The Purpose of the Game: MLB, the WBC, and the psychological role of baseball

A game and The Game

A part of the game, not The Game

A part of the game, not The Game

For the purposes of the forthcoming discussion, I am outlining a distinction between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the game of baseball (the Game). MLB is a business-type operation, the premier baseball league in the world, and the focal point of American baseball culture. The Game, on the other hand, is the width and breadth of baseball, with all its historic and present-day implications; The Game includes the minor leagues, college baseball, Little League,  coaches, the best players and the worst at every level, tee ball or over 40 leagues; The Game includes fans, writers, historians, bloggers, fantasy players, statisticians. The Game includes even, yes, Major League Baseball.

A shock, I know, but it bears reminding that MLB is a subsection of the greater universal Game. To push even further: MLB serves the Game. Without the latter, there is no former. And the psychologically healthly standing of the Game only improves that of MLB. There are those who would consider themselves keepers of the Game, I imagine, but  few can truly claim ownership of such an unquantifiable solar system. An old sportswriter protecting the sanctity of the Hall of Fame has as much jurisdiction over the the Game as a City Councilman does over the Milky Way.

In our time, there is a mega-focus on the MLB. It is an understandable obsession, and one that I take part in myself. But right now our viewfinder is trained close enough on MLB to render other robust baseball culture centers across the country and world into an extended MLB scouting network. We talk about Japanese players jumping to MLB and we say that the Japanese leagues are somewhere near the equivalent of Triple-A; MLB academies (recent closings aside) pepper the Dominican and Venezuela; a couple of Indian guys who’ve thrown only javelins sign with the Pirates.  My quick overview and gross generalization captures the essence I think of the general attitude in American baseball culture, by which I mean the treatment of baseball cultures outside of the MLB as servants of the MLB. Again, it is understandable that the world’s most competitive league would garner the most attention.

And I don’t think that it’s confined to international baseball culture. College baseball players are increasingly scrutinized in the manner of the NBA and NFL. Draft picks and bonus checks are big news, whereas the results of the games and the NCAA champions are covered for a couple of weeks out of the year, a paltry ration between competition coverage and draft enthusiasm when compared to football and basketball.

Tim Beckham, the latest #1 draft pick

Tim Beckham, the latest #1 draft pick

Signability wonkifies the draft, and MLB suits scorn the college coach who would ask his best starting pitcher to actually pitch a lot. I never imagined, for example, that I would be able to watch a high school senior taking batting practice after class via streaming video, complete with detailed scouting report (I watched this footage because, as I’ve denoted, I’m as MLB-centric as the next fan, not because I’m concerned with the results of Benjamin Franklin High School’s run for state).

One residual effect of all of this is an imbalance in the herirarchy that I outlined in the first paragraph. What I would call the American “vibe” places MLB on a higher rung of the ladder than The Game itself (the reason it is a vibe rather than an absolute is that most actual players of amateur baseball across the country don’t care much about getting drafted because it is so unlikely). But this is not a simple matter of taste or trend. There are perhaps deeper implications to the hyperspecialization of fandom.

Why is hyperspecialization of our tastes a big deal?

MM, no doubt thinking baseball

MM, no doubt thinking baseball

Marshall McLuhan devotes a chapter of his book Understanding Media to games, calling it “Games: the Extensions of Man.” His general argument is in this line: “Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions.” Immediately with that quotation, our view of baseball takes on a more striking sort of cultural significance; what happens in baseball relates something about the way that we as a community relate to each other.

So to McLuhan games are social reactions to the “main drive or action of any culture.” Furthermore, games are stress relievers. They mimic what is occurring in a given society, and inherent in this mimicry is a relief from the institutions that it echoes: “For fun or games to be welcome,” says MM, “they must convey an echo of workaday life. Games…offer to all an immediate means of participation in the full life of a society, such as no single role or job can offer to any man.” Playing a game allows us to take on the construct of Western life by owning it.

McLuhan goes so far as to claim that the professional athlete is a contradiction: “When the games door opening into the free life leads into a merely specialist job, everybody senses an incongruity.” In other words, in my mind, if a game is meant as an escape from the specialized monotony of daily social life, why would we elevate an individual who is no longer mimicking society, but participating in it? Ie. you can’t escape your job by playing baseball when baseball is your job.

Okay, so that’s an extreme position on the matter. For the record, I don’t have much problem with the pro athlete. It’s a fine entertainment and allows athletes to reach their full potential by giving them the time to practice and perfect, and I think most of us are comforted by the idea that the pro ballplayer doesn’t have to return to the mills for the winter season. But what can we take from McLuhan’s position, and how does it apply to the argument that I’ve lobbed in the first section?

The takeaway from McLuhan’s meditation is that games are for the people, and that a culture is better off to claim ownership of its games rather than give in to the easy pressure of power. Ie. don’t let your games become business as usual.

And so to return to the first section and the narrowing view of MLB: it is a mistake to assume that MLB is baseball, that MLB is the Game. The Game is, in fact, the tension reliever, the social function, and one of the manners by which we help each other to stay sane and comfortable. We have to maintain our connection to the Game itself, so that we can participate in McLuhan’s “full life of a society.” At the moment we seem headed towards a very limited life of a society, to praise instead a kind of baseball “society life.”

The World Baseball Classic: Letting the world in or shutting it out

Japan Wins the 06 WBC

Japan Wins the '06 WBC

What brought this issue to mind is the current of debate surrounding the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Who will play, who won’t play for their respective international teams. It’s a fantastic debate for the most part, especially here, and there’s a fantasy baseball-type pleasure to be had in seeing MLB teams shaken up and reassembled under national flags.

As fun as it is, though, there is an undercurrent of anxiety that I find palpable enough to question. Fans and MLB management don’t want their players to risk injury, so they don’t want them to play in the WBC.

To wit, a blog post from Chicago Tribune writer Steve Rosenbloom:

“If the World Baseball Classic never was drummed up, I’d be fine with that. If White Sox and Cubs players never participated in it, I’d be fine with that, too, more with pitchers than hitters, but I think it’s a silly thing that nobody seems to care about but every team fears. Sox bat-puncher Carlos Quentin wants to play for the United States. Same goes for Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Sox general manager Kenny Williams will let the players decide. I wouldn’t. I’d say no. You can’t. We’re paying your salary, and the No. 1 Rule In Life is Follow The Money.”

He’s being perhaps a bit cheeky about his stance, bailing on his statement with the capitalization of Follow the Money. But in there is the core of an argument I’ve heard elsewhere, most notably on sports talk radio. Granted, talk radio is hardly the center of the most enlightened debate, but it does capture the general tenor on issues in spoken word form, which is a medium altogether more raw than the written word, and therefore a somewhat valuable barometer for sentiment.

The conversation revolved–and revolves endlessly–around players willing to play in the WBC. The ever-present threat of injury, and pitcher’s fatigue over the long course of an MLB season.

The host, a reasonable fellow called Brian Paruch on venerable source 670 The Score out of Chicago, brought the general topic to the table, essentially asking his audience for their thoughts on the value of the WBC, callers welcome. Several callers were insightful enough, but there was a grumpy guy that caught my ear:

“The World Baseball Classic is a joke.” The caller bawdily declared his preference for MLB baseball over all else, and I have the notion that he was speaking for a lot of others with similar sensibilities.

To call the WBC a joke, and a marketing ploy by Bud Selig meant to expand the reach of the MLB, is to denounce basically the rest of the baseball-playing world. With that simple sentence, that caller flushed the efforts of international teams, for whom this tournament is a world showcase, marketing ploy or no. In fact the WBC is what many countries have been waiting for, the big stage with all of the big players. The caller’s was a xenophobic attitude, and an unhealthy one for The Game.

The reason that this view is unhealthy has to do with McLuhan’s description of the purpose of games. Games are meant to relieve social pressure. They allow us to emulate the system and then subvert by exercising greater agency than we’d have at our day jobs. Games are not heirarchical and value-driven: they are games, accessible and all-inclusive if they’re to have any positive, stress-relieving. In fact one of our great images of even MLB is the vision of the young farmboy or the African American groundbreaker rising to the high echelons by virtue of the opportunity. The Game is a ritual in which we can play out our regicidal fantasies.

A Bellingham, WA, brewery baseball team, predating the Yankees by ten years

A Bellingham, WA, brewery baseball team, predating the Yankees by ten years

As soon as the MLB begins to choke that fantasy, the social role of The Game warps and its patina fades. Because, you see, to grant MLB a heirarchical value over other versions of the game, other faces and frameworks is to ensure that we are all worshipping a false idyll. Ie. MLB becomes The Man. MLB adherents then–to the exclusion of the rest of The Game–are paying their tithe to a church, rather than giving their time to a god. In perhaps different, less ethereal terms, closing out other forms of baseball beyond MLB is like decrying small-time programmers in favor of Microsoft products.

Laying exclusive praise on MLB will not relieve anyone’s stress. Instead it seems to heighten administrative anxiety. The caller who called the WBC a joke sounded far more strung out than the peaceful pipers of a world game. He sounded pissed off, that his MLB team would dare threaten the physical well-being of his stars. This strikes me as an unnecessary worry, in the grand scheme. After all, injuries can happy any time (the host was convinced that getting out of bed in the morning is an injury risk, bless his heart). Spring training involves game situations and slides and foul tips to the shins and such. The benefits of a wholisitc view of the game offers far more promise for psychological improvement than does scorn.

The counter-argument, for a second

Is it possible that our radio call-in friend needs to channel his anxiety into MLB and Game concerns? Could it be that if he doesn’t call the show and spew, he’ll instead end up spitting it at his boss or his wife and kids? Maybe he needs to invest such vigor into an enterprise that doesn’t involve bombs both literal and economic. Fair enough, I’ll buy that.

But the important thing is to recognize this motivation; to acknowledge, somehow, the ritual itself. “I care so much about only the MLB, because I have to care in this way about something or I’ll go nuts.” This acknowledgement, I think, reestablishes MLB as a part of The Game, and as a part of the solution, rather than the problem.

To lose sight of the role of The Game–the Great Reliever–is to plug our psychological quarters into the MLB jukebox, punching in the code for the sad songs of society, played back at us in our cubicles.

This is what were fleeing

This is what we're fleeing

Postscript: McLuhan in fact predicted the death of baseball with the birth of TV, claiming The Game was a remnant of an industrial, mechanized age and unable to translate to the electronic age. He overlooked, I think, the potential of TV to enhance baseball viewing. But that’s another topic, for another day.

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