Baseball Literalism

There is a long and often ridiculous history of comparing baseball to a religion. Rule-bound, slow to change, cyclic, and timeless; an assembly of people presided over by men in funny outfits, who say what is safe and what is out; a space sealed-off from the rest of society, yet definitional to a national culture: the comparisons aren’t too difficult to make. As noted in the movie Bull Durham, there are 108 stitches on a baseball, and 108 beads in a Catholic rosary. Coincidence?

Well, yes. It’s a coincidence (or a function of the exceptional divisibility of the number 108). Religious phenomena have plenty of overlaps with other products of human culture, but the whole game of “but is it a religion?” is obnoxious at best. None of which changes the fact that, when Major League Baseball announced last week that it was planning to introduce instant replay to games, thereby allowing umpires to stop play after a difficult call and watch the whole thing again in slow-motion, all I could think, with a tinge of sadness, was that a new, especially virulent kind of fundamentalism had arrived in America’s First Church.

Let me explain. Fundamentalist religions may attack modern culture, but they are also, as an abundant realm of scholarship argues, products of modernity. The kind of precision, authority, and certainty that motivates, say, the belief in the inerrancy of scripture, or the conviction that you can prove, through science, the veracity of the Biblical Flood, is part and parcel of the modern demand that things be absolutely correct and explainable—that things should be not just feel true, but be correct. Perhaps it should not surprise us that religious violence is so often sourced from engineers, schooled in the arts of precision and certainty.

Back to baseball, home of a new and creeping umpirical dogmatism. Part of the sport’s charm is its pre-modern flavor: where football has engineered plays and metrical grid, and basketball not one but two clocks (shot and game), baseball seems to obey a different rhythm, slow and summery and defined only by the necessary duration for its fulfillment, and not some digital device. Naturally, then, baseball is a technologically conservative place. Players use wooden bats. They chew tobacco instead of smoking it. They wear knickers.

And umpires rely only on sight to make calls—aware, perhaps, in that way we so often forget to be, here in our modern world, that a kind of truth thrives in the realm of fate and subjective judgment, and not in the absolutes.

Now cameras have come along and ruined it all. Baseball is about to get literalist. Or perhaps more scientific. New atheist, fundamentalist, take your pick: starting next spring, the shrines of the diamond will be losing a little of their magic.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina.