitcher) and teamwork; its essential fairness in giving each side equal turns; its premium on reflex rather than strength or speed; its recurring pattern of order, disruption as the ball is hit and then order restored that so reflects the American balance between the traditional and the new. As the late baseball commissioner and Renaissance scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti aptly put it, baseball is "our best invention to stay change, to bring change on."

What is true of the game of baseball has also been true of the professional sport of baseball. Major league baseball has provided a remarkable chronicle of the culture: the resistance to Depression doom mirrored in the spunky Cardinals' Gashouse Gang of the '30s; the postwar sense of U.S. power in the Yankees of the late '40s and '50s; the counterculture in the hirsute Oakland A's of the '70s; the new permissiveness in the flamboyant uniforms of the Padres, Astros and Pirates of the '70s and '80s; the changing demographics of America in the changing demographics of the game itself in the '90s.

All this clearly reinforced Barzun's aphorism on the interplay between the nation and its game. But there is, as we so rudely discovered, another way to interpret Barzun, a way he perhaps hadn't intended. In this view, baseball is so thoroughly American that it captures not only the heart and mind of the nation but its imperfections as well. Indeed, over the years, baseball has been a barometer of racism, intolerance and small-mindedness, corporate uniformity and, most recently, greed. In fact, with its self-immolation during the 1994 strike, baseball was again being typically American, disregarding long-term consequences for the short-term as everyone else in America seemed to be doing.

This is precisely what traditionalists have had such a difficult time accepting. Even as the game ruined itself, even as it despoiled so much of what die-hard fans loved, it was true to its Americanness. The revised baseball of the last decade, which traditionalists detest, is a creation of our national obsession with entertainment: instant gratification, novelty, sensation--in short, of modern America. It was a recognition that the game's slow cadences, its long, ruminative pauses, no longer cut the mustard with an audience accustomed to the continuous noise and action of noncontemplative, hyperkinetic sports like basketball and football.

To save the game one had to change its essence. That's why baseball's custodians did everything in their power to beef up offense by replacing the pitcher in the American League with a designated hitter, by lowering the pitching mound, by installing slick artificial surfaces, by juicing the baseballs and shrinking the strike zone. It was why they instituted exploding scoreboards and wandering mascots. It was also why they initiated interleague play, which diminished the importance of the World Series, and a ridiculous "wild card" that gave more fans phony rooting interest by giving teams that had proved themselves second-best another chance at the championship, sort of like a consolation drawing among losers in a raffle.

What baseball's solons missed, and what McGwire reminded us last week, is that the appeal of baseball is not, and never was, the appeal of the bigger, faster, louder entertainment aesthetic. It is the appeal of history. Other professional sports may rely on big events to capture the public: a Super Bowl or the National Basketball Assn. finals. They build to a single moment: Joe Montana's winning touchdown pass or Michael Jordan's last-second basket. But baseball, despite its World Series, has always been a game of moments that accrete into seasons, of continuity, of tradition, of sacred records like Babe Ruth's 60 homers, Roger Maris' 61 and now McGwire's 62.

So if it wasn't the fastest game or the one with the highest excitement quotient, it was always the game with longest bloodlines, the one by which an individual could measure his life just as the country could measure its life: by teams and dynasties and legendary plays. Fathers passed down their memories and their team allegiances to their sons and daughters like a precious inheritance. Fathers may have watched other sports with their children, but they shared baseball with them. In fact, as any fan can attest, the retelling of a play is as good, if not better than the actual viewing of the play itself--one reason, among many, why intellectuals wax so poetic about their recollections of the national pastime and writers write so eloquently about it as they never did about football, basketball or hockey.

All this is relevant to the grand emotional eruption last week over McGwire. When he decided to let his pitchers pitch to the Cardinals' slugger rather than walk him, Cincinnati Reds manager Jack McKeon said, only half-facetiously, that he did it to heal the country. To which McGwire cracked, "If only it were that easy."

But McKeon was onto something. The mythic beauties of baseball, its legacies, had helped bind us before the game left us, corrupted like virtually everything else in American life. McGwire, big, soft-spoken, decent, emotional, highly sensitive to his role in the national drama and, above all, supremely talented, was like a matchmaker who reintroduces you to an old friend you didn't realize you had sorely missed.

Observers often have noted that inherent in the fiber of baseball is the idea of returning home. The history that accumulated around it was really our contribution to this notion; it was our own imaginative home. If the game now stirs us, it is because, amid the tumult and turbulence of modern America, amid the mendacity and dishonesty that daily confronts us, baseball in its residual power still represents the wonderful old home that seemed so sound and secure once upon a time.

Thus, when McGwire touched the plate last week, so did we all. For a moment, at least, we all felt safe at home.

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