To celebrate, I’ve made it something of a tradition to read and post an essay by my muse and man crush, David Bentley Hart, on the way in which baseball is not just the singular American sport but the Platonic ideal:
As an instinctive Platonist, I naturally believe that every genuine act of human creativity is simultaneously an innovation and a discovery, a marriage of poetic craft and contemplative vision that captures traces of eternity’s radiance in fugitive splendors here below by translating our tacit knowledge of the eternal forms into finite objects of reflection, at once strange and strangely familiar. The second is that the word’s ambiguity helps me to formulate my intuitions regarding the ultimate importance of baseball.
I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.
And there is something equally fateful, as has been noted so often, in the exact fittingness of the game’s dimensions: the ninety feet between bases, the sixty-and-a-half feet between the pitching rubber and the plate, that precious third of a second in which a batter must decide whether to swing. Everything is so perfectly calibrated that almost every play is a matter of the most unforgiving precision; a ball correctly played in the infield is almost always an out, while the slightest misplay usually results in a man on base. The effective difference in velocity between a fastball and a changeup is infinitesimal in neurological terms, and yet it can utterly disrupt the timing of even the best hitter. There are Pythagorean enigmas here, occult and imponderable: mystic proportions written into the very fabric of nature of which we were once as ignorant as of the existence of other galaxies.
How, moreover, could anyone have imagined (and yet how could we ever have failed to know) that so elementary a strategic problem as serially advancing or prematurely stopping the runner could generate such a riot of intricate tactical possibilities in any given instant of the game? Part of the deeper excitement of the game is following how the strategy is progressively altered, from pitch to pitch, cumulatively and prospectively, in accordance both with the situation of the inning and the balance of the game. There is nothing else like it, for sheer progressive intricacy, in all of sport. Comparing baseball to even the most complex versions of the oblong game is like comparing chess to tiddlywinks.
And surely some account has to be given of the drama of baseball: the way it reaches down into the soul’s abysses with its fluid alternations of prolonged suspense and shocking urgency, its mounting rallies, its thwarted ventures, its intolerable tensions, its suddenly exhilarating or devastating peripeties. Even the natural narrative arc of the game is in three acts”the early, middle, and late innings”each with its own distinct potentials and imperatives. And because, until the final out is recorded, no loss is an absolute fait accompli , the torment of hope never relents. Victory may or may not come in a blaze of glorious elation, but every defeat, when it comes, is sublime. The oblong game is war, but baseball is Attic tragedy.
All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis , I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).
Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park”Yankee Stadium, for instance”there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.
All these variations, all these hints of arbitrariness, are absolutely crucial to the aesthetics and moral metaphysics of the game because they remind us that fair territory is, in fact, conceptually limitless and extends endlessly beyond any outfield walls. Home plate is an open corner on the universe, and the limits we place on the game’s endless vistas are merely the accommodation we strike between infinite possibility and finite actuality. They apprise us, yet again, that life is ungovernable and pluriform, and that omnia mutantur et nos mutamur in illis . They speak both of our mortality (which obeys no set pattern or term) and of the eternity into which the horizons of consciousness are always vanishing (the primordial orientation of all embodied spirit). And something similar is true of the juncture of infield and outfield, where metaphysics’ deepest problem”the dialectical opposition but necessary interrelation of the finite and the infinite”is given unsurpassable symbolic embodiment.
Now, of course, when I speak of baseball’s “idealism,” it is principally Platonism I have in mind: Greek rather than German idealism. But I have to admit that, as I have just described it, much of the game seems to speak not only of the finite’s power to reflect the infinite but also of a kind of fated, heroic human strivingagainst the infinite. There are few spectacles in sport as splendid and pitiable as the batter defiantly poised before all that endless openness. We know that even the most majestic home run is as nothing in its vastness, that even the greatest hitter is a kind of Sisyphus, proudly indifferent to the divine mockery of that infinite horizon; and it is precisely this pathos that lends such moving splendor to those rare Homeric feats that linger on in our collective memory: Babe Ruth in Detroit in 1926, Frank Howard in Philadelphia in 1958, Mickey Mantle in New York in 1963, Frank Robinson in Baltimore in 1966 . . .
No other game, moreover, is so mercilessly impossible to play well or affords so immense a scope for inevitable failure. We all know that a hitter who succeeds in only one third of his at-bats is considered remarkable, and that one who succeeds only fractionally more often is considered a prodigy of nature. Now here, certainly, is a portrait of the hapless human spirit in all its melancholy grandeur, and of the human will in all its hopeless but incessant aspiration: fleeting glory as the rarely ripening fruit of overwhelming and chronic defeat. It is this pervasive sadness that makes baseball’s moments of bliss so piercing; this encircling gloom that sheds such iridescent beauty on those impossible triumphs over devastating odds so amazing when accomplished by one of the game’s gods (Mays running down that ridiculously long fly at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, Ted Williams going deep in his very last appearance at the plate); and so heartbreakingly poignant when accomplished by a journeyman whose entire playing career will be marked by only one such instant of transcendence (Ron Swoboda’s diving catch off Brooks Robinson’s bat in the 1969 Series).
Really, the game has such an oddly desolate beauty to it. Maybe it is the grindingly long, 162-game season, which allows for so many promising and disheartening plotlines to take shape, only to dissolve again along the way, and which sustains even the most improbable hope past any rational span; or maybe it is simply the course of the year’s seasons, from early spring into mid-autumn”nature’s perennial allegory of human life, eloquent of innocent confidence slowly transformed into wise resignation. Whatever it is, there is something of twilight in the game, something sadder and more lyrical than one can quite express. It even ends in the twilight of the year: All its many stories culminate in one last, prolonged struggle in the gathering darkness, from which one team alone emerges briefly victorious, after so long a journey; and then everything lapses into wintry stillness”hope defeated, the will exhausted, O dark, dark, dark, all passion spent, silent as the moon, and so on. And yet, with the first rumor of spring, the idiot will is revived, the conatus essendi stirs out of the darkness, tanha awakens and pulls us back into the illusory world of hope and longing, and the cycle resumes.
All that said, though, one should not mistake the passing moods that the game evokes for the deeper metaphysical truths it discloses; one must not confuse the tone color with the guiding theme. Ultimately, baseball’s philosophical grammar truly is Platonist, with all the transcendental elations that that implies. This is most obvious in the sheer purity of the game’s central action. In form, it is not a conflict between two teams over contested ground; in fact, the two sides never directly confront one another on the field, and there is no territory to be captured. Rather, in shape it is that most perfect of metaphysical figures: the closed circle. It repeats the great story told by every idealist metaphysics, European and Indian alike: the purifying odyssey of exitus and reditus , diastole and systole , departure from and ultimate return to an abiding principle.
What could be more obvious? The game is plainly an attempt to figure forth the “heavenly dance” within the realm of mutability. When play is in its full flow, the diamond becomes a place where the dark, sullen surface of matter is temporarily transformed into a gently luminous mirror of the “supercelestial mysteries.” Baseball is an instance of what the later Neoplatonists called “theurgy”: a mimetic or prophetic rite that summons (or invites) the divine graciously to descend from eternity and grant a glimpse of itself within time.
I am not nearly as certain, however, that baseball can be said to have any discernible religious meaning. Or, rather, I am not sure whether it reflects exclusively one kind of creed (it is certainly religious , through and through). Its metaphysics is equally compatible and equally incompatible with the sensibilities of any number of faiths, and of any number of schools within individual faiths; but, if it has anything resembling a theology, it is of the mystical, rather than the dogmatic, kind, and so its doctrinal content is nebulous. At its lowest, most cultic level, baseball is hospitable to such a variety of little superstitions and local pieties that it almost qualifies as a kind of primitive animism or paganism. At its highest, more speculative level, it tends toward the monist, as a consistent idealism must.
In between these two levels, however, the possibilities of religious interpretation are numberless, and it may require the eyes of many kinds of faith to see all of them. My friend R.R. Reno sees a bunt down the first-base line, in which the infield rotates clockwise while the runner begins his counterclockwise motion, as a clear evocation of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot’s living wheels, and so an invitation to Merkabah mysticism. A Buddhist acquaintance from Japan, however, sees every home run as a metaphor for the arahant who has successfully crossed the sea of becoming on the raft of dharma .
Of course, the mental and physical disciplines of the game are clearly contemplative in nature. No one could, for instance, no matter how fine his eyesight or physical coordination, hit a major-league pitch with a cylindrical bat if there were not some prior attunement on his part to the subtle spiritual force that flows through all things, a sort of Zen cultivation of the mindless mind, in which the impossible is accomplished because it somehow simply accomplishes itself in us. Japan’s greatest hitter, Sadaharu Oh”whose hitting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, was a disciple of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido”even wrote a book on his discovery of the Zen way of baseball. But there are contemplatives and adepts in all major religious traditions.
One could, I suppose, conclude that baseball is primarily Western in its religious orientation, on the shaky grounds that the game as we know it has a somewhat eschatological logic: Within the miniature cosmos of the park, the game must be played down to its final verdict and cannot end before judgment is passed. No one, I think, doubts that Yogi’s most oracular formula, it ain’t over till it’s over, is a perfectly condensed statement of what for us are the game’s highest spiritual and dramatic stakes. And yet the Japanese will play to a draw with equanimity, content at the last simply to let go, so that all forces can reach equilibrium, and I do not believe their version of the game is necessarily any less elegant or profound than ours.
There are, however, at least two respects in which I suppose baseball could be said to speak to, and speak out of, an essentially biblical vision of reality. First, there is simply its undeniable element of Edenic nostalgia: that longing for innocence, guileless play, the terrestrial paradise”a longing it both evokes and soothes. Bart Giamatti, though, wrote so famously and so well on this topic that I have little to add. I only observe that the ballpark is a paradise into which evil does occasionally come, whenever the Yankees are in town, and this occasionally lends the game a cosmic significance that it would not be improper to call “apocalyptic.” This, in fact, is why that dastardly franchise is a spiritually necessary part of the game in this country; even Yankees fans have their necessary role to play, and”although we may occasionally think of them as “vessels of wrath””we have to remember that they, too, are enfolded in the mercy of providence.
And, second, the game is, for many of us, a hard tutelage in the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love. Here, admittedly, I am drawing on personal spiritual experience, but I can do so out of a vast reservoir of purgative suffering. My team, you see, is the Baltimore Orioles. In my youth I was full of wicked pride. The Orioles, for nearly the first two decades of my life, were the envy of the baseball world: winning more games than any other franchise, the only team with a winning record against the Yankees, awash in Gold Gloves and Cy Young Awards, a team that was often said to be “magic.” In those days”the days of Frank and Brooks, Powell and Palmer, Blair and Buford, Eddie and the rest”it was almost unimaginable that a season would pass without a pennant race, or that New York would not tremble before us.
These”and I shall close on this thought”are the great moral lessons that only a game with baseball’s long season and long history and dramatic intensity can impress on the soul: humility, long-suffering, dauntless love, and inexhaustible faith in the face of invincible misfortune. I could no more abandon my Orioles than I could repudiate my family, or my native heath, or my own childhood”even though I know it is a devotion that can now bring only grief. I know, I know: Orioles fans have not yet suffered what Boston fans suffered for more than twice the term of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, or what Cubs fans have suffered for more than a century; but we have every reason to expect that we will. And yet we go on. The time of tribulation is upon us, and we now must make our way through its darkness, guided only by the waning lights of memory and the flickering flame of hope, not knowing when the night will end but sustained by the sacred assurance that whosoever perseveres to the end shall be saved.