SPORTS

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May 15, 2014

Here comes the pitch: Why baseball’s the best sport

It’s simple: Our national pastime is the best sport. No question about it, baseball is the greatest. It is the sport of common people and intellectuals alike. Sure, baseball has a long list of rules, but that’s nowhere near the number of penalties one must memorize for football. Basketball is a great sport, and no disrespect to Mr. Zacher, but it doesn’t have enough complications, enough twists and turns. Baseball is wonderful because it is complex, and people can enjoy it no matter how much of the complexity they actually comprehend or choose to engage with.

The argument for baseball’s place atop the “best sport” pedestal is multifaceted, just like the sport itself.

Baseball has the longest history of any sport in this country, dating back to the 1800s. Soldiers during the Civil War relaxed by playing baseball—not football, basketball, or soccer. Granted, older doesn’t always mean better, but for a sport to have endured for this long, and to be played in a league that is still growing in this country, it has to have some merits. The great thing about baseball is that these merits are diverse and far-reaching, which is how the sport attracts so many different types of fans and such strong overall support.

To start with, the baseball season is long, running from when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in early February through the final pitch of the World Series in early November. Some might complain about this length of time, but it means that baseball gets center stage throughout the summer. As the NHL and NBA playoffs tail off, before NFL camp opens, there are about three months dedicated to baseball alone. And it’s not just about Major League Baseball—that’s also when the minor leagues, the independent leagues, and the Little League World Series are all thriving. No matter where you live, there’s some level of baseball for you to watch.

And not just to watch, but also to play. There’s baseball, softball, fast-pitch, slow-pitch, and don’t forget stickball on the street, like Willie Mays played with children on the streets of New York when the Giants played there. Or the weekly game played three blocks from my house that I used to watch with my mother on Sundays when I was a kid. The baseball season is jointly for watching and for playing. What’s more picturesque than a parent and child, playing catch in the park on a summer afternoon? Nothing, I tell you.

The benefits of the long season are many and varied. It allows a fan to take time off from the sport and come back, all throughout the season. While I’d personally not advocate for missing a single game, people could very feasibly attend a game in April, then check back on their team in July. This isn’t to encourage bandwagon fans. Rather, it’s important to herald the fact that baseball is accessible enough to allow for both casual fans and certified nuts.

Building on the mere presence of 162 games in a season, there is room for fans to take years off from their fandom and still come right back, without having any bearing on the team’s success. Baseball knows that life can get in the way, and that shouldn’t keep anyone from enjoying it. There are the franchise players who stick around for 10 years, but the general structure of the team is such that there is a lot of overhaul from year to year. So there are a lot of new names to learn yearly, regardless of whether it’s your first season following the team or your 40th.

But baseball isn’t all about the pitches and swings, hits and outs. Part of baseball’s grounding as the best sport is that it provides the most non-game material. What do I mean by non-game material? I mean anything related to baseball that isn’t distinctly a baseball game between two teams. Baseball is widely considered “the intellectual sport,” and has generated a lot of literature as a result.

There are books about baseball. There is poetry about baseball. And the quantity of these works is significantly greater than those inspired by any other sport. The books range from directly related, like Moneyball, to more tangentially related, like Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which uses baseball as a backdrop but is more of a satire of American literature as a whole than anything else.

Not only are there literary works on baseball, but also two classes at this vaunted University that are specifically about the sport: Matthew Briones’s “Baseball and American Culture, 1840–present” and John Kelly’s “History and Culture of Baseball.” There have been other sports-related class offerings in the past, but none focusing on an individual sport other than baseball. Baseball is uniquely set in the intellectual fabric of our culture. I don’t mean to pose this in an elitist light, just to highlight what is so special about a sport that is able to inspire these intellectual endeavors. It’s unlikely that a baseball fan could engage with the sport on a completely intellectual level and still be a perfect fan. But the number of different ways a baseball fan can engage with the sport is one of the things that make it more complex and nuanced than other sports.

Not to be clichéd, but it’s more than just a game. This extends beyond the intellectual argument into a more religious one. I’m not talking about the major religions we have in this country—I’m talking about the Church of Baseball. Baseball is the one sport that is frequently compared to a religion: Ballparks are cathedrals, and those who root attend the Church of Baseball. The dedication and emotion that baseball stirs up in people is akin to the fervor associated with religion.

Even those who wouldn’t go so far as to categorize their excitement over the sport as religious would still say that baseball fosters strong emotions. One could argue that we become invested in sports in general because they grab at our heartstrings. I argue that baseball does this to an exponentially higher degree: in part because of the longer season, in part because of the ways we can interact with it, and for multiple other reasons that would be impossible to list here.

The fact that baseball is both a team and an individual sport at once, with the batter alone in the batter’s box trying to get a hit to help a group of 24 other men, is enthralling. We become personally invested in one player, which leads to a whole team, which leads to more players. Suddenly, you’re living and dying with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bam: emotional connection created.

On a lighter note, baseball is the only sport where the manager or coach wears the exact same outfit as the players. While allowing for this in other sports might render our brains scarred—think of Tom Coughlin in football pads or Stan Van Gundy in a Pistons uniform—it also means baseball managers are the most hardcore and the least stuffy. And that’s important (no disrespect to Jim Harbaugh’s khakis).

I’ve discussed the superficial, the intellectual, and the emotional. But one final, overarching reason for baseball’s superiority remains. Consider this one my 99-mph fastball, because it’s going to pack a punch.

Baseball was at the center of one of the most important social changes in this country. The beauty of the game of baseball is its capacity to be simultaneously “just a game” and a stage for progress. Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league diamond, integrating baseball, on April 15, 1947. This was a full year before the military was desegregated. I’m not going to turn this article into a history of the civil rights movement, but just think about it for a moment: Baseball was desegregated first. One of the first major American conglomerates (an intentionally vague word I’m using to encapsulate any large group of people whatsoever) to desegregate was the game of baseball. If that foresight, forward-thinking nature, and impetus toward social change alone don’t make baseball the best sport, then I think we need to have a different argument here: one about how you want progress to occur in this country. It’s a model that’s been taken up more recently in other sports, as gay players enter the arenas of the NFL and the NBA. But make no mistake: Baseball got the ball rolling on the idea of breaking a social barrier through sport.

We may not have buzzer-beaters or Hail Mary passes, but we have walk-offs and defensive gems. All things considered, baseball is the best sport.

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