Something Beautiful About Us
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).
Simply put, 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, 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’s become a fan of the game. My wife, Martha, who, bless her soul, can’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, likes to point out that some of Viva’s interest may originate with a desire to humor her father.
Perhaps Martha is right—but even if her claim has a measure of truth, I know that my twelve-year-old daughter has had the seed planted, and that she herself waters and feeds it, sending definite chutes skyward. She purchases membership in the Milwaukee Brewers Kids Crew, collects a new ball from each game we attend, and 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 her fourth season of fast-pitch softball this summer —and her first in Senior League, where her scrappiness and indomitable will kept her in the game against girls two years her senior and a foot or more taller.
So what’s prompting me to muse on such matters, on Barzun and baseball and my daughter? Two things: Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series and my discovery of a relatively recent statement by 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 precise 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 in the sport, Barzun today 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, will 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 73 year-old 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 has given all of us memories of a day that couldn’t have been better.
The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers are special. Their payroll is 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 isn’t because a wealthy owner has opened an endless stream of cash to purchase players. They’re a team that knows how to play together, a team where each player has the others’ backs, a team where they root for one another and genuinely mean it, a team where players are willing to sacrifice playing time and individual glory for the ultimate success of the team.
During the broadcast of a game earlier in the NLCS, commentators Joe Buck and John Smoltz observed that in all of their years of having covered the game, they’ve never seen a team like the Brewers. They remarked that even on teams generally acknowledged as having a good climate in the clubhouse, 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 employees genuinely likes and appreciates and supports each other, according to Buck and Smoltz.
At our core, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be to and do for our fellow Americans? Isn’t this Whitman’s table equally set? Isn’t this David about to slay Goliath, empowered and emboldened by his belief in something larger than himself?
We have, in this year’s Brewers, a team I’m blessed to have seen play (and which I hope I’ll see play beyond tonight’s contest), 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, recently 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 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.