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A Season of Glory, Grandeur, and Class

Naveen Sunkavally

To all the naysayers of baseball, and to all the baseball-apathetic, the just-recently-expired 1998 season provides glorious justification for you to change your minds about America's pastime. If not in the common drudgery of work and marriage, at least in the world of baseball the good guys won and the bad guys lost, milestones were set, and memories were made.

Baseball, in a sense, is at the center of America's moral fabric. We grew up listening to stories such as Casey at the Bat. We heard about all the great players before us, and these players and their actions on and off the field enforced our morals and comforts. Babe Ruth, through the shot heard around the world in the Ruthian swing, comforted us in the delusion that we can predict the future and are not tied to fate. The Iron Man Lou Gehrig showed us the value of a Puritan work-ethic and how to persevere. And then there were all the other players - Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Duke Snyder, etc. who taught us lessons as well.

For a while in the nineties, baseball was in a lull. It had lost its moral connection and standing with Americans. It seemed that there no heroes to root for anymore. Players and coaches were deadlocked, much in the same way the National Basketball Association is deadlocked now, and it seemed pecuniary interests were taking over the sport/business. And every baseball fan remembers the other miseries - how Roberto Alomar spit in the face of an umpire and how the upstart Florida Marlins, financed by ultra-rich entrepreneur Wayne Huizinga, came out of nowhere to steal the World Series and annoy the crap out of every legitimate fan.

This year was different, completely different. Cal Ripkin Jr.'s streak ended. And Barry Bonds caught the 400 steals and 400 home runs mark. The Florida Marlins, their talent eroded as their star players fled to other teams, settled in the cozy comfort of their rightful place, the cellar. It was the Yankees who claimed the World Series throne, sweeping the Padres out West two days ago. The team with most the most heralded baseball history produced this year perhaps its best team ever, and this best team in history did not have a single star. A team in the true sense of the word, this year's Yankees affirmed that, despite the inexplicable unfairness of life, a person does not have to be a superstar, wear a superstar's name and make a superstar's salary to have a superstar's impact. As long as one works hard and lives quietly, all will be right.

And then there was the race. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa faced off in a duel for the ages, blasting away shot after shot until the glorious end. These were two representatives from a bygone era, whether imagined or real, of sportsmanship and class. More importantly, these were two representatives of racial harmony in an age in which the house is still divided against itself, when a gay man can still be strung up to a fence and a black man can still be tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged across the streets. And although it was the strong-armed likeable andro-freak who prevailed in the end, it'll probably be the good-natured Sosa who wins this year's Most Valuable Player award (it would just be wrong for it to end any other way).

These moral lessons baseball teaches us - some may call them delusions, a bunch of crock. One person whom I know personally proclaims, "Baseball is shit" every time the sport is mentioned, or whenever The Simpsons is pre-empted because of the game. And often I hear detractors of baseball complain that it is such a meaningless game, that the game's so slow and awash with so many meaningless statistics and strange jargon - runs batted in, walks, balks, fielder's choice, bunt, fly ball, etc -who cares?

But that's precisely what makes it beautiful, just like life. Life would be unlivable without polite, meaningless things happening. The entire human existence is based on building out of this meaningless void the illusions of meaningful things. After all, why should I become rich, why should I learn the Thevenin and Norton equivalent of a circuit, why should I care to hit the ball instead of miss it? We take what we're given, we convince ourselves it's worth taking, and then we live our lives out.

I can still remember playing baseball when I was young, every other day in the afternoon after school was let out. Although I had something less than a Ruthian swing or a Koufaxian arm, I enjoyed it immensely. It's such a slow, leisurely game. We were all there for the fun of it, and the coaches were unpaid. We learned about ethics, and teamwork, and class, and sportsmanship - values whose importance the Institute unfortunately understates today.

And I still remember that one particular game at the end of my team's season in sixth grade. It was a playoff game in the bottom of the ninth inning - and an opposing player was up to bat with a man on third. Suddenly, the opposing batsmen let loose a single, and the guy from third ran in to score - but he missed home plate - I swear he missed the home plate. Actually, he was probably safe.

But for the next five hours, my team and the other team spent the time debating whether indeed the runner from third had touched home plate. Parents, players, umpires alike streamed out from the dugouts and the bleachers to argue this utterly meaningless point, with their caps melting in the heat, their cleats stomping in the mud, and the bats lying on the ground. It didn't matter what the truth was - it was just too much fun to argue over the meaningless - and that's the way life is and should be.