Something Beautiful About Us
(originally published October 2018; updated Jan. 16, 2020)
In his 1955 book God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words, cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.”
Those words long served as a touchstone for my own academic interest in baseball and baseball fiction. They offered hope that in our National Pastime, we’d always be able to find something beautiful about us—our dreams and aspirations, our capacity for both grit and empathy, for both brotherhood and individual excellence (neither of which may exist independent of the other if the goals of either the nation or the Mudville Nine are to be achieved).
In simplest terms, I love the game—and a fair measure of that love resides in its mythic, even quasi-religious, character which is the centerpiece of a serious academic treatment of the sport, its literature, and its place in our culture. And while I don’t worship in the Church of Baseball (apologies to Annie Savoy), I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that baseball makes me feel closer to my Maker than most things do, that it brings me a joy few things can.
Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of sharing that joy with my daughter, Viva. She has become a true fan of the game. My ex-wife, Martha, who, bless her soul, couldn’t bring herself to take an interest in the game beyond the old video of Steve Lyon forgetting that 20,000 fans are watching him “drop trou” to empty his pants of dirt after a head-first slide, liked to point out that some of Viva’s interest may have originated with a desire to humor her father.
But even if her claim possesses a scintilla of truth, I know that my twelve-year-old daughter had the seed of true fandom and appreciation planted, and that she herself waters and feeds it, sending real chutes skyward. She purchases membership in the Milwaukee Brewers Kids Crew, collects a new ball from each game we attend, and during the season, asks me each morning how the Brewers did the night before. She makes a beeline to the field seeking autographs when we arrive at Miller Park. She assembled a poster board presentation on Jackie Robinson and his tremendous life and career for her school’s “resident expert” exposition. She even takes the field herself, having completed five seasons of fast-pitch softball—where her scrappiness and indomitable will make her competitive against girls well her senior and a foot or more taller than she.
I originally penned this blog in October 2018 before updating it today. What prompted me to muse on such matters, on Barzun and baseball and my daughter? Two things, really: Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series and my discovery of a relatively recent statement by Jacques Barzun involving, you guessed it, our National Pastime.
In 2007, Barzun, then a professor emeritus at Columbia University, did an about-face regarding the game he loved, stating, “I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting, best, and healthiest pastime...The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of, the overvaluing, really, of the game itself. It's out of proportion to the place an entertainment ought to have. Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation's spirit and tradition, it's a disaster.”
I came across this observation when seeking the exact phrasing of the classic quote used to open this piece, and while it saddened me, I can understand the winter of Barzun’s discontent. If Barzun in 2007 was responding to the immense amounts of money already circulating, and presumably corrupting, the sport, Barzun would certainly view today’s salaries, payrolls, and television contracts as obscene.
Barzun died in 2012—six years too early to bear witness to an event much closer to the sentiments Barzun articulated in the 1950s than those he expressed a few short years before his death. Barzun left this world six years prior to a season, a team, and a game still possessing that which is good about our nation and our people.
Admittedly, I’m biased in making such a declaration. My favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, were about to take on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the right to represent the National League in the 2018 World Series.
I’ve rooted for the Brewers dating back to their “Bambi’s Bombers” days of the late 1970s, and during that time, I’ve seen my team endure more seasons of mediocrity than triumph. Seeing them at the threshold of the Fall Classic is heady stuff. Sharing it with Viva makes it even sweeter. Having my septuagenarian mother call me to tell me how much she loves watching her Brewers makes me smile inside and out. Having taken my father, along with Viva and my mother, to celebrate his birthday with a 4 – 0 Brewers victory at Miller Park that summer had given all of us memories of a day that couldn’t have been better.
The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers were a special team. Their payroll was roughly half that of the Dodgers (and well less than half that of the American League Champion Red Sox); their having the best record in the National League wasn’t because owner Mark Attanasio had poured an endless stream of cash into purchasing players. They were a team that knew how to play together, a team where each player had the others’ backs, a team where they rooted for one another and genuinely meant it, a team where players were willing to sacrifice playing time and individual glory for the ultimate success of the team.
During the broadcast of an earlier game in the NLCS, commentators Joe Buck and John Smoltz observed that in all of their years of having covered the game, they’d never seen a team like the Brewers. They remarked that even on teams generally acknowledged as having a good clubhouse climate, pockets of discontent and tension and jealousy existed. Not so with the 2018 Brewers, they declared. Everyone, from the players to the coaching staff to the clubhouse workers to the front office employees genuinely liked and appreciated and supported each other, according to Buck and Smoltz.
At our core, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be and do for our fellow Americans? Isn’t this Whitman’s table equally set? Isn't this JFK's "Ask not?" Isn’t this David about to slay Goliath, empowered and emboldened by his belief in something larger than himself, a mere shepherd boy?
We had, in the 2018 Brewers, a team I was blessed to have seen play, blessed to have shared with my daughter and my parents, and blessed to have followed with countless other fans.
Christian Yelich, the Brewers’ right fielder, late that season penned an essay for The Players’ Tribune in which he wrote, “We fully understand that this team is more than just a random group of guys to you all — that the Brewers genuinely mean something to you. We realize that when we’re playing well it actually affects your lives and results in a certain level of joy and happiness throughout the city … and, actually, all across the state. That’s big for us. We truly value that. And at the end of the day, I keep coming back to how this organization, and all those who support it, really are like one big family. To be at our best, and most happy … we need each other.”
To be our best, and most happy…we need each other.
I would hazard to guess that this sentiment is the essence of what Barzun had in mind when he penned his classic statement on baseball and America more than half a century ago. Barzun’s life was long—he was 104 when he died—but I wish he’d lived a few years longer. I can’t help but think the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and their journey may have restored more than an iota of his faith in the game—and by extension, our nation and its citizens.