When I moved to New York 25 years ago, I was mesmerised by the rhythm and geometry of baseball and soon became a fervent Yankees fan. Shoehorned into the urban jumble of the south Bronx, Yankee stadium felt like a bigger version of Firhill or Love Street. Fast forward to the present, and the 2017 baseball season is coming to a climax.
With the Yankees making it to the semi-final series, it's been fun to be constrained by the game calendar. Like chapters in a good book, there's an arc and a narrative to a seven-game series that transcends each at bat, each inning, and each game. Unfortunately, the Yankees lost 4-3 to Houston and didn't make it to the World Series. But after watching close to 30 hours of play-off baseball, it struck me that America would be a much better place if the sport had more influence on the national culture and psyche.
First, let's talk about winning. Despite the bombast, Trump's America isn't tired of winning just yet. Yes, the economy is strong, but many Americans despair of the polarising rhetoric of this White House, and the petty chest-thumping and bluster that goes with it. In contrast, all baseball teams are intimately familiar with defeat. The Yankees won only 91 of their 162 regular season games this year, so defeat is a constant companion on the long road to the play-offs.
Over a full season, you rely on the law of large numbers to separate the elite from the merely lucky and tip the balance marginally in favour of one of Kipling's twin imposters. What's true for the team is also true for each player. Even the best hitters strike out more often than they get a hit, so baseball mirrors the everyman experience of occasional highlights in a grind of daily drudgery. With a modesty born of constant failure, baseball players tend to have a Jimmy Stewart-like 'aw shucks' humbleness increasingly absent in the rest of American life.
Another important cultural lesson from the diamond is that you don't need aggression and raw power to win. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last year, they did it with 'small ball.' Not for them a reliance on towering home runs, but instead the detailed and intense game management of bunting, stealing bases, and sacrifice fly balls that relentlessly advances runners and slowly throttles the opposition.
Our current Congress could learn a lot from the Cubs. The Republican majority would be in far better shape if they had focused on the accretion of small victories, rather than continually swinging for the fences and striking out. As for President Trump, he's like Babe Ruth guaranteeing a home run in the 1932 world series, but then whiffing on the pitch and boldly lying to the crowd that the ball has sailed over the outfield fence, when it's clearly lying in the dirt behind him.
Finally, there's a sense of community in baseball that echoes a simpler, better America. The game has many traditions, and one of the most cherished is the singing of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' in the middle of the 7th inning. At the heart of the song is the refrain 'root, root, root for the home team, but if they don't win it's a shame.' A loss is just a shame, and not a national emergency or a reason to lash out. In politics, many Americans have stopped rooting for their home team and instead they're just rooting for the other team to lose, even if it means burning down the stadium in the process.
Sport is where we should have irrational blind loyalties, because in the bigger scheme of things, it doesn't matter who wins. Unfortunately, there's now far more tribalism in politics than there is in sports, yet in politics it does matter who wins, because people die when their healthcare is taken away in an ideological tantrum.
Since the 1960s, researchers have asked Americans if they would be upset if their child married someone affiliated with the other political party. In 1960, the number was a mere 5%, while this year 32% of Democrats said they would be 'very upset' if their child married a Republican. In contrast, only 18% of Yankee fans would be upset if their kid married into a Red Sox household. Whatever the root cause, we've now transposed and amplified sport's partisan polarisation onto the national political stage.
At least for the moment, baseball is relatively controversy free. The contrast with the NFL is stark, as American football runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the question of whether players should stand for the national anthem or kneel to protest racial injustice. One reason the anthem isn't a political issue in baseball is that the game isn't dominated by African Americans.
In 2017, major league baseball rosters were 57% white, versus 60% in the general population. Although 43% are players of colour, most of that group are Latinos, including many Cuban immigrants. African Americans make up only 8% of current baseball rosters, only marginally lower than their 13% in the broader population. The cynics may say that the lack of protest in baseball is due to cultural conservatism or fear of retribution, but a more optimistic take is that, because baseball better reflects the country's ethnic mix, maybe it can still function as legitimate escapism.
The sad decline in civility and moderation in American politics has unfortunately been mirrored by a slow decline in the popularity of baseball. Attendances have been falling for a decade, TV ratings are down for most teams, and the average fan is inexorably ageing. But baseball like democracy is central enough to the American way of life that I'm confident both will survive their current challenges. Hopefully over the next few years, the politicians will find some time to watch some ball and maybe absorb some lessons about humbleness, respect, and the merits of slow and steady progress towards a better America.