The Cultural Value of Baseball

Mark C. Taylor, who teaches religion at Columbia University, has an opinion piece in the NY Times on the timeliness of baseball and its deliberate pace in a world that is increasingly frenetic. Here are a few highlights:

It has perhaps become commonplace to claim that sports have acquired the status of religion in the United States. But the deeper implications of this insight are rarely recognized. Religion is about more than belief and fanatic devotion; there can be no vital religion without rituals. Rituals, religious and otherwise, are designed to change the pace and interrupt the rhythms of our daily lives. This is what makes them special and, when effective, allows participants to return to everyday life renewed.

What critics of baseball often dismiss as a waste of time that slows the pace of the game are actually the rituals (and rituals within rituals) that make baseball so timely: the catcher sending too many signals to the pitcher, the pitcher repeatedly backing off the mound and checking the runner on first base, the batter constantly stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust and spit on his gloves, coaches and managers visiting the mound far too often, the seventh-inning stretch, breaks between innings. I miss the days when pitchers took long, leisurely strolls from the bullpen to the mound, while players stood idly by, sometimes chatting with one another. The relief these pitchers offered was for fans as much as teammates. When players take their time, fans must slow down to stay in the game. All these seemingly pointless rituals do have a purpose: They keep the frenetic pace of the everyday life outside the sacred precincts of the game.

We live in a world that is obsessed with speed. Fast is never fast enough, everything must be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give a competitor the edge. Speed has become the measure of success — faster chips, faster computers, faster food, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster games.

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Faster is not always better — speed has limits. Acceleration cannot continue forever. But when people are afraid to unplug because they will miss a deal or lose their job, a leisure activity like a three-hour baseball game can seem to be a luxury no one can afford.

The only way to break this cycle is to call a time out. This is precisely the possibility rituals create. To enter the space and time of ritual is to participate in an alternative reality that allows one to see the world differently. As traditionally played, baseball encourages a sense of leisure and cultivates the virtues of caution, delay, deliberation, patience and reflection. These values are important precisely because they stand in critical tension with the revved up pace of everyday life. To increase the speed of the game would make it an extension of, and not an alternative to the high-speed world that never leaves people enough time for themselves and for others. Far from a threat to its viability, the slow pace of the game is what makes baseball increasingly valuable in a world that is moving too fast for us ever to catch up.

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3 responses to “The Cultural Value of Baseball

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