Mark Shields: October drama in America

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Ignore, if you can, the insult marathon that passes for a national election while we turn to America’s real October drama: the final chapters of our baseball season. Why? Because we Americans, especially those in my adopted hometown of Washington, urgently need, in this unhappy year of 2016, to appreciate anew the values of our national pastime.

Bill Veeck, a truly admirable maverick owner of major league teams, called baseball our one public activity with “a clearly defined area of play, rules and penalties that apply to all. Three strikes and you’re out, even if (legendary criminal attorney) Edward Bennett Williams defends you.” Veeck was right. Baseball is relentlessly egalitarian. The prestige of the schools you went to, the size of your campaign contributions or your bank account, and your family connections do not matter in baseball if you cannot hit a curveball.

The language of baseball is both straightforward and unpretentious — hits, runs, errors, outs, balls and strikes — mercifully with no parameters or deliverables or interim guidelines to enhance branding or expand bandwidth.

Baseball is an art form almost free of violence — acknowledging the bench-clearing sham “brawls,” in which both teams basically mill around and hold one another back from the actual throwing of punches. To play baseball well, as major league players must, requires coordination, grace and, yes, courage in abundance. But baseball players, unlike pro football and basketball players, do not need to either weigh 350 pounds or be 7 feet tall. The most prolific hitter in the American League today is Houston’s wonderful Jose Altuve, who is almost certainly exaggerating when he insists he is 5 feet 5 inches tall.

The rules of baseball not only apply equally to everyone (how refreshing is that?) but also remain virtually unchanging. Records, for this reason, mean something real. You are safe, or you are out; no endless reviews and appeals follow. In baseball, decisions are made and their consequences are known immediately. There are no filibusters or quorum calls when the manager has to remove his tiring ace from the pitcher’s mound.

In our hyper-caffeinated and high-pressure nation, baseball is the exception. The game is timeless. No clocks, watches, two-minute warnings or final guns. In baseball, your destiny is in your own hands, and that’s a good thing. You do not run out of time in baseball. You make the final out, or you get the winning hit. Your opponent is just frankly better on a given day at getting you out than you are at getting your opponent out.

Baseball, of course, has more than its share of jerks and lowlifes, many of whom are found in the executive offices. Herman Sarkowsky, who was himself an owner, put it bluntly: “The first thing you have to understand about anyone who owns a sports team is that he has a very serious ego problem.”

We are reminded as the regular baseball season ends and the playoffs begin that rooting for our shared “home team” can magically turn a city of strangers into a community, that America, more than ever, needs baseball’s pace, baseball’s constancy and baseball’s directness.

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