Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Baseball For Everyone

It's my friend Helen's last day in New York, so we decide to spend it lying out in Central Park.

We've already walked through the park once before, but lying in the park for a few hours in the sun is an experience in its own right, so we decide we need to do it. We bring books and sunscreen, which are really the only things you need.

At first we start by sitting on one of the benches that line the many paths, but it doesn't take us long before we realize that this isn't quite right. The benches are for those taking a break from walking...not really for those that want to lie all the way out.

So we get up, walk around a little bit and find a perfectly sunny splotch of grass behind one of the softball fields.

All of the softball fields are in use by a slow-pitch softball league, and I can't help but periodically look up from my book on the French Revolution to watch. I can hear the coach barking at the players by the bleachers; there's no denying that they are all very into the game.

Still, for me, the real beauty of the day comes when one of the softball player's children, along with some of his friends, end up not too far from Helen and myself, playing a makeshift baseball game.

They have a baseball bat and a baseball and one glove, but the five eleven year old kids have to improvise everything else--bases, positions, rules--and they do it all with enthusiasm.

A few times, one of their pitches gets past the catcher and the ball rolls out next to me. At first I just toss it back without fanfare, and then I decide to have some fun with it.

"Who's your favorite baseball player?" I ask.

"Uh..." one starts, "...Derek Jeter."

"Good choice," I say, tossing the ball back.

They all choose Jeter in the end--although the tall one, the one with the most boundless energy of them all, says "Jeter or A-Rod."

It's sometimes hard to imagine how one game can bring so much joy to so many people--from adults to young children--and yet, there it is, one of the most seminal things about American culture.

You can see it on the street in the summer, simply by counting the number of people wearing a baseball cap--sure, not everyone wearing a baseball cap is a baseball fan, but the fact that the hat is so popular in America tells you something.

The US is such a nation of contrasts (just ask anyone in NY what they think of Texas, ask Texans what they think of Californians, and ask Californians what they think of Ohio), that there are, in the end few things that bind us together culturally. Sports is one of them, and perhaps no sport more than baseball.

The kids I saw might not know much about OPS, WHIP or ERA+, but they know it's three strikes-you're-out, and they know you've got to get to first, second and third before you can come home.

The dedication with which some of us watch the game is the enthusiasm with which kids still play it, even when the Xbox, Playstation and computer are that much closer in reach.

Baseball for everyone.