During the summer and fall of 2004, families in Massachusetts discussed two subjects of unusual importance at the dinner table: the baseball playoffs and the presidential election. For me and many of the other mostly Democratic voters in John Kerry’s home state, the election was a big deal. The Red Sox, of course, are always a big deal. Together, they made for an exciting few months.
Home in Boston for the summer and then back in New Haven for school, I tried to strike a balance. At the end of July, a few days before the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra, I spent nine hours squeezed into a women’s-small polo shirt telling important people at the Democratic National Convention that they could not enter the convention floor and then watching them walk past me anyway. Sometime during the ulcer-inducing American League Championship Series, I remembered to mail my absentee ballot. And on Nov. 2, six days after the Red Sox became World Champions for the first time in 86 years, I sat on a couch like everyone else, flipping channels and discussing exit polls until the outcome was decided.
In my sober, post-election accounting, I took note of three things: that my left leg was asleep, that my ramen was cold and that I cared far more about the Red Sox winning the World Series than about the election result. At first, I felt guilty. There seemed to be a particular middle-class arrogance in valuing a game of thrown and batted balls above the serious business of politics, especially considering that I was an active participant in the election and only a passionate observer of baseball.
But then I thought back to the DNC when I left the Fleet Center in a crowd of thousands of breathless delegates and found the city deserted, everyone having gone home to escape the commotion and self-importance. And I thought about the World Series, when people quit their jobs and slept on the sidewalk to get tickets, and even the ones who didn’t get tickets stayed, listening to the game on radios because they wanted to be as close as possible.
Looking back on these observations, it didn’t take long to remember the other reasons why I prefer baseball to politics.
1. Children are introduced to baseball before they can walk. If you can ride piggyback on your parent’s shoulders, you can get into a stadium without a ticket. Tee-ball begins at age four and Little League soon after. Voting, on the other hand, is dangled out of reach until age 18, not because it is too much fun or too dangerous like porn or driving, but because we don’t want kids to ruin it for the rest of us. My high school taught jewelry-making and baking but not civics.
2. You can always talk about baseball. It is inoffensive, democratic, inter-generational and international. A movie about dead baseball players materializing in Iowa, “Field of Dreams”, became a box-office hit with the simple moral that you can talk about baseball when there’s nothing else to say. Politics, conversely, is, after money, the greatest conversational taboo in America. Nobody makes movies about politics bringing families together.
3. When people do talk about politics, they rarely do so with any subtlety or interest in honest discourse. The 24-hour shock jocks on sports radio are regarded as a lunatic fringe; their counterparts on CNN and Fox News have become the primary way many people get their news. Almost all political talk consists of a reshuffling of the same well-worn set of speaking points, and if the cliches are equally old in baseball, at least they deal with the game itself. With politics, there is some discussion of the actual substance — bills, appointments, diplomacy — but mostly it is gossip: he said, she said, they said, we said.
4. Baseball gives us unexpected heroes; politics gives us over-familiar survivors. Baseball’s champions are its annual Mr. Octobers, players who performed with excellence when it mattered most. Politics offers instead, “Mr. Didn’t Make a Weird Guttural Noise During a Televised Speech” and “Mr. Less Socially Inept than the Other Guy.” When a baseball player makes the front page of the newspaper, he has usually done something remarkable. When a politician makes the front page of a newspaper, he has usually screwed up. (The two all-time best-selling copies of the Boston Globe are the issue after the Red Sox won the World Series and the issue after Nixon resigned, respectively).
5. Finally, consider that it is mandatory for American politicians to pretend to like baseball. Witness Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed Yankees hat, Ted Kennedy’s professed admiration for hometown hero Manny Ortez and the obligatory ceremonial first pitch thrown out by every president since William Howard Taft (with the exception of Jimmy Carter). Conversely, no one cares what baseball players think about politics and when players do express an opinion, as Curt Schilling did in his endorsement of George W. Bush ’68, we don’t expect any phoniness or pretension.
Of course, this list is contrived. There are plenty of people who didn’t play Little League and think “Field of Dreams” is a gooey mess and even some who think baseball is boring (the value of these people to society is another question). What is not contrived is the incontrovertible fact that for one city at one moment, baseball proved far more effective than politics in energizing a community, in bringing them together across differences of class and race and sensibility, in inspiring them to goodness. And for those who insist that this is the myopic opinion of a white, male, middle-class college student who has not thrown out his Little League all-star trophies, I would offer as a rebuttal the children — only half of whom were white, male and middle-class — whom I taught tennis to this summer. When I asked them about politics, they had all learned enough at the dinner table to say in measured, grown-up tones, “Bush is bad.” But when I asked about baseball, they were suddenly children again, elbows out, imitating Millar’s swing, telling me that Big Papi was the best ever, reminding me why it matters.
Nat Jackson is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.