You have to believe that baseball says something more. It has to bring you joy; it has to seem a part of you. We still have to resist dwelling overlong in nostalgia; it’s important to be clear-headed. Baseball’s sins have been against people; it’s guilty of smaller vices like sentimentality, too. It was never so pure and it’s often addled. But we have to agree that we’re getting a little something more than setting the conditions for selling caps or shoes. That’s what makes all of this work.
Earlier this week, Jayson Stark of ESPN published a piece exploring the dearth of active baseball players whose fame transcends the sport. Since Derek Jeter’s retirement, we have been without a Face of Baseball.
The game has an economic interest in expanding its appeal, and has rightly noted that despite a wave of charismatic young talent and a popular World Series, it lacks its own LeBron James. Stark spoke to baseball executives, players’ agents, and advertising types, and they all agreed this faceless-ness was a problem.
We could dismiss it as an academic question, or a structural one. The sport has to make money—somehow caps don’t sell themselves, despite it raining—and bring in new fans, but as a daily concern, how the league markets itself matters in that way you only notice when it’s done really well or poorly. We could shrug. Only, the fixation on one face, the face, seems to suggest that they have misunderstood what draws us in.
We focus on the famous snap, go, and fling, but another bit of Walt Whitman might serve just as well: “We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”
Whitman put baseball in contrast with confinement; the cramped spaces of a city apartment; the sour smell of an alleyway. Getting out was medicinal. Baseball draws us out, puts us in the flow of the air. We see our neighbors, even if seeing them has been historically fraught. It takes time to settle indigestion, and longer still to stamp out the ugly bits of ourselves. But it got us moving.
Once we’re out there, we make mounds and bases as we can. It looks and feels different depending on your place. It came with the promise of water or mountains in the West, and the rush of history in New York, and a wall of green in Boston. It became about reflecting our places, and showing our people, all in motion. Out there, blessed.
Corporate interests lean toward stability, and so they think they have a natural partner in a game that anchors itself in everyday-ness. They want a predictable face to market, and we all have this habit in common, this liturgy. But the people who watch and play baseball are far less settled in their identities than that. We’re not all from Millville; we’re not all Americans. That push to consolidation squishes us.
We might make another Jeter, but he won’t feel how being with our people feels. We’re Cubs and Indians fans, city dwellers and farmers, Democrats and Republicans. We dress our hot dogs differently. We look different from each other and come from different spots and find parts of our lives determined by those places and shades. We hate the guys who delighted you. We’re all getting older.
We are, as organisms and fans and family members, dynamic. We are the snap, go, and fling. That dynamism is all that has ever saved us from embracing the inertia of our mistakes, in baseball and beyond the ballpark’s fences. We change and we are flung together, and that changes us more. It has kept us lurching, sometimes with an uncomfortable push, forward. And it pops on the field. Not as a game that is market-tested and squeezed and hashtagged, but baseball as we experience it.
Baseball with our guy. Baseball that draws us out and makes us move and moves us. Baseball that looks like my face and my neighbor’s, and allows us to see ours as we look down on Francisco Lindor’s and Mike Trout’s. Baseball as it is here and over there, and under foot, in a bunch of different wrinkles and hands and smiles, finally expressed, and understood, and allowed to say its something more.