Friday, March 28, 2008

"Emerging Baseball"

Tony Jones is reposting some of his old entries on his blog. The other day, he reposted the story of the publication rejection of a paper he presented at a conference in Wheaton in the winter of 2007.

You can find his original comments here (or here) and the paper here.

This repost, reminded me of the little story I wrote after I had read Tony's paper. I was in a somewhat silly mood but also frustrated with some of the arguments in the paper. I wrote this before I had a blog and so I did nothing with it. So, I guess that I'll post it...even though I'm not famous and nobody will probably ever read it, at least I'll get a chuckle...

"Emerging Baseball"

Life was picking up speed and the world was changing faster than it had in the past but one thing remained for lots of people: baseball. Now baseball was a grand sport, but perhaps not America’s most favored pastime as it had been in its history. There was a time when almost everybody played baseball but these times were changing. Baseball was played more differently then in the past, there was little league, high school leagues, club teams, college teams, even major and minor leagues. Overtime a few new rules were added to keep the game fair, especially at the younger levels. Some disagreed with these rules but others held this was faithful to how the game had always been played. There was increasing diversity. Professional players had even immigrated to the United States, which was different from the past, but they were respected since they could play the game very well.

One day, a group of trainers at a well known baseball training university decided to hold a conference on the game of baseball. Now baseball, as we noted, was not entirely uniform between the various levels of play. In the interest of fairness, the trainers decided to invite experts from outside their own club and even from different levels of play. At the conference, the presenters would discuss how the game of baseball is played. They would discuss the differences: some teams let pitchers bat, others did not; some leagues allowed metal bats others allowed only wooden—things like that. Baseball lovers would gather and hear from these experts.

Now the experts gathered were quite diverse from different fields of expertise as well as different leagues. Some presenters were experts on the history of baseball. They knew the great players and the great games of the past—most could rattle off the stats with the best of fans. Others were experts on pitching, or hitting. Still others specialized in an even smaller field: examining how the greats had pitched and hit. A few were experts on the making of uniforms, balls, and bats. One group of experts maintained the fields—they mowed the grass and kept the fields well groomed. They too were professionals in their area of expertise who loved and played the game. There were even a few who had taken baseball to foreign lands and taught people there to play and love the game. The college was well known for training such folks.

Now the trainers had heard of the way the game of baseball was being played across the pond. It had become no small area of debate in the States. Some from this far away land had written on baseball in the American sports magazines. Fans and experts of all stripes had various opinions about what was written—but all the writers embracing this new way had assured everyone: “We may play a little different, but we still play baseball.” This satisfied some; others it did not. “Baseball is baseball, you cannot play it differently,” they said. Others recognized the history of baseball had involved some changes despite the continuity. In openness, the trainers invited one well known player/manager to come across the pond. “Present for us,” they said. “We are going to write a book on the great history of baseball and how it has been and is being played. Since you play and love the game, we will include your presentation as part of the reflection of the community of baseball.”

The well known player did not really belong to any official league because in his country the game was more of a club sport, less rules, less organization but as he assured “It is a beautiful way to play. Baseball as it was meant to be.” Some liked this idea because it reminded them of their sandlot games as a child; others did not “You can’t have baseball without professionals.” Some felt that with all the high salaried players baseball was too commercialized and this way might restore the tradition of the game. Significant numbers felt that as long as he played baseball those from this new way could be welcomed. Once invited, the player from across the pond was asked to discuss how people in his land listen and learn from the great players of the past.

On the day of the presentation the conference was packed. The audience had as much variety as the presenter: trainers, managers, little league coaches, bat boys, people training to enter professional baseball, and star players. Some from across the pond joined as well. The star player from another land got up and gave his presentation.

He began to describe the differences in how baseball had been played over the years. The way people umpired the game had changed somewhat despite the rule book, he told us. “Strikes were not strikes until the umpire said so,” he proclaimed. This shocked some, but others said they understood his intention even though all knew the definition of a strike. He then went on to describe how people in his country play; he surveyed eight teams. Again, he emphasized that all were different because there was no real league or organization. They did not even play with an official rule book since that would be restrictive. They had no plans to write one. “The game,” he argued, “is much more dynamic, fluid. It is like a great dance.” He continued, “Our fans live in a changing world that is fast paced, in order for us to keep up and draw crowds we are less tied to the rules. Crowds love the event, not the static rules of baseball. They love play not the rules of play.” In the audience, this miffed the purists; others struggled to understand how baseball could be played this way; some liked this idea. Not a few who loved the game struggled to understand how you could love the event of the game without believing in the game itself.

“All games of baseball are local and cultural,” the presenter argued. “There is no great unified static tradition to the game but only local expressions. We must keep the game alive by playing it on local fields according to local customs. The larger community, made up by local expressions, keeps the game from changing into something altogether different.” He was anticipating some of his critics. “The community of baseball that we are all part of will police all of us by allowing its multifaceted voices to rise up when someone is not playing right.” He argued that this kept the umpire from calling pitches in the dirt a strike.

The presenter began to examine one of the great games and even one of the players of the past. He said, “This great game was not won by a team with better fundamentals who best understood the game and played right. This team had stacked the deck with strong players. The team had more money and could buy better talent so the win was a messy power play. It was unfair to marginalize the losing team.” Some thought this sounded fair, “shouldn’t baseball have salary caps?” Nevertheless, the victory had been vital in the history of the game as all well knew. Most knew well the game had had some strong players but they also knew what a struggle the game had been, especially in the late innings. While the rivalry didn’t singularly end at that historic game, looking back most saw the losing team never had the fundamental skills of baseball.

The presenter moved on examining a player from the past who had influenced the unity of baseball at a time when variety of other games where influencing baseball. The historical player had said, “Hold fast to baseball wherever it has been played, always and by all.” “That kind of unity cannot be had because we all play different,” the presenter continued. “All of our games are nothing more than local expressions,” he pioneered. “The fans of our homeland have long since recognized this. They never see the game only games.” More than one perceptive listener realized with all the various games they’d been at they had still seen the game of baseball. Continuing on, the presenter illustrated, “In my home, we play but we do not throw curve balls, fast balls, and splitters—to name a few. We have much more creative names like googly, topspinner and flipper, although, we still have something called a slider.” At this point, he showed cool images on a screen—a few might have thought this was not academic enough but it illustrated what he meant; besides, various sports writers often use tables, charts, graphs and illustrations. The presenter showed how the bats were different, more flat for a better surface hitting area. But then this required a different stance to hit—and there were not four bases but only two points to run to and from. He lauded a new feature that had been added called ‘wickets.’ “Our expression of baseball is different but we all play baseball. We love baseball. We must allow the marginalized voices of baseball to have a voice. All who love baseball will rejoice in our expression of the great game,” he proclaimed.

Then our presenter argued that baseball is not a game until it is played. Outside of the event of players playing there is no real game. Even the players do not play right all the time. Players have bad games where they make errors. Players have injuries where they miss a few games therefore they are not true players. And the off season means that no game of baseball exists at all for this time since baseball is not a game but an event of playing the game. This all stands against the game, a bit of anti-baseball mixed in. These problems and imperfections in the game play caused him to conclude, “My fellow baseball players, there are no baseball players.” At this point more than the purists were squirming in their seats; he was addressing a crowd who loved to play and loved the game. Despite their faults they played their best and they played hard. The game was there as it always had been.

He continued, “There is not is in baseball, its future is constantly unfolding, changing. We cannot look and find a moment when baseball is only that it will be.” If one froze a single moment in a local game you could not point and say, “There is baseball,” for the event was lost—so too was baseball—argued the presenter. “Baseball is eschatological.” A few liked this idea, the community must allow baseball to change and unfolding into the future since the fan base was changing all the time—‘we must attract new people, who may not like all the game has been, with them we can engender a new future,’ they thought. Others felt awkward, they knew that all players were not as good as others, or got injured more but they still played baseball as best they could—there was still baseball. Although sitting and listening to the presenter, they could remember the games they played, or the great players of the game; a few even had brought their glove with them. They were quite sure baseball is real. Most were well aware that rules had been added along the way, like the designated hitter rule, which is not accepted by all. For its history, most of the rules had remained pretty static, even if they had been translated to new languages by those who took baseball to new cultures. Some thought “how does this new way listen to the voices of that past? Was that not his topic?” Most at the conference knew the game was real even when it wasn’t being played. “There is no game of baseball—no rules, no game—without the event of playing. All our playing is an experience and without experience baseball does not exist,” the presenter was wrapping up. At least one person wryly noted that if baseball did not exist outside of the event our presenter at that moment had nothing to talk about.

At this point some were concerned that he did not play the real game of baseball. ‘Without the rules that had remained fairly constant through its history wouldn’t baseball become chaotic?’ some listeners queried to themselves. The presenter moved further into his conclusion, “You have heard it said that our game across the pond is chaotic—but I say to you we all play baseball with chaos. We all make choices on where to hit, how to run, when to steal or who to throw out. This is chaos. We all play the game our own way whenever we play.” He continued, “You have heard it said, my country changes baseball to appeal to fans, but I say to you there is no game without fans. Your own game would not exist if fans did not love it. Baseball must be watched or it does not exist.” For good measure he added, “No single community is privy to making the rules of baseball, such repressive interpretations is a violation of the diversity of other localized communities because we all love baseball. Hear the other voices; let them speak and judge as the event unfolds.” He finished by summarizing that although his way of playing was different, at least he played. This meant he, and those who played across the pond, loved baseball and respected it. His activity (like all playing) brought baseball to be and kept it alive. He liked the history of baseball—but it offered no instruction on how to play since it was only made up of local games, at best we have dialogue. There was not a “this is baseball” to look towards, even in the past. Baseball’s event was always future and unfolding.

In the weeks that followed, the presentation was discussed in many of the great sports magazines and papers. Experts, players and columnist weighed in. Some were in an uproar. Others calmly explained where they felt the presenter had gone astray. They sought to critique this new way of playing. “Why did we have to choose between the game and playing the game?” Others who either lived or spent time across the pond championed the diversity we could embrace in the game. They said, “when you critique us you do not understand us, don’t you know we love the game?” A few were even quite sure there really was no game of baseball just events that were played with sticks, balls, and bases. Baseball after all was just a name we had given a series of events. The event was changing, evolving.

Finally, the trainers from the university contacted the presenter. They said, “We are not going to publish your paper.” “Why not?” queried the presenter. “Was I not knowledgeable enough about baseball? Did I not show scholarship?” he asked. “You did but that isn’t why we won’t publish it,” they said. “The larger baseball community feels that your ideas were radical and not helpful to the community of baseball. When you throw balls they are pitches in the dirt—not strikes. This is something altogether different. Quite frankly, the playing you showed the communities of baseball looks and sounds more like cricket.”

The presenter was a bit taken aback. In the weeks following this exchange the presenter began to argue, “How unfair of the communities.” “Who are they to police our actions and game play?” The multifaceted multi-voiced community was considered by some to be too narrow minded against the great experience of baseball across the pond. The presenter began to write in the sports columns for his country. He spoke to his own single community rather than the voices represented in the consensus of baseball traditions that had been gathered. “Their voices are too many and cannot understand how we play. They cannot speak to our play. We are making our first forays into the game—give us time. But now, we are marginalized; how unfair. We must have more conversation and dialogue. More voices.” His own single community rose with one voice “of course this is baseball; right on; way to go” they said. “You hit a home run” they cheered. No one at all could call into question: was baseball really played across the pond? Since those from across the pond said, “We are not the final say, we are developing,” to ask such a question was considered repressive and restrictive to conversation and dialogue. “Do not reign in the unfolding of baseball.” After all, it was believed by those from across the pond that no one in the other diverse communities could really understand how baseball was locally played on their side of the pond. The playing was an event, a local event, who could say an event was not baseball; baseball is an event.

The larger community of baseball, even with its variations of play, was suddenly robbed of a real set of diverse voices by the single voice of new fans who loved this new and “better” way of playing. And so it was heard from across the pond, “This is baseball, the baseball of the unfolding future.”

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