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By Michael R. Stevens

The Multinational Pastime

B&C's annual baseball review and preview.

When you awaken in early March to two degrees below zero, and your first glance out the front window reveals a Stonehenge-like hunk of ice left by the snowplow at the end of the driveway, baseball's springtime revels might as well be on the other side of the world. That's how I've been feeling this "spring," an alien to my own native sport, which, unfolding in muggy Florida and arid Arizona, is as fantastically distant on the newspaper pages as the reports of foreign correspondents seven time zones away.

 So, it seems apt that my readings for this spring training review were centered on global baseball. All readers who have wearied of unending discourses about globalization, global reach and scope, "new global realities," please don't abandon ship at this point. I, too, approach the topic warily, and so there were moments in the reading of Alan M. Klein's Growing the Game: The Globalization of Major League Baseball (Yale Univ. Press, 2006) where I felt the utilitarian shadow of "expand or die" creeping over the pastoral baseball scene I try always to keep in my mind's eye.

 Yet, as I worked my way through Klein's text, and especially through the volume Baseball Without Borders: The International Pastime (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2006), edited by George Gmelch, I began to see a human face, or rather myriad human faces, to this global game, faces mirroring my own face at ten years old, dedicated and dreamy and hopeful that I could become a more lithe version of my hero, Thurman Munson. What becomes clear is that, though the business of baseball will affect who plays and how, the question of why people play will continue to be bound up in deeper human aspirations.

But as for the business side of things, I come away from both books thinking that the enduring hopefulness and frequent despair so bound up in the game itself, a game of failed chances and near misses and excruciating tensions, is a helpful way of thinking of the professional baseball's economic realities around the world as well. Klein sets out in his introduction that "The questions to be answered have to do with whether or no Major League Baseball has embarked on a path that will promote well-being of the game and the view of it as a socially progressive visitor in other quarters. To determine this we will have to put aside our fondness for the game and consider it as both an economic effort and a form of social engineering." My hesitation to "lay aside [my] fondness for the game" puts me on edge in the face of the talk of "the turbo-Darwinian stamp" of the global economy, not to mention the crisis of "Structural problems affecting the reproduction of both the fan base and the player ranks." I find myself among the "older purists" whose demographic will not be able to buoy up Major League Baseball too far into the 21st century. I bristle at being deemed part of the problem. Where is Ray Liotta, I mean Shoeless Joe, whispering "I'd have played for food money… . I'd have played for nothing"?

 Klein's text takes a refreshing turn, though, when he begins to lay out his read of the global landscape for baseball, and he thus reveals that he, too, is among the 'purists,' among those enamored not by the economics of the game but by its core narrative, its cultural embodiments that may or may not translate into money. So, when he spends a chapter lauding the Kansas City Royals operation, not just as a model of small-market struggle but as a place where baseball intuitions still trump the "moneyball" histrionics of Oakland's Billy Beane. Hence Royals G.M. Allard Baird is seen as "hands-on; a scout lurks in his mind, and he is as intuitive as Beane is rational." Furthermore, Kansas City's nurturing of such a rudimentary baseball nation as South Africa is seen as a move, not of economic desperation so much as of hope and possibility. Hence, though few major league prospects have arisen there, the sheer newness of the sport means that "baseball has beaten the taint of racism that haunts the country." Despite intense market pressure for the products (South African ballplayers) to maximize potential (appear in Major League baseball), Klein notes that a more important sub-theme is at work, namely that "in South Africa there exists one of those rare synergistic moments where being responsible is good for all parties." Though the Royals aren't there as a non-profit agency for cultural renewal, and though their venture there seems absurd in the eyes of many Major League clubs, they are accomplishing something unique, in the eyes of MLB executive Jim Small: "baseball—and I hesitate to say this because I don't want to give baseball more credit than it deserves—is helping in its own small way to rebuild a nation."

 Such pondering on the moral landscape of baseball's international endeavors creates the most interesting parts of Growing the Game, and redeems some of the more grim economic quantifications. Klein pulls the two themes together in his analysis of the Dodgers as the "most thoroughly cosmopolitan team in the game." He notes, in his revisitation of Branch Rickey's motives in calling up Jackie Robinson in 1947 (a story which, in all its iterations, continues to be one of the most moving to me in all of American history), that "The racial integration of baseball was built upon the same principles that globalization relies upon: expansion of boundaries, a relatively high degree of merit, and social openness." Though this might seem like revisionist economics with a nod to the moral sphere, I think Klein is trying to point out here, as elsewhere, that economics can serve to augment justice and not just as a guise for exploitation. So also in his treatment of the deep-rooted presence of Major League scouts and academies in the Dominican Republic (and some other third-world settings), Klein tends to curb the notion that this is imperialist enslavement wearing cleats and ball-caps. Instead, he offers a sympathetic reading, such as in his suggestion that Dominican teens are justified in leaving school to enter even as long-shots in one of the baseball academies: "The correlation between education and employment is negligible in this country, so the preoccupation Dominican youth have with baseball is a rational response to an irrational problem."

 For Klein, the prospect of Major League Baseball as a truly international economic juggernaut is harrowing, if an eye is not kept upon the cultural and even moral implications. Hence, he notes that "For Major League Baseball to become a global force it will take more than sophisticated technology and advanced marketing; it will take a global view in which MLB grows by reducing in dependence on strict economic and political control. MLB will actually have to decenter somewhat." Here, here!

 These themes of justice, of cultural hope and identity, to which Klein often alludes, are more fully and widely treated in the anthology Baseball Without Borders. George Gmelch, an anthropologist from Union College in New York, is also a former minor league player, with experience both in the U.S. and abroad, who has written extensively on the game. This book deals less with the economic issues of professionalization, and more with the delightfully idiosyncratic elements of baseball in its diverse and sundry manifestations around the world. I found myself fascinated by the historical ephemera (baseball was not only in Japan and China by the 1880s, but also in England and Australia, locked in an feud with the cricketeers!), but more so by what Gmelch calls, in his introduction, "culture influencing the nuances of the sport."

The phenomenon of Japanese baseball high schools, with players subjected to the harsh constraints of the samurai Bushido code, creates a radically different portrait of the game than the lazy spring afternoon (or maybe wintry spring afternoon, depending on where you grew up) of American high school games. The annual Koshien tournament, as outlined in Dan Gordon's essay, is a study in utter devotion to one's cause, as one is likely to see "several hundred players with close-cropped hair, hoarsely singing and chanting, marching in place, and thrusting fists in unison in the downpour." Such loyalty is mirrored in the genial mania of the Japanese fans, even in the professional league games, as William W. Kelly points out in his essay on "The Hanshin Tigers and Japanese Professional Baseball": "From start to finish, the stadium pulsates with the frenzied chanting of the fans, driven by the percussive beat of drums and thumping clackers, accompanied by blaring trumpets and huge flags." The laconic organ interludes and half-hearted "Charge!" calls of the American minor league stadium seem challenged, even threatened, by such intensity—can baseball sustain the maniacal tenor of the futbol fandom? Ironically, it is precisely the new influx of soccer, with its hipness and counter-cultural image, that is threatening baseball's hegemony among Japanese young people.

 Baseball throughout the rest of East Asia also reveals distinct cultural flavors. It turns out that baseball had made its way to Shanghai, China even before it took root in Japan, though by the 1870s the Chinese imperial government was lamenting the corruptive influence of American sport, especially baseball, on the hand-picked students sent over here as part of the China Educational Exchange. I am very intrigued to see the fruit of the current Chinese governments efforts to prepare a contending team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with former Major Leaguers Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst leading the experiment, but the wildest quote about Maoist baseball that Joseph A. Reaves dredged up in his chapter "China: Silk Gowns and Gold Gloves" was by a revolutionary soldier turned baseball star of the 1950s, one Sgt. Du Kehe, who noted that "[Baseball] made better soldiers, and our pitchers could toss a grenade faster and farther than anyone else … and with a curve on it." This certainly expands the notion of the deadly curveball.

The emergence of the Taiwanese Little League dominance in the 1970s, which gave the marginalized society its chief source of identity and pride, came in the face of wild machinations in the rural burg of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home to the Little League World Series and also, in 1972, acts of international violence in the bleachers. Yet, in spite of such ominous dealings, baseball continues to be seen in Taiwan as a crucial element of national identity.

 So also in Korea, where the game found its way into the national consciousness, as in Taiwan, through the oppressive occupation of nonetheless baseball-happy Japanese troops in the first half of the 20th century (as well as through parallel activity by early American YMCA missionaries—creating strange bedfellows). Joseph A. Reaves comments in his essay "Korea: Straw Sandals and Strong Arms" that "Violence is an integral and accepted part of Korean culture—not just on the baseball field but in all walks of life." Likewise, "Emotional venting—particularly venting violent emotion venting—is part of Korean culture. That is one reason beer sales are banned in Korean ballparks—even at games of the OB Bears, whose animal nickname is a clever allusion to the team's sponsor, the Oriental Brewery, makers of OB Beer."

 The most colorful part of Baseball Without Borders is probably the section on Latin America. Alan Klein, the author of Growing the Game, offers an essay on the Dominican Republic which crosses over with much of what he said in his book, though he sharpens his main point with a nice phrase here: "What is increasingly apparent is that while the game is going global, it is not synonymous with American control of the playing or administration of the game." Is Bud Selig reading this? We can only hope so.

An even more surprising and compelling essay is Tim Wendel's  "Cuba: Behind the Curtain," where we get such anecdotal gems as this account of Cuban baseball just after Castro's takeover: "But any student of history concedes that Castro's decision to play baseball and form a ragtag barnstorming company from his improbable army called Los Barbudos (the Bearded Ones) was a stroke of genius. For Castro knew how important baseball was and will always be for Cuba… .The new president sometimes took the mound to show off his loopy curveball for cheering baseball aficionados." This sort of obsession remains, though in a vacuum—Cubans see nothing of professional baseball, and live in a perpetual blindness about this, as about much of the outside world. Yet, their devotion to their own "amateur" league (with some of the most seasoned "amateur" athletes of any sport in the world) is absolute, and refreshingly intimate.

In a description from Thomas Carter's essay "Cuba: Community, Fans, and Ballplayers" that hearkens to Wendell Berry's ethos of finite and intelligible community, we read that "Players now train and develop their skills in their hometown or province throughout their entire career. Players are now truly representatives of their community—the Serie Nacionale requires all players to live in the geographic area of the team for which they play, as do all other leagues, whatever the level of competition." The amazing fruit of this regionalism, unintelligible to the MLB fan inured by years of absolute player fluidity and rancorous free agency, is that "Cuban athletes openly express responsibility to their sport and to neighborhood communities. There is a distinct sense of civic duty instead of individual entitlement in their actions and words." Who would have thought that Cuban baseball would set the bar for the sort of revivification we might all long for, with local communities and knowable players intermingling in actual communal life?

 The account of Puerto Rican baseball is more playful in mood, as Thomas E. Van Hyning and Franklin Otto both reminisce about the their childhoods in American expatriate communities in Puerto Rico. They note that in the 1930s, "Unlike the United States, where the color ban was still in effect, Puerto Rico offered a convivial environment for fans and players of different racial and ethnic backgrounds." This conviviality was exemplified by an elaborate nick-naming process full of wit and idiosyncrasy: "Ruben Gomez—'El Divino Loco'—had permission to ride to away games in his sports car, instead of the team bus, and drove wildly. Nicknames of American players could be transformed in Puerto Rico. Willie Mays was the 'Say Juey' (not 'Say Hey') Kid, since juey is a land crab and Mays played for the Santurce Crabbers."

This is an invaluable snippet of baseball lore, outside my own ken, yet now part of my vision of the game as it could be. So also come some nuggets of lore in Dan Gordon's account of "Nicaragua: In Search of Diamonds," which gives a rather bleak forecast for the health of the game in the homeland of Dennis Martinez. Of the remote Atlantic Coast teams of Nicaragua, Gordon notes that "fans have been known to hold processions with coffins, toads, and candles to cast mock hexes on the local team's opponents; and players and fans good-naturedly rib one another in a mixture of English, Creole, Miskito, and Spanish." Here baseball is wed to the customs of place in a compelling, if bizarre, way; intimacy of place and people, with baseball as the staging ground for community.

 Time and space constrain me (but not wholly!) in the desire to account for European baseball, that "ugly little brother" to the dominant sphere of soccer, but a few snippets are irresistible and sweeten the pot considerably. The first is from Josh Chetwynd's essay "Great Britain: Baseball's Battle for Respect," telling the story of the 1889 exhibition game after which the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, "watched every move intently, staying until the last out." When asked by a reporter what he thought, Edward "looked the journalist in the eye, thought for a moment, and then asked for the reporter's notebook. He jotted down a note and walked away. The next day, the prince's statement was printed as part of the game's account: 'The Prince of Wales has witnessed the game of Base Ball with great interest and though he considers it an excellent game he considers cricket as superior.' Is there a "Royal Third-Person" to complement the Royal We?

As a sidenote, the exhibition that the Prince attended featured, among others, Hall of Famer Cap Anson, the subject of a copious volume by Howard W. Rosenberg titled Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago (Tile Books). Rosenberg has published three prior volumes on Anson and his era, and has combed through innumerable newspaper documents and sources, but this particular volume might particularly interest Books & Culture readers because of the extensive treatment of Billy Sunday, famous evangelist and Anson's former teammate and odd-couple friend.

  The second European vignette is from Klein's book, in his account of watching a game in the Italian village of Godot (prompting the predictable allusion),  which gives us a glimpse of the tiny but devout fandom of Italian baseball. In answer to his query "Is there anything Italian about Italian baseball?", he finds a group of elderly ladies moving around mysteriously in the bottom of the ninth inning, and then "When play ended and the players gathered around us, a feast had magically appeared, and everyone converged on the food. The tables had been set with linens, paper plates, and plastic utensils; large bowls held different pastas, chicken dishes, salads; and wine and, later, good coffee and desserts were set out. For the next four hours there was little talk of baseball but lots of eating and drinking in this field in the middle of a sunny farm setting."

So also—to sneak in a third snippet—in Harvey Shapiro's essay from the Gmelch volume that covered his experience coaching in Holland, the most successful of the European baseball nations, we find his observation that "The Dutch players' approach to the game was more laid back and less structured than that of my American college players. It was common for the Dutch to have tea or coffee and sandwiches before they took the field for pregame practice. Some smoked cigarettes in uniform, even when walking around the field." Shapiro's desire to change these habits, to Americanize the regimen of the players, seems to me a tad tragic. When one ponders the obsession with nutritional supplements, legal and perhaps otherwise, forcing the American game more toward mechanization than humanization, a cappuccino in the dugout doesn't sound so bad.

 Ultimately, I came away from both Growing the Game and Baseball Without Borders enlightened about the history of the game, its surprisingly significant role in a number of different types of cultures, and its ongoing struggle to survive in the context of more established, as well as newer and faster, kinds of sporting entertainment. In whatever ways Major League Baseball morphs as a business and global industry, I feel that baseball future, like its past, will be the better for the rich tapestry of places and people who play it.

 Ah, now to the season at hand in Major League Baseball (which last year had players from 19 different countries, and which is 25% Latino). The only baseball question being asked here in Michigan is the hopeful, wistful, yet somehow anxious query "Are the Tigers for real?" Last year's American League playoffs were a dreamscape for Tiger fans, last year's World Series a nightmare of pitcher fielding ineptitude. And yet, the promise lingers, tantalizes … deceives?

Let me save the AL Central prognostication for last, to allow the question to fester. I'll start with the NL West, a division that has never done much for me, though it does seem to have the most competitive full set of teams, such that one never knows in August and September who exactly is in first place. I'll go with the Diamondbacks, with Brandon Webb emerging as the coveted young ace, and an aging and again hirsute Randy Johnson giving one more virtuoso season, as he sniffs 300 victories.

In the NL Central, the Cubs beckon like sirens, with Lou Pinella as the chief songstress, and Alfonso Soriano also luring us toward the treacherous shoals of Wrigley. I'll pick them, nipping Houston and St. Louis as Pinella's fire carries them through late September. The secret factor in Chicago will be yet another ex-Yankee, pitcher Ted Lilly, who will give that extra arm they need.

The NL East looks like a battle royal, and my brothers-in-law on Long Island are strong Mets apologists, so I'm torn here. The Mets are the money pick (literally), and Tom Glavine will celebrate his 300th win by the All-Star break, but I like the Phillies, with the young power from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, battering the fences late in the year. And do the Marlins somehow make a wild-card run every other year? Let's say they do it again this year, and sneak in, riding their young, strong arms.

Now the sentimentalism takes hold, but first, the shameful resentments: the D'Backs and the Marlins have each beaten my beloved Yankees recently in brutally tense seven-game World Series which have permanently warped my neurological health. They're out! The Cubs, oh, the Cubbies, if only the stars would align! But no, I'll take the Phillies, only slightly less snakebitten, but caught up in the sort of resurgence that "defies augury," as Hamlet would say. The World Series will return to Philadelphia, and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams will throw out a first pitch!

 The American League West is usually a tight race, but with Oakland re-tooling its pitching I like the Angels—well, okay, Seattle could be really strong if Adrian Beltre emerges as a Pujolsian force, but since I love Vladimir Guerrero (it must be the shunning of batting gloves and the Yogi-like bat range) I'll pick the Angels.

The AL East is Yankee country, with the Red Sox spectral presence looming—but I'll work from instinct (enmity?) and say the Red Sox finish fourth after dealing Manny Ramirez (at last) at the deadline. Yankees here, with the Devil Rays surging late to … just kidding! I also think it's time for Hideki Matsui to win the American League MVP—go, go, Godzilla!

 Now, that curious AL Central, clouded by the forgotten fact that the Tigers slipped to wildcard last year and the Twins actually won the title, the doubly forgotten fact that the White Sox just won it all two years ago and still have excellent pitching. I like Jim Leyland's stoicism and Yoda-like effect upon his players, though will Gary Sheffield find with the Tigers the same paternal affection he had under Leyland on the Marlins' championship run of '97? So much rides upon Sheffield weaving into the already good and confident team, one remarkably devoid of egos last year. I think it can happen (despite a rough spring training thus far, with a sub-.200 batting average for Shef), and much of my confidence comes from the surprisingly incisive 'spiritual autobiography' Inside Power by Sheffield and David Ritz (Crown Publishing, 2007), which John Wilson sent my way along with the global baseball books. I only have time to note that Sheffield swings his analysis of various characters and relationships that have gone awry in his career with the same savagery he uses in his whiplash batting style. This includes Sheffield's assessment of his own foibles, especially during and after his conversion to Christianity. The style here is a little too Hemingway-esque (a ghost writer's prerogative?), but I like the candor. For example, Sheffield offers this account of the day of his baptism while he was playing in Atlanta:

"When Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize Him, He was following his Father's will. He was demonstrating humility. A public demonstration of my own humility—a quality I both desire and resist—could only do me good.

So, symbolically speaking, I went to the river. I submitted. I was submerged. I said to God, 'I'm Yours. Teach me. Grow me. Live in my heart.'

I still say that every day.

But on the day of my baptism, a beautiful day when I felt closer to Christ than ever before, I do have to admit one thing:

After spending the day embracing humility, I did something that showed me my humility was still unsteady. In the game that night, an umpire's call infuriated me.

I was safe at second by a mile when he called me out. My slide was way under the tag. The ump had to be blind.

I called him a name. Than another.

God had to be laughing because on the same day that I was baptized in His holy name, I was thrown out of the game!

Let the church say, 'Amen'"

Well, I think there's enough self-knowledge there to hold Sheffield together, and though he won't get a lot of good pitches in the Tiger lineup unless Magglio Ordonez can protect him, I see Shef driving in 100 runs and providing that intangible fire for the Tigers, as Kenny Rogers did last post-season, when he added 3 mph to his fastball, fueled by pure enmity toward the Yankees who had rejected him. Toss in the White Sox as wild card, and the AL plays out with the Yankees riding Andy Pettite's postseason invincibility, much missed in the Bronx during Pettite's Houston sojourn, to the pennant.

And the Series? In Joe Torre's swansong, all the pieces come together, and the Yankees knock out the Phillies in five games to win it all, riding on the arms of Mike Mussina, who grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Chien-Ming Wang, who grew up dreaming only of Williamsport, in his Taiwanese Little Leaguer dreams. The grand old game will touch billions of lives around the globe, not just with its market niche, but with its magic.

Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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