Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Because I Said So!

Contrary to popular opinion, baseball is not a game of tradition. The game itself has always and continues to evolve. Baseball looks very different from its earliest connotations, perhaps less different than other sports, but different nonetheless. Tradition, in baseball, however, is all in how the game is experienced, the unwritten rules for both players and fans.

Bud Selig, an old used car salesman and mediocre-at-best baseball commissioner announced his impending retirement lately, which means America's oldest team sport is in the market for a new leader. Those media pundits who still care have been talking deeply about what kind of leader baseball needs - specifically someone with media and marketing savvy, because baseball has lost most fans under the age of 40. It's an aging population.

I'm going to suggest the problem is not with the game itself, but with the tradition surrounding the game. Those young fans Major League Baseball so desperately wants are of a generation that won't tolerate empty tradition.

By empty tradition, I mean, essentially, "I told you so." Rules without reason. Baseball has a lot of rules. The Official Rules of Baseball is a thick book for what it is. Beyond the official rules are innumerably more unwritten rules - the tradition of baseball.

Dodgers rookie and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig caught flack from "baseball people" recently for celebrating a bit too boisterously after hitting a game winning hit in the playoffs (his first ever playoff hit, by the way). His crime? Flipping his bat towards the dugout instead of calmly setting it down as he ran. Puig knows the unwritten rules - you don't grow up in Cuba playing baseball and not know 1950's on-field decorum. Puig thought his ball was a Home Run, and such celebrations are more acceptable today, since the ball is no longer in play. I doubt he would have reacted so forcefully if he knew he had to run. In his defense, the outfielder thought it was a Home Run as well - he was so out of position, the surprised Puig still ended up with a triple.

So why don't you celebrate a big hit that way? Or a strikeout or a stolen base? You just don't. That's not how baseball is played. The next generation of fans (and players - participation in baseball in high school and college is at an all time low in the US) are asking why not - and no one has an answer.

Because I said so.

It doesn't work in the Church. It doesn't work with God. It doesn't work in baseball. The next generation (and they're, we're not all just kids anymore) think different, understands different, act different, are different.

As a pastor, there was an awkward moment when I told a parishioner, quite honestly, that, "because God said so," just isn't a good enough reason for me to do anything. I don't believe life is a mystery to anyone but the willfully ignorant. No one should be acting without reason and people should expect as much from themselves.

Obviously, I've exposed the metaphor at this point, but back to baseball. People always say, "Baseball is a game of tradition," but that's bunk. Baseball as narrowly defined by people who love tradition is about tradition. I'll admit, I am one of those people. I first became infatuated with baseball because of the tradition - the heroes the records, the obsession with statistics.

But we have to remember, the condescending way baseball purists talk today about the designated hitter or advanced metrics is the same way baseball purists talked 100 years ago about wussy players who decided catching a laser-quick, rock-hard leather ball was easier with a glove.

Baseball is a game of innovation. In no other sports are whole positions created on the fly - you ask Babe Ruth what a closer is and you'll likely hear some disgusting sexual position (although, to be fair, that might be Babe's answer to "How 'bout this weather?" too.

What doesn't change are baseball fans. Because they just won't allow it. Baseball, like all sports, began as a challenge to players and as entertainment for spectators. Somewhere along the line it became this unique thing. Baseball. Imbued with deep meaning for national identity and a 1950's nostalgia that falls short of reality.

For baseball to have any meaning (and by this point, we should be ready to substitute "life" or "faith" or any number of other important institutionalized concepts here), it has to mean something for the people watching it. Yes, we could go back to the way baseball was and it would regain much of it's value. The only problem is, that identity and value are inextricably linked to the context in which they existed. You can't have "BASEBALL" in this day and age because we're in THIS day and age.

BASEBALL is just going to be baseball. FAITH is just going to be faith. LIFE is just going to be life. That doesn't mean they aren't important, it just means they need to reflect the realities on the world in which they inhabit or they're not going to inhabit any world at all.

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