EVEN IF BASEBALL IS NO LONGER THE NATIONAL pastime, it is still America's distinctive and defining game. The ideology of what used to be called Americanism is embodied in the sport. We see American individualism as the lone batter stands up against the group of nine trying to get him out. On defense, the group itself depends on the single performance of every individual called to act, with the team modeling the principle of e pluribus unum.
Even what are considered now the weaknesses of baseball are distinctly American. Are players overpaid? Has money spoiled the game? Maybe. But every player on the field is living out "the American dream" of economic success through the trials and disciplines of free enterprise. If a player really, really excels as an athlete in school, there is the slightest chance that he might get into the minors and play in a rookie league. Then he has to climb up the ladder through A ball, then, if he is good enough, AA, possibly rising to AAA. And then, after paying all of these dues and rising to the next level, he may possibly break into the majors. In baseball, the laws of supply and demand, competition, and reward for quality still apply, just as they do in the American economic system; and when these laws are violated, both the economy and the game suffer.
Baseball tracks American history. During World War II, the best major-leaguers left the game to defend their country. In today's curious war against Islamic extremists, our troops are volunteers and professionals. With the exception of Pat Tillman, the NFL athlete who turned down the game and his $3.6 million paycheck to fight and die in Afghanistan, professional athletes are not going to war, nor are most citizens. Our troops are so good that there is never a question of them losing a battle. When it comes to combat, we always win. The question of victory or defeat falls instead on us ordinary citizens who stay at home. We lose wars when we on the home front lose our will or our heart or our courage-even while our troops win on the battlefield. That is how we lost the Vietnam War, and it is how we may well lose the war in Iraq and the broader war against terrorism.
In this sense, baseball is a good school for national character. It is a game of inches. It is a game where small advantages-the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter-can, over time, pay off dramatically. It is a game of incremental success. Over the course of a game, the increments add up, as they do in a series, and in the division race. The game is played nearly every day for half the year. Patience is a virtue built into the game. As is the awareness that a lot of the time, even two-thirds of the time, a player and a team will fail. What counts is grinding out the season, winning more often than we lose, not just making the single play or winning the single game but winning the long haul.
We have come to demand constant action, and if we aren't successful at any given moment, there has to be someone to blame. We have become a nation of football fans.
But it's hard to fight any kind of war with that kind of mentality. The news cycle is an up-and-down, good news/bad news roller coaster. Based on how well things are going, the president's polls may be down one day and up the next, with the whole election possibly hanging on how things happen to be going on one day in November. When the Bears are doing badly, Soldier Field is deserted. But Cubs fans still pack Wrigley Field, even in the bad years, and they persevere.
In baseball and unlike football, time does not matter. If the game is tied, you keep playing until someone wins. There is no hurry. Time is suspended, something like eternity. But this also means that every game, with every statistic preserved, and every player, whose performance is recorded for posterity, is measured against every other game and every other player. Baseball is an accumulation of a still-living history.
In our current conflicts-martial, political, and cultural- we Americans too need to measure ourselves against our fellow citizens throughout our history. We should challenge ourselves to do at least as well and to aim at setting some records of our own.