The Pastime

It is hard for me to avoid the mental association of the Fourth of July with the “national pastime,” the Summer Game, baseball. Today I find myself drawn for the first time in weeks to the standings, to see, with some trepidation, what has happened to the Atlanta Braves while my reading has been exclusively taken up by politics (and for mental relief, history books and off-season Georgia Football blogs).

I used to be a fanatical baseball fan and a relatively early acolyte of pioneering “sabermetrician” Bill James, whose name, thanks to Moneyball, is finally reaching the general public. But then I got tired of arguing with other fans over things like their preoccupation with batting averages and RBIs, and their ignorance of park effects and other distorting factors affecting traditional statistics, and in general was beginning to feel like a crank. So I drifted away from the game, only vaguely aware that James’ Copernican revolution was slowly beginning to penetrate the sports media, and eventually, even the Baseball Establishment itself.

Most sports fandom, I suppose, is based on largely imaginary tribal associations (though attendance at a particular school is a partial exception, or so I often imagine) and a disturbing but deeply inbred human desire for orderly realms of endeavor with clear rules and defined outcomes. Beyond that, interpretations of this or that sport as representing this or that moral, political or social proclivity are probably a bit ridiculous. Surveys tell us that Americans are significantly divided in our sports interests by region and demography, and some try to correlate those with political tendencies: thus, we are told that college football fans tend to be disproportionately Republican, which is just another way of saying they tend to be disproportionately (though hardly exclusively) white, male and southern. George Will has invested a lot of words in the proposition that there is something inherently conservative about baseball, given its emphasis on individual performance and self-improvement, and its deep sense of tradition. I’d personally say baseball is more a testament to empiricism, given the long seasons, the slowly incremental impact on success of individual achievements, and the unique susceptibility of the game to statistical analysis (which is what made “sabermetrics” inevitable).

But as we all know after a moment’s rueful thought, big-time baseball, like all major sports in this country and many others, is more often a testament to the power of greed and self-delusion, and of the deep countervailing longing of fans to look beyond it and glimpse a world of equality and true meritocracy, where the most exciting moments are provided by worthy underdogs overturning the tables and proving how rarely true worth can be captured by economic rewards and punishments.

I’m probably too old to shake my own sports addictions, and have too many things I am obliged to think about to devote much limited brain-power to the possibility that us sports fans are mainly sublimating all sorts of destructive impulses, from worship of power to sexism. But thanks to cable TV we all have to make an effort to control the time-wasting. So I’m only a soccer fan if the U.S. is still alive in the World Cup, and only a tennis fan during Wimbledon, and these days only a baseball fan during those Octobers when teams whose symbolic associations do not offend me are in the World Series. And oh yeah, on the Fourth of July.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.