We live by rituals, by commemorations and commencements. We always have, it seems, from our earliest forays out of our caves and across savannas.
In such cultures, springtime is special, for the season itself is one of rebirth, of the return of green. For Christians, the coming of spring brings the penitence of Lent, the drama of Holy Week, the gloom of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. For Jews there is Passover. In politics, Mitt Romney hopes the season marks his own electoral resurrection.
And now for the real point. For baseball fans — particularly New York Yankees fans — this coming Friday, March 2, brings the first preseason Grapefruit League game. The results are meaningless; the fact of it vital, for the beginning of spring training and the ensuring opening of the Major League Baseball season represents the new beginning of an old enterprise, a moment when all things are, at least ever briefly, fresh and bright and limitless.
This annual act of collective hope is one of the things that gives baseball its philosophical appeal. To me, baseball is the most culturally relevant sport because it most accurately mirrors the joys and vicissitudes of the lives we all lead. Tragedy and defeat are inevitable; sometimes they knock you down for a play or for an inning or for a game or for a slump or even for a whole season. (You can ask the Houston Astros about that.)
The best teams in baseball will lose a ton of games. The best hitters will get out far more often than they reach base. And what are they in search of? As A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late Yale president and baseball commissioner wrote, they are all in search of home, an insight that linked the game to the most epic of poems.
There are fans who think such blather is just that — blather — but the scorn aimed at the philosophically minded fan just underscores another wonderful dimension of the game: its essential democracy. Despite rising ticket and parking and concession prices — and they are rising too high too fast for the good of a game built on the loyalties of hardworking families — baseball remains one of the few activities in American life where people of different economic and social backgrounds can sit together engrossed by a common enterprise.
And that is a lesson about baseball that might help us in most other arenas of life. Keep the rules clear, adhere to them, and may the hardest-working team win. Yes, there are fundamental economic injustices; my team, the Yankees, spends vastly more on its payroll than its competitors. But guess what: to paraphrase President Kennedy, neither life nor baseball is fair. There will always be inequities of some kind and some degree.
The task is to do the best with what we have, hoping that fairness and sportsmanship — along with a healthy appreciation of the fact that defeat is a part of life — can lead us to a common field, and a common endeavor. Baseball does it. America used to do it, too. It’s time we got back together again, not just for a season of sport but for the sake of the country.
(MORE: Meacham: A Time to Compromise)