Politics & Policy

The Republic of Baseball

A review of Joseph Bottum’s The Summer of 43

In a beautiful article back in May, George Will described the 40th birthday of his son, who has Down syndrome: “This year Jon will spend his birthday where every year he spends 81 spring, summer and autumn days and evenings, at Nationals Park, in his seat behind the home team’s dugout. The Phillies will be in town, and Jon will be wishing them ruination, just another man, beer in hand, among equals in the republic of baseball.”

“The republic of baseball” is such an apt phrase, capturing the game’s character as a matter of players and fans living as individuals “among equals.”

In football, basketball, and hockey, individuals have less opportunity to integrate their personal aspirations with those of the team, the collective. In baseball, the contest between the two teams revolves around two men, pitcher and batter, facing off; only through preparation, ability, and luck will either one succeed in that moment. In football and hockey, the players wear helmets and pads that disguise their faces and identities; basketball stars are giants, chiseled to perfection to facilitate their sprinting up and down the court for 48 minutes a night. But baseball players, their guts hanging low and their faces exposed to the sun, wind, and rain, are athletes whom the average fan can both relate to and immediately recognize.

If there’s one pitch that epitomizes baseball’s republican spirit, it’s the knuckleball. It’s delivered with a unique throwing motion that causes the ball to jerk up and down and side to side without spinning. If used effectively, it can be devastating, nearly impossible for the catcher to catch and the batter to make contact with. Nor is it an easy pitch for the umpire to call a ball or a strike. No other sport has anything equivalent. Sure, basketball players have “street moves”: They might throw the ball off backboards or pass it between opponents’ legs. The knuckleball is of a different order. It represents the most sincere attempt by an athlete to assert his individuality.

In The Summer of 43: R. A. Dickey’s Knuckleball and the Redemption of America’s Game, Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and former editor of First Things, examines R. A. Dickey of the New York Mets, the most effective knuckleballer to emerge in Major League Baseball since Tim Wakefield debuted with the Pirates 20 years ago. The “43” in the book’s title refers to Dickey’s uniform number.

Published by Amazon in the Kindle Single line, a series of long essays or articles in e-book format, The Summer of 43 follows Bottum’s The Gospel According to Tim, a Kindle Single published earlier this year. There, he wroteabout Tim Tebow as a Christian mystic. Bottum is not one to simply analyze raw statistics. In The Summer of 43, he delves into baseball’s psyche, arguing that “R. A. Dickey’s revival of the knuckleball [is] an important story” because “it offers our answer to, our redemption from, the sin of steroids.” It’s also a “great story” because “it plays out one of the fundamental human narratives — the tale of a man who takes a chance and finds himself, finds his true gift, in this world that God has made.”

If you’re interested in learning more about baseball’s steroids era, the history and the dynamics of the knuckleball, and a brief overview of R. A. Dickey’s life, then you should read this essay. It’s enjoyable. In the end, though, Bottum misses the true significance of R. A. Dickey and his knuckleball.

Bottum considers and rejects recent attempts to situate baseball in political contexts. In The Daily Caller, for example, Mark Judge argued that Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old phenom of the Washington Nationals, is a conservative figure. And in National Affairs, Diana Schaub linked the decline of black participation in baseball to the growing number of black children born out of wedlock.

Bottum disagrees with such ideas. “Baseball is enjoyable only if we seek in it no middle ground. No politics or political theory. . . . Baseball doesn’t teach us about politics.”

I and many would be perfectly happy to permanently separate sports and politics; Keith Olbermann could then return to ESPN and no conservative would complain. But it’s quite a stretch to say that baseball has not informed our political discourse. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” Jacques Barzun famously observed, “had better learn baseball.” Baseball has obviously influenced how we talk about politics. How often, for example, do we say that a politician has hit a “home run” when’s he made an especially effective point in a speech? And what about that aphorism, coined by football coach Barry Switzer and popularized by critics of George W. Bush and of his father, that some people are born on third base and think that means they hit a triple?”

But Bottum doesn’t rebut Judge and Schaub so much as he dismisses them. “There are no votes or campaigns in the middle of the seventh inning,” he writes.

Fair enough, but if you’re writing an essay that has the word “redemption” in the title, and if it’s about a born-again Christian pitcher whose meteoric rise you see as baseball’s answer to its past sins . . . well, it seems like baseball might be more than just a sport.

For baseball to move decisively beyond its past sin of steroids, it needs to embrace its republican past. “Baseball’s ubiquitous doping,” as Bottum phrases it, trampled on the premise that all athletes are given an equal chance to succeed. Steroids elevated certain players above others, rendering the juiced giants “more equal” than their peers.

And odious to fans. True, in 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated ballparks across America, but that was largely because they were in the process of breaking a record that had stood for 37 years. From 1998 to 2001, Sammy Sosa’s hit 66, 63, 50, and 64 home runs. That run was one of the great individual performances in sports history, but it generated less and less interest each year passed. Fans were downright hostile to Barry Bonds when he shattered McGwire’s three-year-old record. Their hatred of Bonds only increased as his dominance continued.

The new drug-testing procedures that crack down on the cheaters are working. Hitters are slimming down; pitchers are giving up fewer runs, and fans are paying in droves to see them play. In these respects, baseball in 2012 more closely resembles baseball in the late 1960s than it does baseball in 2005.

And players like R. A. Dickey are a big reason why. Both baseball and America have wonderful pasts that are worth preserving and emulating. Dickey reminds us that there was a time when public figures weren’t mocked for being publicly devout. He’s a throwback, a different kind of pitcher who plays a simpler sport for the right reasons.

Bottum is correct to celebrate Dickey’s accomplishments, and he’s right that “baseball needs Dickey’s kind of story.” But so does America.

— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review and a Philadelphia Phillies fan. 

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