America’s Pastime: Baseball’s Deep Yet Peculiar Connection to the Human Life Experience

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

— James Earl Jones, Field of Dreams

I just spent the weekend visiting my new nephew in Saint Louis, Missouri where I was born and raised. I got to watch the Saint Louis Cardinals play the Oakland Athletics Friday night. As I sat, watched the game, and talked strategy with my Dad something occurred to me. Baseball is deeply connected to all corners of American life. Not only that, but baseball is a metaphor not just for America, but for the human experience as a whole. Upon more contemplation I realized some of the reasons are not necessarily ones one would expect.

We are in the midst of significant times. Our country has a very controversial election coming up and we all aren’t sure what will happen. In our daily lives we all step up to the metaphoric “home-plate”. We get up, go to our jobs, enjoy our families, and go about our daily lives. We hang in there. We press forward. At the office, with a girlfriend, at a bar, cafeteria, bus stop, or in the back of an Uber putting ourselves out there is part of being human. From our metaphoric uses to the all-american food we eat at the game baseball deeply resonates. Pop culture extends and illuminates it in every far corner of our society. I grew up watching it. Having a grandfather who was general manager and President of the Saint Louis Cardinals and New York Mets it was a part of my upbringing. It inspired me. I’ve come to realize over the years that baseball is a curious game.

First off there’s the metaphors:

  • Take your swings.
  • Bush League
  • Playing Hard-ball
  • Grandstanding
  • Hit a home-run
  • Three Strikes
  • Get to first base
  • Sweet chin music
  • The Big Leagues
  • Make contact
  • America’s pastime
  • Baseball is life

Among others…

But it’s not just metaphoric idioms, nor is it the crowds, the popcorn, the crackerjacks & hotdogs, the crack of the bat, the wave, the hot summer days with snow-cones and upside down ice-cream helmet cups. It runs deeper. The sport seems to symbolize not just the American way but it is also a mysterious metaphor for the human condition. This to me is quite compelling but also curious. The sport has hung around for so long. What makes it stick? Is it just entertainment? Or is there more to it? What’s going on here? Let’s look at some reasons this peculiar sport might run deeper than we ever even realized.

  1. ) It reflects our way of living. Baseball has no time limit. There is no ticking clock. Just like in life. Sure there is a ticking clock on all our lives, we just can’t see it. Or is there? Same with baseball. Play 37 innings and they’ll sit there until midnight. Someone has to win. Baseball is structured like our lives. We don’t have a physical clock we are watching for time purposes.

2.) Baseball represents building towards a goal over a lifespan. Baseball has a grueling 162 game schedule. It’s a marathon. A big picture of sorts. A win is a tick in the win box but it’s more about the longterm. How brick by brick life adds to an entry onto the dance floor otherwise known as the MLB playoffs. It’s about the wins or the bricks to build the ultimate wall. Just like our little life victories are bricks in each of our own life’s wall. Will Smith says it best.

Will Smith builds a wall, baseball we build wins, and in life we build a life. What are the bricks and wins in your life? What are you doing to work towards your wall? Find it! Gruel your way through your 162 game schedule with your goal in mind. Herein lies my point. We connect to baseball because it is the ultimate metaphor for the human experience. With each base we get closer to home. Each time we arrive home we score a run. Each run we score we build towards a win. And the wins are the bricks of our life’s wall. Find yours.

3.) In baseball statistics are particularly rooted in failure to breed success. Baseball is set up in a way that is especially unique when compared to any other sport. Your success in baseball lies in your failures. The greatest baseball players in the world have a batting average of .350. The best players are only getting a hit 3.5 times out of every 10 they step up to home plate. Isn’t this how it is in life? For most people it seems like you have to apply to a lot of jobs, go on a lot of dates, or try a lot of options in any task before finding a winner. My point is, baseball holds a deep secret reflected within the the depths of the human experience. We know it, connect, and relate to it and therefore love it. You may be asking but isn’t this the way in all sports? Actually, you’d be surprised. First off not all baseball players are in great shape. There’s fatsos and pencil necks. Straight-edged, cautious, lovable, athletic, talented, tall, short, wide, lean… you name it. Athletes. Even drunks, tobacco chewers, and druggies. All of it. Don’t get me wrong, all of these superstars have immense athletic gifts and have worked very hard to get where they are, however it is world of various builds and personalities. It’s a traveling circus. No negative connotation intended. It’s special. A wide spectrum of types. We adore them, root for them, and yet feel connected to them. But it goes even beyond that. Let’s take a look at how it compares to other sports.

Some examples were recently outlined in an article for BBC News :

“Now, imagine this in any other sporting context — if two times out of three David Beckham slipped on his backside as he ran up to take a free kick. Or if Andy Murray, serving a key point at Wimbledon, whiffed completely 66% of the time. It is unthinkable. But this, I have come to realize over six years of intense study (and it has to be said the occasional pitch-side beer and hot dog) is the key point about baseball. As a sport, it is really all about failure. Or more precisely how the players psychologically handle failure — the fact that they are going to miss the ball more often than they hit it.”

This writer is on to something. I strongly believe we know it, but it doesn’t draw enough attention. Baseball is about fighting through our failures and withstanding the test of time to achieve our goals more so than any other sports on the planet.

A couple of baseball legends validate this:

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”

~Babe Ruth

“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”

~Hank Aaron

I trust the experts.

Winston Churchill once famously stated that success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. This is what ball players are forced to do. Live day to day with the knowledge in the back of their mind that at their very best only 3–4 out of 10 times will they get a “hit”. But they press on and endure. It is a war of attrition. Human beings do this in our lives every day. We often live in and fight through failure to achieve success.

4.) Baseball embodies the American Dream. It gives us inspiration, strength for today, and hope for an even better tomorrow. As we watch our favorite player round the bases after a home-run, be given a standing ovation for a walk-off hit, or watch a magnificent throw from the right fielder to the catcher to nab a runner at home-plate it inspires us.

A recent Essay I found wrote:

“According to Elias, one of the scientists, who studied the relations between the vision of American Dream and playing baseball, “hard work is no guarantee of financial reward, gender and racial equality remain fictions, and injustice, political repression, and limited economic choices are reality for many Americans. Baseball represents the “American Dream” and reflects “both the successes and failures of the American way”

When a team’s manager comes out of the dugout and marches across the field to home-plate to argue with the umpire, we can’t help but watch and love it. Just as the manager has a right to argue, so do we in our daily lives. We have a right to stick up for ourselves, take the risk, and fight for what we believe is right. America is a free country and one in which we have a voice. Our voice is heard. And that in and of itself is inspiring.

BBC News then says:

“This is indeed the land of opportunity where children grow up being told what a “great job” they are doing and how they might all be president one day. Which is all fine of course, except that for many, perhaps for most Americans, success never really comes. For much of the half decade I have lived here, this country has been struggling economically. All across the land, in previously well-off towns where half the high street has now closed down, you meet people fighting to make ends meet. It has also been arguable in recent times that America itself is failing, losing prestige and influence around the world while new powers such as China are on the rise. But, just as their baseball players do, Americans are adept at picking themselves up when the market fails.”

We are rooted in picking ourselves up again. When times are hard, we persevere. The tough get tougher. It is without question a huge inspiration within the realms of American culture. Just as ballplayers pick themselves up again after a loss or a collision at home-plate, so do we.

5.) Baseball is an ongoing strategic and cognitive mental war. It often gets a bad rap for being slow, boring, and that it does not have enough action. This is a falsehood. It’s nonsense. This is for folks that don’t understand that it is more than just a game. It’s not just physical ability and tangible “action”. It’s a psychological war. Chess is slow. But it’s still a board game. Managers manage a game like a chess match. They run their bullpen and perform double switches to offset their opponents pitcher or hitter. It’s an ongoing mental battle of the minds. In life we are this way. We are constantly strategizing about our next move. Be it career, love-life, what car to buy, or what school to send our kids to we thrive and progress on strategic change. Managers handle behind the scenes while players press-on through a 162 game schedule. They live day to day in failure to manifest success, extend their bodies in every way possible, often get little sleep, workout, compete, and love every moment of it. Yes, there’s a lot of money these players get paid but it’s a business. This happens.

The earlier Essay goes on to say:

“Some people tend to criticize baseball for the lack of action, but in fact this is a huge mistake. They think that the action itself is when the ball is put into the play by the batter, others think, that action in baseball starts only as soon as one of the players gets a hit. Such conclusions could be made only by those, who are not really interested and involved into the game itself and are not able to realize that the real action in this game is the pitch. As soon as you view and follow each pitch, you will not be able to complain that there is not action in this game or the actions are too slow. In this relations baseball is even quicker than a football.

The problem of those, who don’t like the game is that they simply don’t know it sufficiently enough to be able to get pleasure from at least watching it, moreover even playing it. Not all views of baseball are able to single out the differences between a curve ball and a fastball for example. And in reality each pitch — this is a strategy, and baseball is really a mental game along with physical abilities.”

The reasons for how deeply we connect to this sport are quite fascinating and yet peculiar. They continue to resonate after more than a century. This fall I urge everyone to watch the election debates, vote for your Presidential candidate of choice, get excited about the stock market, technology, innovation, film, and economics. But October playoffs are coming. Don’t forget that wonderful metaphor that is the glue that holds us strong and together. The amazing yet peculiar longtime summer pastime that is so deeply inner woven into our souls and lives. A metaphor for not just the American dream but for the overall human experience. Baseball.

Geoff Pilkington

A recent podcast I was on discussing my theories on ADHD:

Twitter: geoffpilkington

Instagram: geoffreypilkington


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