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Why Baseball Matters—Still

More than a century ago, baseball became the national pastime. Since then, generations of Americans have spent their days as spectators and players at baseball diamonds, where “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” has come to be part of our lore. Writers have rhapsodized about the game and movie studios have splashed baseball on the big screen in blockbusters like The Natural and A League of Their Own.

But developments within and beyond the sport these days indicate that for some, America’s love affair with baseball may be cooling. Where once there were superstars, today there are few. Gone are the days of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan. After Derek Jeter’s retirement in 2014, baseball now has few athletes who draw national attention. As proof, no baseball players were listed among the 30 favorite sports figures in ESPN’s most recent survey of American youths.

The national pastime entered the 2015 season facing a slew of questions that went to the core of baseball’s sustainability. As The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote:

“Baseball has lived for the better part of a century on its unchanging character, its role as a bond between generations, its identity as a quintessentially American game that features a one-on-one faceoff of individual skills tucked inside a team sport. Can a game with deliberation and anticipation at its heart thrive in a society revved up for nonstop action and scoring?”

Indeed, baseball’s pace in a high-speed world is a major challenge—perhaps more so than the absence of larger-than-life stars.

And yet, it endures—and demands our continued engagement as citizens—because baseball’s story is linked to America’s story. The game mirrors the issues the country faces, from economic upheavals and immigration flows to civil rights struggles and the integration of military veterans back into public life. Simply put, the game still matters because through it we gain insight into our own national issues; baseball helps us understand ourselves.

Consider the issue of immigration. This subject has been a major story in America over the last two decades, acutely so in the last five years, but it’s been a big force in baseball longer than that. The game has become more of a global enterprise over the last several decades and shows how arms opened to people beyond America’s shores enhance an operation. For one thing, games are now broadcast in other languages, and journalists from abroad cover games.

What’s more, one has only to look at the numbers: 86 out of 230 players who took the field Opening Day this year were born outside the U.S. The Texas Rangers had 15 players from eight countries and territories. That is more than any club, prompting The Dallas Morning News’ Gerry Fraley to call the Rangers “a team of nations.”

The game’s globalism did not just happen. Scouts long have evaluated young talent from the Dominican Republic to Japan and Australia.

The growth in players from Latin America and the Caribbean has arguably been baseball’s most transformational element since the 1980s. Teams have welcomed talented players, even from closed societies like Venezuela. This season, 65 Venezuelans started as major-leaguers.

Similarly, 18 of this year’s major leaguers hail from Cuba, including All-Star outfielder Yasiel Puig. His harrowing story of escape from Cuba includes being raced to Mexico on a cigarette boat, being held in a Mexico motel at the mercy of human smugglers, and eventually winding up a Los Angeles Dodger. His journey illustrates how athletes—just like dissidents or ordinary people imprisoned for their beliefs—seek open societies to express themselves.

Another area where baseball particularly mirrors American life is in the world of technology.

The fact is, baseball has become a more sophisticated game in the Information Age and this is evident everywhere from Moneyball to FiveThirtyEight. Each season brings fresh data and performance measurements that drive decisions about lineups, field positioning and pitching matchups. Data has even become so prevalent in baseball that one club is being investigated for alleged hacking into another’s data files. This trend toward analytics positions baseball alongside finance, medicine, and education as fields of American endeavor where waves of data drive decision-making.

So, yes, baseball is an athletic contest, but it also provides a snapshot into the forces at play in a market economy. For that reason alone, the sport demands our attention.

Baseball also showcases the art of leadership, both within and beyond its own ranks. Bud Selig, for example, who served as commissioner from 1992 to 2014, provides an internal model for leadership. His successful tenure highlighted the importance of his capacity to build consensus among MLB owners and to manage crises like steroid use. Selig’s leadership approach, which included living on the phone with owners and frequent interactions with fans, media, and other baseball constituencies, allowed him to find the sweet spot on controversial issues. Like a shrewd legislative leader, Selig knew when he had the votes to bring up a major decision. His consensus-oriented style produced results, including growing the game internationally.

Baseball also intersects with leadership on a more symbolic level by connecting the nation’s political leaders with Americans watching in the stands or at home. There is the traditional presidential first pitch on Opening Day. Presidents also have used the game to rally Americans in times of crisis.

Franklin Roosevelt likewise understood baseball’s symbolism. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he wrote the famous “Green Letter,” asking that baseball executives not cancel the upcoming season. He knew families worried about their soldiers at war could draw pleasure from taking trips to the ballpark or listening to a broadcast.

Richard Nixon grasped baseball’s importance, too. After his vice presidential motorcade was stoned in Venezuela, he asked that big league players go there on a goodwill mission. “The tour did more to clear the atmosphere than a dozen top-echelon conferences,” a U.S. ambassador later said.

And perhaps no example lingers in the memory quite like the most recent. Americans were stunned by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. New York especially was reeling. When President George W. Bush strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30, 2001, to deliver the first pitch in Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, a perfect strike at that, the “U-S-A, U-S-A” chants that reverberated through that venerable stadium sent an unequivocal message: America may have been bloodied, but it was not bowed.

Of course, baseball inculcates leadership skills beyond the presidential level. It fosters youth leadership locally through Little League, the YMCA, and other community-based leagues. Baseball creates situations where children can work together and develop sportsmanship.

Immigration and the quest to be free. The Information Age. Building a new generation of leaders. These points of connection are among the ways in which this sport still deeply resonates with Americans—even if on the surface, sportswriters and others debate the flagging viewership numbers or the slower pace of the game. Baseball still matters, because the game provides a lens into our very society and a bridge to connect generations.

Author:

William McKenzie