Positively The Last Word On Baseball

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As with the ballet in Russia and perhaps the opera in Italy, in baseball the artistic word is made lively flesh, which also makes it easier to understand. But there is a lot more to it than that. Start with the lovely sight—that glistening greensward, exquisitely cared for and marked out with such exactitude from the tawdry urban sprawl surrounding it. In such a setting it may even be a diamond at that. But in any case it demonstrates that a form so precisely faithful to the function can, by knowing hands, be turned into something beautiful without the need for deprecating explanation or embarrassment. Then those uniforms—spotless, sophisticatedly simple, cut perfectly to fit the purpose. And then the exhibition itself; those instantaneous responses neatly accumulated into resolving interaction—fast enough to take the breath away, slow enough to take it all in. The form of baseball is determined by precise configuration, exact measurement, and satisfying ratios among different kinds of known quantities. Within this immaculate conception each can play his identifiable individual part and all can work together in amazing grace—even in the most routine transactions, like a putout at first or a double play.

Edna St. Vincent Millay held that Euclid alone had looked on Beauty bare. But anyone sitting in the bleachers on any given day can see the possibility of beauty (albeit appropriately clad) in the collective action within that nice geometry.

If it were only a lovely sight it would be no more than an aesthete’s pastime. If it were only a game, “winning,” as Vince Lombard! said, would be “the only thing.” But those who give their lives to it have a far larger point to make. Any legitimate art form, in paring away the muddle of reality, leaves the clean lines of an ideal state so the possibility of doing better with life is postulated and confirmed. The design for a more perfect union that baseball presents must have a continuing fascination for a people who have lived in a rational constitutional scheme, who believe in a government of well-defined laws and who like to fool around with numbers.

This concludes my effort to suggest that modern students may find in baseball the key to the storehouse where the historical treasures of the great Republic are contained. And perhaps, if I were wise, I would conclude at this point. But my love of the game—and my concern for the relevance of any instruction and my foreboding sense of the kind of future we may try to figure out—lead me to a few more comments that have not so much to do with the past as with the years to come.

Baseball has devised a scheme where men can produce results that are almost always interesting and often exhilarating.

I have suggested that baseball has served as some sort of ideal expression that our better selves could aspire to, a kind of model to work toward even though it could never really be. The fact is that in the past it could be no more than that. We had not accumulated enough percentages and numbers to put our very lives in so nice a framework. But in recent days we have reached enough exact assessments, assigned enough integers to known quantities, and worked out enough statistical probabilities to think of controlling experience through useful equations and ingenious numeracy, as it is now sometimes called. The power in all these new findings—as students know far better than their teachers—is marvelously multiplied by the computers.

In such conditions it may be useful to study baseball not as an ideal expression but as a kind of manual or handbook for the successful management of a numbers game. It is, I think, the only team sport in which it is possible to play a flawless exhibition and, because the nature of the {lawlessness is clearly stated in mathematical terms, to know that you have done so. These occasions, called “perfect games,” are rare, but they do occur—eleven times in the last eighty-five years. The definition of perfection is no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors. That is, you know you’ve got it exactly right only when absolutely nothing happens.

It would be quite possible to increase the incidence of these games by altering the structure of the play—reducing the allotment of strikes for the batter, shortening the distance between bases and so forth. But those in authority have realized that if they carried the numbers to their logical conclusions, all they would get was more zeros. They have resisted this temptation to push the game across the line of semiaridity.

From the beginning they have operated on a different premise; perfection, like Beauty bare or only winning, is an ignis fatuus for those in search of decent principles of human organization. In an obviously flawed world one can do no more than create conditions that enable people to do the best they can. And it must be recognized that the best is really never very good.

The finest hitters in the game are successful one time in three; the good infielder makes an error one game in four; a pitcher who wins twelve games and loses ten finds a place in the rotation; and all the daily play is stained with foul balls, wild pitches, dropped flies, and getting caught off base.