The people gather in droves. They clothe themselves in the requisite emblematic regalia, and they stamp their feet and whistle. They create a racket, a tumult, and in the best of gatherings this tumult lasts for hours. In the forgotten places the racket is dim, the crowd roused only for moments, only when the proceedings turn significantly dramatic. Still, these moments, whether brief or lasting, make it worthwhile. These moments are elevated above the mundane, the ordinary. They are sacred moments, moments of communal reverie, of union, of accord and harmony.
Such a moment occurred this summer in Toronto. I was lucky enough to witness it, for it made nary a blip in the cultural sphere, and only those present could possibly remember it. Though the gathering was small, the pre-game ovation for number nine hitter and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki was bafflingly loud. I’d never heard of this Kawasaki, but the few people of Toronto who had decided to attend a ballgame on this warm summer night in June seemed to adore him.
The crowd first went wild when Kawasaki turned an unassisted double play. He followed that defensive wizardry with an RBI single. Then, down by two runs, in the bottom of the 7th inning, Kawasaki came to the plate with a runner on base. With all of zero career home runs to his name, he slapped a pitch over the right field stands. Delirium. The crowd chanted his name until he emerged from the dugout for a well-earned curtain call. Despite being a lifelong Red Sox fan, I found myself drinking from the well of Kawasaki, and it was good.
I thought that would be all, that we’d had enough magic for one evening. That we had witnessed the divine take the form of this lithe Japanese shortstop and the show was over. But lo, in the bottom of the 9th inning, the score still tied, one out, and two runners on, guess who came to the plate?
The crowd was frenzied, frothing, stamping, clapping, imploring Kawasaki with relentless waves of sound. On the first pitch he swung so hard he fell over. Pandemonium. He swung so hard at the second pitch he nearly fell over again. The crowd “Ohh”ed as one entity, one breath, one hope. And then, with a 2-2 count this Kawasaki, this man I had not even heard of when I woke up that morning…
…grounded out to second, advancing the runners. The game was won when the next batter singled up the middle. It was the first game I attended on my summer baseball pilgrimage by motorcycle, and it set the bar high.
A baseball pilgrimage is the type of thing a child dreams of. Since, at age 29, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, it seemed like an excellent idea. Baseball no longer captivates me the way it once did, but I wanted to explore this country and this game that once had a stranglehold on my consciousness, to visit the historic cathedrals of American sport and see if anything resonated.
Calling a stadium a cathedral is not a novel concept. Many stadiums have long laid claim to being “The Cathedral of Baseball”. It is natural, in our secular society, to ascribe holiness to that which causes us to gather.
I remember learning the phrase axis mundi in a college religion class. We were reading The Sacred and the Profane by religious scholar Mircea Eliade. He writes, “The three cosmic levels — earth, heaven, underworld — have been put in communication … through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below.” As I understood it, an axis mundi is a pole around which people gather to feel a connection with the heavens, to feel holy. It is a sanctuary.
Riding across the country and visiting baseball sanctuaries was fascinating; Each stadium is at once tremendously unique and necessarily conformist. An alien dropping down from space would notice, from on high, the diamond shapes that dot our countryside, rimmed by an expanse of pristine green. Up close, this diamond reveals itself as the centerpiece of the axis mundi. The people gather in droves specifically to witness what occurs at precisely the point where the ball and the bat have the potential to intersect – home plate.
The kinetic potential of that intersection is awesome. So much so that, unlike in any other sport, fans will endure tremendous amounts of nothing. In Pittsburgh, at PNC Park – perhaps the most beautiful of the modern sanctuaries, with a view of the city skyline over the Allegheny River – I was first struck by this fact: baseball involves a lot of waiting. I was standing on a concourse and staring down at the left fielder, who was resting on his haunches during a pitching change. He just sat there, and once the game re-started, he just stood there. And mostly, that is what most baseball players do, most of the time. Once in a while, though, the ball and the bat connect, the crack of the bat resounds, and the resulting flurry of action, grace, and athleticism is what has kept the masses coming back for over a century. As opposed to the jazzy rhythms of basketball, the choppy flow of hockey, or the persistent grind that is football, baseball is an ode to action expressed primarily through inaction. In that way it is an elegy, a mournful lament that occasionally succeeds in bringing the lifeless to life.
Separating the faithful from the diamond are the stadium walls. These walls demarcate the holy from the unholy, except in the rare instance of a home run, when the holiest of objects – the baseball itself – lands amongst the spectators. Which is why it is so awesome when a spectator, as an act of disgust, rejects the holy object if it has come from the bat of an opponent, and throws it back on to the field. I saw this happen in Toronto, and I was delighted.
The most famous of baseball walls is certainly the Green Monster, the 37-foot left field wall of Fenway Park. Having grown up near Boston, this structure for me is like a family friend; many of my fondest memories involve a ball striking or surmounting it.
Just beyond the walls, of course, are the stands, the tens-of-thousands of seats that fill up 81 times a summer, every summer. The alignment of the stands says a lot about the stadium and the city. At Wrigley Field I was glad to see that the stands practically invaded the field. There was no need for bells and whistles, frills and lace. The gathering here was raucous and devout, the nearby rooftops crammed with spectators, so that one had the feeling that this sanctuary was growing organically, taking over the city building by building. The only distraction from the on-field action was the scavenging pigeons dive-bombing for peanuts and occasionally pooping on the faithful. Wrigley, of all the parks I visited, reminded me most of Fenway, where the kinetic potential of ball and bat is still what matters most.
In other stadiums, the stands revealed a different kind of devotion. Rather than consuming baseball, fans in Milwaukee, at Miller Stadium, seemed devoted to the consumption of everything else: beers, brats, and, at least on the day I visited, bobblehead dolls, which were handed out at the gate. The massive complex, with a seating capacity of 42,200, rises vertically, with the roof, when open, revealing the heavens. It seems more like a landing pod for that aforementioned descending alien than a place for a baseball game. The game ball was ridden out to home plate on a Harley, and I sat in Bernie’s Terrace, near the slide of mustachioed mascot Bernie Brewer, who viewed much of the game from his roost while posing for pictures and awaiting the home run that would send him plummeting earthward – his ritual post-home run celebration. Oh yeah, there was also a ballgame.
In most stadiums the masses, waiting for the action, are placated by a big screen showing highlights, bloopers, and between-inning contests, in which a pretty (female) or wacky (male) MC quizzes a fan or has them engage in a game fit for a carnival. On the rare occasions when this screen failed to entertain, most fans came equipped with a smaller handheld screen, with which they entertained themselves.
Initially, I took notes at games with a small notebook; like baseball, the pad and pen are an anachronistic joy. However, as a lone game attendee, I looked strange, sitting there and writing to myself. And plus, I had to carry the pad and pen around with me, and it was often hot, and I was often holding a beer, and dripping condensation onto the notebook. Eventually, I banished the pen and paper and used the notes app on my own small handheld screen. Then, it simply looked like I was engaged in furious texting sessions. Then, I simply looked like everyone else.
The final piece of the baseball mundi configuration is what lies beyond the stands. Typically, it is an urban environment; the skylines of Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and many others are visible just beyond their respective stadiums. Often it is a body of water, with the San Francisco Bay cradling AT&T Park, or the Ohio River slithering past Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Often it is both. But perhaps the most important game I attended all summer featured neither.
In Montana, I witnessed an American Legion game between the Kalispell Lakers and the Great Falls Chargers. It was $3 per ticket, $5 to stay for the doubleheader.
“Is there beer?” I asked at the concession stand.
“No. We sell beer once a year.”
“And that day isn’t today?”
“Nope. It was last weekend.”
I opted for a “World Famous Laker Burger” instead, $3.50, with cheese.
The gathering was small. The stands were mere bleachers. The stadium was encircled by the Mission Range behind us, and the foothills of the Cabinet Mountains ahead, beyond right field. There, the sun began to dip, casting the game in bronze.
“However impure it may have become, the world is continually purified by the sanctity of sanctuaries,” wrote Mircea Eliade. Perhaps this is what has been so upsetting about the steroid era in baseball – the tarnishing of our sanctuaries. And perhaps this what was so joyous about the game in Montana. There was no cheating, no consumption beyond Laker burgers and baseball. But though it is tempting to report that all was pure and holy, the game turned mesmerizingly dirty.
First, there was an unbelievable catch in left field–made more unbelievable by the fact that there was no large screen to prove that this catch actually did occur. Instead, we had to believe in the catch. We had to have faith. Then, a dispute arose over whether the runner on third tagged up or not. You may not know this, but the Lakers and Chargers compete in the same division. The dispute turned nasty, resulting in a beanball war, and the opposing bleachers shouting dumbfoundingly childish insults at one another. My companion and I were delightfully aghast. I wanted to tap the spectators on the shoulders and inquire as to why they cared so much. I wanted to say, What’s the big deal? This is just an American Legion game! In the middle of Montana! But I was the alien who, rather than dropping in from his spaceship, rode in on his motorcycle.
Which is the point, really. It is a dogmatic belief in this country that baseball matters. That there is some inherent value in the game itself that demands our attention, devotion, time, and money. Seeing the game in Kalispell made me aware of how profoundly false this is. Baseball doesn’t matter. Which, paradoxically, is the only reason it can matter. That game between Great Falls and Kalispell meant something only because the people there chose to believe in it. Baseball is not an unchanging Platonic ideal that will exist whether we watch it or not. It is borne of our imagination and kept alive through our enjoyment. Baseball needs us as surely as we need it. An axis mundi around which we express the full range of human emotion simply because we can.
“Well—it’s our game,” said Walt Whitman. “That’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”
I discovered this summer that baseball is our game, but only because we made it so. We erected the temples and we find solace in the sanctuaries, losing ourselves in arbitrary regional divides and the agony and ecstasy of defeat and victory. We do this every summer. And once in a while a young man will mount a motorcycle, go on a pilgrimage, and attempt to figure out why we obsess over a children’s game. He will find that though the answer is elusive, the search is fruitful. He will stamp his feet and whistle.
Alex Tzelnic is a writer in Cambridge, MA. He enjoys Zen practice and going on ill-advised motorcycle pilgrimages. His latest such pilgrimage, a 10,529 American criss-crossing that he undertook this summer, can be found at jnymen.com.