Pitchers & Poets: The Ritual Game

The Cardinal Way & Red Sox Nation are not so different
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Pitchers & Poets was a weird blog about baseball that existed from 2009 to 2012. We really enjoyed writing it, so we’re bringing it back as a weekly column on The Classical. Some of you, hopefully, were readers. The about page said P&P was “a deep space vessel custom-built to explore the baseball universe.” But really it was a conversation set in the borderlands between the baseball world and the non-baseball world. 

In the end, baseball was just a language we used to talk about the world and our desperate attempts to understand it. Baseball was an organizing principle for P&P. And P&P was an organizing principle for our lives -- there was something approaching enlightenment to be found in the act of writing about a single topic in the same place over and over. It was ritual, which leads me to today’s topic.

If you’ve been watching the World Series, you’ve probably heard about something called The Cardinal Way. You may also have heard a few renditions of God Bless America, maybe some emotional words about the Boston Marathon bombing. You may have seen David Ortiz hit a home run and felt -- like me -- a sense of awe at its apparent inevitability.

The Cardinal Way we keep hearing about does not really exist in a tangible sense. It is just a way to understand baseball -- a lens like our own experience is a lens, like baseball itself can be a lens. The idea of the Cardinal Way is confidence in process; faith that doing things correctly, honorably, results in success. It is Midwestern American solidity projected onto baseball. In other words, it is a belief system, artificial as any other. The Cardinals are not substantially different from other Major League Baseball clubs. Their players still make errors. Their fans still shout inappropriate things at inappropriate times. Their scouts on occasion misevaluate talented prospects. In the end, the Cardinal Way is just believing in the Cardinal Way.

Red Sox fans have their own way of understanding baseball and their favorite team’s place in it. To them, baseball falls somewhere between the religious and the patriotic -- and by extension, so do the Red Sox. Red Sox Nation is a stand in for America. Baseball in Boston becomes something bigger than baseball. Have you noticed that World Series games at Fenway Park have a spirituality to them? It’s palpable, even on television. The setting, the ritual, the seriousness with which everybody approaches the whole endeavor. If the Red Sox have anything, it is a sense of their place in history. Red Sox World Series games are like a very well-organized Civil War reenactments, where the guys don’t get drunk first and nobody keeps a cell phone on vibrate in the pocket of their itchy blue pants. There is a dedication to verisimilitude, even as events are unfolding in real time. David Ortiz home runs are nothing if not preordained.

Of course, Red Sox fans are not the only people to make a religion out of baseball. Cardinals fans do it. Tommy Lasorda does it. Bob Costas. George Will. All of us. The imagery is familiar. Stadium cathedrals, long dead ballplayers sainted. Baseball has tends to venerate itself, like some half-cocked preacher claiming prophecy. Joseph Smith for the sporting class.

But the history of baseball should not be read as a bible. Believing in something -- whether the cosmic splendor of the Red Sox, or the correctness of the Cardinal Way, or the inherent superiority of the game itself -- doesn’t make it true. Believing does, however, make the world easier to take, easier to understand. Believing gives a sense of order to things like game-ending obstruction calls and pickoff plays that would otherwise drive us insane. Believing makes David Ortiz make sense.

You find religion in baseball when you aren’t trying to make Religion out of it. You find it in ritual, in the rhythms of the game, in its structure. You find in the shared language of the community. Baseball is neutral, it contains nothing worthy of worship, it contains no universal meaning. There is only the endless cycle of pitch swing, winter spring, old new, expected and utterly surprising. You make the meaning yourself.

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