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May '11 23

Old World Pastime – Why Baseball Is The Best Game

John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

A baseball dream. Midnight at L’Atelier, a beer bar in Brussels’s student quarter. I’ve had 3 Orvals, a heavy, hoppy drink brewed by monks, with my friend Sean Gilbert, Kangaroos C’03, and now a wine-maker in Yakima, WA. Head’s getting whoozy. Conversations about work and women have run out.

Time to pull out all the stops, I say. Tell it like it is, and write it down to bear witness to the almighty truth. At a Mount Saint Mary’s College dinner party in 1999, a philosophy professor named John Drummond, an expert in 19th century German thought, after a few glasses of wine, said “oh, there is no doubt that, philosophically, baseball is the best game.” He then made a speech about why that is. I’ve not forgotten.

Well, here, my amigos, is my version of that argument of porque hardball is the gospel game, my best rendition of the archetypical ballplayer’s nocturne soliloquy:

There is no clock. There are outs. Every game is different. Some are 1-0. Some are 17-12. That abundance of possibility is truly unique to baseball. And that’s like life. That’s like lives.

Each out is the failure of a human being. If nobody gets out, you can live forever. We dream of living forever, but nobody ever does.

Fair territory extends beyond the outfield fences into deep, infinite space. Another intimation of immortality.

You can explore deep, infinite space with rockets. Those are major achievements.

There is technology in baseball. The ball itself is complex. It’s a tool. What is Roy Halladay but a skilled machine engineer? The bat is complex. A bat engineer can break it.

In baseball, there are industrial revolutions, when new technology is discovered. Here cometh the splitter.

Beyond the busy, rustling, bustling denizens of the infield, there is the countryside outfield, pastures of peace where things are simple, straightforward.

As I tell the kids I coach, the only truly easy play in baseball, the one I cannot forgive screwing up, is a flyball. Yes, things are simple in rustic, small towns.

A groundball is morning traffic, crossing the street and walking down a dark alley at midnight. You can get hit by cars. But respect the process, and you’ll mostly be OK.

On some days, there is lots of traffic in the city. On some days, like a quiet Sunday in August, the roads are empty.

Home to first is Main Street. You’ll always have people driving up and down that strip. Third to home is turning the corner onto a good friend’s street for dinner, or up the driveway to a big job interview.

The baseball field is chaos defined into civilization by its relationships.

Some are competitive. Pitcher v. Hitter. Catcher v. Baserunner.

Some are cooperative. Shortstop with Firstbaseman. Bunter with Runner. (There is stupidity. Witness the bunt-and-run.)

Violence is possible. But unlike other sports, it is optional. That’s like life.

Some justice is handled by citizens. Stolen bases. Beanballs.

Sometimes, the law must intervene. Uniformed officers can put you away.

Everybody gets an equal chance to contribute, but not everybody is equal. Roy Halladay throws more, better pitches. Pay him more.

Excellence in baseball is habit, of skill and character, sustained over time. Bad things happen to good players.

There are different kinds of baseball citizens. Short, fast secondbasemen. Big lefties. Short lefties. They do different things. And that’s ok.

Some players are unique. Mariano Rivera uses one pitch. There are only ever a handful of knuck chuckers in the Bigs at once. Ichiro.

Some players believe in the gods, some are atheists.

Whatever you believe in, the truth is the narrative, written down with precision. And it’s vastly more accurate than any other game. Double to right, runner thrown out at the plate.

The breaks between discrete, significant actions are the perfect lengths to tell good, short stories.

There is no such thing as a draw: You win or you lose.

But the next day, you play again, and you can always do better. Like the insights you get talking to old friends, there is always a chance at redemption.

Check, please.

Gimme your best baseball bar speech at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

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