Saturday, July 9, 2011

Three Thousand Hits

Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit today. It's a great day.

Perhaps I should explain first, for those who don't know anything about baseball. 3000 hits is an outstanding achievement in a baseball career. Only 27 players have ever reached this milestone. And Derek Jeter is the first Yankee to do it.

The Yankees are known for many things. They are the most winning team in the history of organized sports. They have fielded legendary teams since the 1920s. And almost every decade has had one or more standout players who have represented the franchise: Babe Ruth in the 20s and 30s, Joe DiMaggio in the 30s and 40s, Mickey Mantle in the 50s and 60s, Reggie Jackson in the 70s, Don Mattingly in the 80s, and for the past two decades, Derek Jeter. These men have stood as heroes to generations of kids, and introduced those kids into a world of play that they would inhabit mentally and emotionally all their lives, long after they became adults and their physical capacity to play the game had past. The same thing could be said for many athletes in many different sports.

I love almost all sports, and tried my hand at many of them in my youth, but I want to talk about baseball because it is the one I love best, and the one I understand most "from the inside." Baseball has a particular hold on its fans because of its rhythms and its variations of possibility, because of the way it marks the seasons of the year, because of the patience that it cultivates over a six month season of daily games, because of its multitude of statistics, because of the unique atmosphere of the ballpark--convivial, pastoral, leisurely, but then gradually building or suddenly bursting into intensity. Its ardent spectators are not being "entertained" passively; they are participants in the action in a vital way--whether at the ballpark or through the media of television or radio--they are engaged in that mysterious and essential human activity called "play". In the final analysis, play does not need to be justified. It is one of the fundamental ways that human beings enter into relationship with reality. It is a modality of knowing and loving, and in its proper place it is right and good and fruitful of many things.

My son and I root for the Washington Nationals (which are his "home team"), but the Yankees will always have a special place in my heart. I was born in New York and discovered baseball growing up in the Bronx. The first games I attended were at Yankee Stadium. The Pinstripes will always have a symbolic significance for me beyond what I can articulate.

There is too much money and too much pressure in baseball today, just like in the rest of professional sports. It has become an oversized monstrosity of a spectacle, just like the grotesque, bloated society that engenders it. Many say that the Yankees, who are today perhaps the largest sports corporation on earth, are the epitome of everything that is wrong with sports. I expect that an investigation of Yankee Corporation would reveal many unseemly things beyond the ones that are in plain sight. Nevertheless, the Yankees remain a baseball team. They are more than a business. 

People don't understand that the Yankees are a symbol of tradition, continuity, and roots. I may not live in New York anymore, but I root for the Yankees because I can still smell the Italian bakeries and the Jewish delis in the Bronx where I was born; I root for them because my father did, and my grandfather, because it was once a rite of passage for my Bronx Italian immigrant forebearers to become Americans.

The human good of "play" builds bonds between people and across generations. It is an instrument of human communion, and its awkward expressions are human struggles to taste beauty and goodness. And the men who play the game on the field make it possible for the rest of us, and are therefore worthy of our gratitude.

And so today I am happy to say, "Thank you, Derek Jeter."