The Metaphysics of Baseball

America’s greatest contribution to human civilization?  According to David B. Hart:  baseball.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.

Read the rest of Hart’s Platonic reflections in “A Perfect Game” at First Things.

4 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Baseball

  1. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with such a vaunted opinion of a sport, especially one I find so unimpressive. That said, I found the article compelling. Enormously overstated in its poeticism, yes, but full of thoughtful illustration and discussion.

    As an avid Star Trek fan, I can’t help but draw from that lore for a parallel discussion point: the essential linear nature of the game. In some respects, this jives with Hart’s argument, but there are a few odd oppositions.

    First, brief background. In the initial episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the commanding officer is tasked with explaining the linear existence of humans to a species that, presumably, has no concept of linear time. This other species is digging through the officer’s memories, looking for important features that can be explained. Seemingly out of nowhere, the officer finds himself on a baseball field and is asked, “Baseball—what is this?”

    After a failed attempt at explaining the rules, the officer quickly realizes that the essence of baseball is the very fact of its linearity. He explains it this way:

    “The rules aren’t important. What’s important is — it’s linear. Every time you throw this ball a hundred different things can happen in the game. He might swing and miss, he might hit it…the point is you never know. You try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can… but in the end it all comes down to throwing one pitch after another… and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape…And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed…In fact, the game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.”

    He continues, “That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching…not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers…we explore our lives day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.”

    From your intro, Mike, I immediately thought that conversation would be relevant. Imagine my surprise when Hart called baseball “the eternal game”, going against the heart of the argument in Trek. However, I think there’s an interesting and nuanced balance here, in exploring the relationship between time and this timeless sport. Hart hints at the balance by saying that “terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms.” Those rhythms are perhaps the lifeblood of the game, and the conversation from Star Trek suggests that the same rhythms may be the lifeblood of our species. For some reason, I found the Trek approach less grandiose than that of Hart, but I think they have the same scope.

    Strategy, too, plays a key role in the importance (and, apparently, the interpretation) of the game. The talk of strategy in my extended quote above is echoed by Hart: “Part of the deeper excitement of the game is following how the strategy is progressively altered, from pitch to pitch, cumulatively and prospectively, in accordance both with the situation of the inning and the balance of the game.”

    A couple of his points, though, strike me as being full of unnecessary and unjustified hyperbole. I question his claims of “perfection” of timing and distances: they’re good, but there’s no reason other distances couldn’t be used, perhaps even as an improvement on the standard. And by taking such a deterministic approach as to say that “baseball was always intended in our very essence; without it, our humanity was incomplete” just seems a bit over-the-top. :-)

    Overall, though, thanks for pointing out that article. It was a fascinating take on something I intentionally give very little thought to…outside the realm of my sci-fi, that is. :-)

    1. Chris,

      Loved that exchange. I was a fan of the original Star Trek which was constantly on syndication when I was a kid, and I also followed Next Gen., but I never watched Deep Space so I missed that gem. I think you’re right, there is a place where both Hart and Trek meet or are balanced, and it seems that is in the idea that within certain limits or finite space, a seeming infinity of possibilities can play out — linearly.

      And yes, a bit over the top with the rhetoric, but I thought that made it all the more fun (although some of the people commenting on the article seemed to have taken it all a bit too seriously!).

      Thanks for the comment, fantastic connection.

  2. The use of Platonic idealism to describe baseball leaves its Platonic perfectionist path as Hart describes the outfield fence. Ah, the fence, with all its ups and downs, grassy knolls and waterfalls, and its variations in length which makes one wonder – not about human imperfection – but whether Aristotle sneaked in under the fence and caused such perfectionist disruption. One can only stretch an analogy so far and surely Hart’s analogy suffers under the strain.

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