- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

America, America. God mend

Thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.

“America the Beautiful”

This year two great reflections of the American soul — the World Series and a presidential election — almost coincided.

First, breaking a losing streak dating to 1918 and the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920, the Red Stockings of Boston won this year’s World Series in four straight, proving nothing is impossible in America. The Sox got to the Series by defeating the once invincible Yankees in seven games, becoming the first team to come from three games back to emerge the victor in post-season play.

In short, hell froze over.

Second, the quadrennial circus, test and general emotional upheaval of an American presidential election has come to a close this first Tuesday of November.

At least let’s hope so. Spare us another postelection election on the confused order of 2000, when it took five weeks to decide who won.

So what does one event have to do with another? Here’s my theory:

An Italian exchange student once asked me what he needed to know to really understand America. I said three things: The Constitution, the Civil War and baseball.

He looked puzzled about the last. Baseball?

Yes. Not just because it’s the national pastime, or at least used to be. But because it mirrors so much of the American ideal and experience:

It’s a pastoral game played in urban settings, a testament to our agrarian roots even as we change — and don’t change. Its orderliness comforts, its unpredictability delights. To quote Joaquin Andujar, late of the St. Louis Cardinals, “You can sum up baseball in one word: You never know.” Joaquin may have had his failings as a pitcher, and his word count may have left an integer or two to be desired, but he had the soul of a poet.

On the strength of that one observation, he joined seers of the game like Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, who had a way of saying more than they said.

Baseball is a national sport, yet, like the ancient Olympics, it pits city-states against one another, and so gives distinctive local styles and regional loyalties ample room to develop — like federalism itself.

The baselines are drawn to standard measurements; the distance between batter’s box and pitching mound is decreed to the foot and inch. But there is no limit to the field of dreams itself. It stretches into infinity, like a straight line. Or hope in America.

Each ballpark comes back with the standard infield, yet each has its own local peculiarities — from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field. Like the country, the game spans the continent, yet it is intensely local.

Baseball knows no minutes and hours. Its timeless clock has only innings, and theoretically a game could go on forever, boundless.

As soon as you pass through the turnstile, ordinary time ceases. The game moves at its own, operatic pace as slow passages alternate with sudden crescendos. Yet with all its drama, it remains remarkably continuous, like American history. Why?

Because even though the decisions of the arbiters of the game may be challenged — indeed, that is almost expected — they are not to be defied. In the end, the rule of law prevails.

No wonder, when the players went out on strike in 1981 and management refused to settle, it was as if a national trust had been betrayed. Fan, poet and later baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said Americans were being robbed of “the only summer God made for 1981.”

By 1994, another strike would cripple baseball and wipe out the World Series, the first one missed since 1904. It wasn’t the game’s fault. The fault lay with those who should have been its stewards. An unwritten covenant with the people was broken, a continuity interrupted, and the elaborate rules of the game rendered irrelevant.

Nothing was wrong with the game itself, which, as Bart Giamatti also said, “encourages enterprise and imagination and yet asserts the supreme power of the law.”

But somehow the rules got all tangled, and the season came to a screeching halt. Much like the election of 2000, which should have ended the morning after Election Day. Instead it went on week after week, court decision after court decision.

The rules that govern a presidential election are still in place this year despite the late unpleasantness of 2000, and the antique clockwork of the Electoral College still ticks on. But if its stewards do not exercise self-restraint, if they not only challenge specific calls but refuse to accept the decisions of the umpires as final, if they put their own interests above the electoral system, more than a game will be lost.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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