As the baseball strike lengthens and our national despair grows, let us never forget that what brings most of us out to the great baseball pastures of the major leagues is something more than ancient ritual or star-spangled existentialism, as the learned and profound Dr. George F. Will would have it.
What brings Americans out to the ballpark is the spectacle of animals. The noblest of the animals are, of course, on the field; the most amusing are rioting in the grandstands, pouring beer on each other's T-shirts, braying at the undertaker behind home plate, and otherwise comporting themselves in ways that are marginally criminal.
Now we have discovered that there are also animals among the management. I speak of the owners, many of whom are apparently quite piggish. Certainly their behavior this summer has been piggish. After years of lavishly bidding up the value of their players, they now rebel. aThey have built up a formidable strike fund and provoked a strike by trying to renege on their player-compensation agreement. As recompense, they offer the players nothing. Would management in any other laobr dispute expect such a gift? How about offering the players chauffeur-driven limousines to the ballpark? How about moving spring training to the south of France.
The owners, of course, have acted without any regard whatever for the thousands of individuals whose very livelihoods depend upon summer baseball. And what of public safety? With so many baseball fans released from salutary confinement in the ballparks, crime rates will soar. Throughout this strike the police in all our major league cities are going to be kept jumping. So are the criminal psychiatrists. Many arrests will be made, and a goodly number of fans could be socked away in the calaboose for years. By the strike's end, there may not remain enough fans at large to fill the bleachers. Empty bleachers could spell financial disaster for professional baseball. Who doubts that the majority of baseball fans atend games as much for the spectacle on the field? I know I do.
As for the players, I tire of all the intellectualizing spun about them. It is an insult to sport. It is an attempt by the intellectually precious to impose their abstruse system of values upon an activity that eludes it. Sport should be enjoyed for what it is. The tendency of intellectuals to transmogrify reality into something it clearly is not has grown to become the bane of American life. It is at the heart of most of our social and political confusions. As it manifests itself in sport, it is often an attempt by intellectuals to get into the ballpark and hog the show.
The activity of the athlete is basically the activity of an animal: an animal highly trained, occasionally an animal of noble mien, but an animal. The athlete applies muscle and instinct to a physical task. There is au fond very little of the higher intellection involved. Rather, there is a large element of spirit, and it is that which makes the athlete occasionally so noble.
Any coach worth his salt knows that an athlete's performance depends on his ability to execute consistently a certain range of moves regardless of conditions: swing and follow through, does the crowd jeer? Swing and follow through, does the catcher sneeze inopportunely? Swing and follow through.
Admittedly, the major league players are highly paid animals. Their average salary is almost $180,000. Furthermore, they are in a better position to spend their earning than, say, the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby. Yet by the time their paychecks have passed through the hands of their agents, lawyers, accountants, hairdressers, wives and all the other handlers affixed to them, I doubt they come away with much more than would a virtuous U.S. senator or a San Francisco garbageman.
As the strike moves on, let us keep things in perspective. And if we really must take sides, consider championing the cause of the ballpark vendor. He is the oly consistently civilized performer at these debauches anyway. There is artistry in his performance. His pitch is melodic and often unique. His poise is amazing. And as he capers about, balancing his colossal tray, he serves the commonweal, selling frankfurters to nourish the system and cold beer to stupefy the animals.
A cannot recall a game during which some unknown vendor did not astonish and edify me with a unique yell, a reassuring insult, a gift for changing a dozen five-dollar bills in one hand with lightning speed. Hats off to the ballpark vendor. While the owners and the players count their gold, he is out of work.