Baseball: A Story-Lover’s Sport

Recently, Kelly observed that come April, I burn hot for baseball. As the spring wanes and summer begins, I cool, and stay cool through the summer. Then, as fall begins, the fire returns and I burn hot again. I suspect she is onto something. I’ve written four or fives posts on baseball since the season began. I suspect, if I were to go back to previous years, I’d see much the same. What can I say, I love baseball.

“Baseball,” Babe Ruth said, “is the greatest game.” I agree with him. But I’ve often wondered why it is the greatest game. What is it about the game that has woven it into the fabric of American history for more than 150 years? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought lately. I think it is because baseball is a story-lovers’ sport.

Stephen Jay Gould, in a piece in the New York Times in 1988, once mused,

Baseball has long enjoyed a distinguished literature, from Ring Lardner to the incomparable Roger Angell–and I have seen no satisfactory resolution for the old puzzle of why baseball, but no other sport, has attracted some of America’s finest writers.

I have an answer to his question that satisfies me, and relates directly to why I love baseball so much. Baseball is a situation-factory. And the germ of a good story, in my view, is a situation.

Stephen King has said that his stories often begin with a situation, a what-if scenario: what if a bullied high school girl had telekinetic powers? What if vampires came to a small New England town? What if a girl lost in the woods had Tom Gordon to help her find her way out? Situations are the heart of storytelling. Situations are also the heart of baseball: “Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, visiting team is down 4-1 with three balls and two strikes on the batter…” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve imagined this situation as a kid. Baseball is built on situations.

This manifests itself in several ways across the game.

  1. Baseball is an ideal sport for storytelling.

No other sport comes close to the quality of writing that captures baseball. Boxing writing is next up on the list, but it is a distant second to baseball writing. The situations in baseball are endless, and endlessly varied. Even when they are the same they are different. The “bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded” scenario tells one kind of story in April, and a very different story in October. It tells another story if you are the home team or the visiting team. Is the pitcher throwing the last pitch of his career? Is he throwing the first? That one situation leads to countless stories.

  1. Baseball is deeply embedded in American culture.

Not everyone likes baseball but most people are aware of it, and have some sense of the rules of the game. Phrases from the game pervade our lives. “Knock this presentation out of the park,” we say. “I’m batting a thousand,” we say when we continue to succeed; or, “I’m 0-for-4” when we continue to fail. “Three strikes and you’re out!” “I’m in the zone!” All of it comes from baseball. The intersection of storytelling and culture make baseball the perfect conduit for popular storytelling.

Countless stories involve baseball. Some, like W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, feature baseball at its heart. Others, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea make references to baseball. Film has taken it a step further. Baseball is great for television and the big screen and that hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. Just in recent decades, we’ve seen films like Field of Dreams, The Natural, and Bill Durham. These are some of the classics. There are plenty of others from comedies like The Bad News Bears, Major League, and Fever Pitch, to more serious nods to baseball, like For Love of the Game and Trouble with the Curve.

In a recent discussion about the unwritten rules of baseball, a friend said that those unwritten rules were silly. Baseball is a business these days. There is no denying that baseball is a business. Sabermetrics has introduced mathematical models into just about every aspect of baseball. I’m a fan of the stats, but I also know that the game is more than just the stats alone. Indeed, the stats provide more situations for the story factory. Stephen Jay Gould has written eloquently about why he believes, for statistical reasons, that it is unlikely anyone will hit .400 again for a season. But what if they did? What a great story!

Statistics, virtually anywhere else, put people to sleep. The numbers in baseball do the opposite because of the unique situations they present, and the context they carry over the history of the sport. Anyone who has ever watched a no-hitter in action, and understands the magnitude of what is happening, cringes whenever the announcer reminds us of the situation. It’s a fragile thing–an utterly ridiculous, but incredibly fragile thing. The numbers make it incredibly unlikely; a perfect game even more unlikely. And yet, occasionally, the unlikely happens. We are both witnesses to the event, and participants in its unfolding. It is drama and we are part of it. It is the story of the thing that we love so much.

And it’s not just the fiction. Baseball is full stories because baseball is a progressing series of situations. There’s the story of the M&M boys in 1961 chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. There’s the story of Derek Jeter hitting a home run in the 2001 World Series just after midnight on November 1, and therefore becoming “Mr. November,” a story that requires the understanding of another story, when a generation earlier on October 18, 1977, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers in the World Series and earned the appellation “Mr. October.”

There are the well-known stories: Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. And there are the lesser-known, but equally compelling stories, stories like that of William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf player who made his major league debut in 1888 with the Washington Nationals, and finished his career 14 years later in 1902 with the Cincinnati Reds. Hoy died in 1961 at the age of 99.

The stories in baseball spawned an entire field of writing. Baseball has had some of the finest writers in sports, and indeed, some of the finest writers, period. From Roger Angell and Red Smith to Roger Kahn and Bill James to outsiders like Stephen Jay Gould, baseball is rich in prospectors who dig up the stories and relay them to us like balls coming in from the outfield. The game is a factory for storytelling.

A good story is never entirely about the situation. The situation is the seed from which the story grows. A good story is about the people who populate it. Baseball is blessed to be rich in situations and people, the combination of which makes for an endless parade of fascinating stories, stories of heroics, stories of shame, funny stories, and sad ones. It is a cultural mirror, but it is also a cultural constant. Theodore Roosevelt would have no more trouble following a baseball game today than he would have had in 1908.

Coming back to my original of why I think baseball is the greatest game, and why I love it so much: it’s the situations and the stories that grow out of them. I love baseball because I love stories.


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