Alex Massie

The Greatest Game of All

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Today, being perhaps the best day of the year*, is a good moment to consider Ross Douthat's assertion that John Rawls was right. We do not speak of philosophy, of course, but of something much more important: sport. More specifically, Rawls' belief that "baseball is the best of all games."

There's something to this, for sure, though really it would be better rendered as "Baseball is the best of all American games" - a sentiment with which it would be hard to quibble, much though I also admire and enjoy college football (Go Blue!).

Ross elaborates:

One could go on to note the perfect balance that baseball strikes between team effort and individual performance, a balance at once deeply Christian and deeply small-d democratic. Or its paradoxical nature, which inspires quantification and romanticization in equal measure, and offers food for statheads as well as novelists, conservatives as well as liberalshistorians as well as business writers. Or …

No, enough. No argument, however self-evidently powerful, will persuade those deluded souls – and they do exist! – who would argue that the qualities that Rawls and Kalven considered strengths are actually weaknesses. Those who would claim that baseball’s physical ecumenism – the sport’s ability to find a place for Chone Figgins as well as Vladimir Guerrero, for John Kruk as well as Bo Jackson - makes it ultimately inferior to basketball or football or soccer as a test of athletic ability. Those who would assert that the skills that baseball requires are too idiosyncratic to be interesting – that whereas everyone can appreciate the physical strength required to be an offensive lineman, or the speed and agility required of a small forward, only a crank or an obsessive can get worked up about how well a paunchy middle-aged man flicks a curve or spins a knuckleball. Those who would aver that baseball’s clocklessness, its out-of-time quality and its inclination toward eternity, just means that the games take too damn long.

Such people are beyond the reach of reason. Also, they’re communists.

To which, again, one can say that this is all very well and good yet also, in any reasonable final analysis, insufficient. Britishers and Australians exiled in the United States of America can love baseball (and we do!) while acknowledging that it is, in the end, merely making do with what's available. Even so, it's my experience that members of the Commonwealth are more open to enjoying American sport than the Americans, isolationists to the bitter end, tend** to be to appreciating the glories of the world's grandest game. Indeed, what is baseball but a simplified, abbreviated form of cricket?

Americans, again in my experience, tend to scoff at this sort of talk. But at the risk of arguing from authority, let me cite Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post's veteran and well-regarded baseball columnist. Boswell had the good fortune to attend the fifth day of the 1984 Lords test between England and the West Indies. The following day - which happened to be July 4th - he made this quasi-treasonous admission:

"I came with an open mind but a suspicion that I would despise the world's slowest team sport... However, instead of coming away a mocker, I now suspect it's lucky for me that I don't live in England. There's a cricket nut trapped somewhere deep inside me; stop me before I become addicted again.

Why wouldn't I get the habit? Cricket is, in many ways, baseball raised to the nth degree. Almost every basic tendency or theme of baseball is mirroried or exaggerated in cricket.... I am titillated by the thought that cricket might be a heightened form of baseball.. If anything, cricket's bowling is even more complex than baseball's pitching, just as cricket's batting is a more encyclopedic sort of acquired skill than hitting a baseball..."

Might be a heightened form of baseball? Nay lad, 'tis.

(I can't find the column online, alas, but you can read it in this collection of Boswell's columns.)

*Why so? Well, there's 24 hours of test cricket today. Since 2pm (UK time) we've been enjoying the fourth day of the West Indies vs Sri Lanka in Guyana; in 20 minutes New Zealand and England take to the field for the fifth day of their test in Napier while, right on cue, 4am sees day one of India vs South Africa in Madras. And all of it, thanks to Mr Murdoch, can be seen on SKY Sports. A blissful, if punishing, schedule leavened only by the prospect of enjoying afternoon tea three times in a singler 24 hour period...

** eg, Sir John Paul Getty

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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