I watched In the Loop this evening, which is a movie about politicos screaming at each other and forcing their will upon one another through devious and guttural means. It was great, a sort of power-wielding vicarious fantasy film, in which the viewer is able to imagine and enjoy the idea that the world’s political puppeteers are all semi-violent masochists screaming insults at each other at every opportunity. It’s not a rosy picture, but there is clearly something in all of us–or maybe just in me–that wants matters of import to be decided in barks and rants, rather than in Obama-esque calm, considered conversations.
Eric, in his recent post, posed questions about our relationship to baseball, what lessons we want to learn from it, and where we should draw the line. I have realized in my calm, considered meditation on the above film, that many of us live our baseball lives in pursuit of that similar kind of macho fantasy. The critiques that we lob across the Internet and across the pub table are just as spirited, the sort of outburst that would lead to an unsavory arrest if exercised from a cubicle. When you’ve got all of the power–when you are a defense secretary, for example, or a seasoned manager of a major league baseball team–the cops clear the way for you when you’re walking to the car.
This is nothing new, and it even treads into the territory of the cliche that Eric mentioned, ie. fans living vicariously aggressive lives through sport (see hooligans, football, England). There’s the stress relieving nature of the thing, and the social limitations, those seem pretty obvious. But there’s still something in it, I think, that bears consideration. Digging quite deep…Why do we need to live vicarious lives at all? What is it about the human experience that demands such fantasies? Why can’t we live, as for example my dog does, satisfied with the life we’ve got? As Jerry Seinfeld would ask it: What’s the deal with imagination?
I am unequipped to even brush the hem of these questions. Great men and women have labored in the sweat shop of these inquiries and come up with no solid thing but poetry, answering questions with questions.
Troublesome as the broad questions are, perhaps it bears turning again to Eric’s notions, and ponder: what do we expect to get out of these games? We’re drawn to them, and we make heroes out of the humans that play the games, but what gnarly truths emerge when we ask why we do what we do?
Part of the appeal of baseball, admittedly, is the luxury of thinking of nothing else, of concentrating upon, as Eric puts it, “the tiny situations, the intricacies of each game.” As humans have done for a very long time, we draw the intricacies of our real lives–the sobs and the doldrums and the deficiencies– from ourselves like a nurse drawing blood into a syringe, and we set our vials into the centrifugal ceremonial space in the middle–the diamond, the great circle, the alpha and the omega, the mandala, the CENTER–and watch it spin. A piece of ourselves spins in the middle, but in giving it over to the communal centrifuge, we buy the luxury of becoming viewers, and we watch ourselves from outside of ourselves. (For a deeper investigation of the symbolism of the baseball field, see Lance Strate’s essay in this interesting anthology: Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Communicating Baseball.)
The heroes are the designated dervishes, perambulating the ceremonial stupa as we yell ourselves hoarse. We know full well that Joe Mauer is no hero, that he is no different than we are except that he’s been chosen to stand in the eye of the storm, carrying us on his back, bearing the burden of the community. We make a hero of him but it’s a play, a ritual, and he is playing out the role that we’ve assigned him, putting voice to the tragedy and the comedy. We all watch together as the hero walks alone. And it is so ingrained in our concept of community, and of ritual, that we think nothing of this process, but carry it on endlessly.
Why else would Manny Ramirez make fans so angry? It’s because he is me, and he is you, and when he dances a jig across the archetypes, when he runs a careless hand across his face and smears his stage make-up, when he kicks the sand mandala up into a colorful cloud, he’s raising the curtain to expose the wiring and the complex pulley systems and the bags of sand and the director with a script in his trembling hands and a trouble-shooting expression. That would make anyone nervous, who’s invested a pint of his own blood into the occasion, the well-intentioned theater goer who’s bought his ticket fair and square, with the understanding that the fourth wall would hold strong. For an actor in this very play to suggest that it’s all just a put-on, that you’ll never really wield the power that he appears to, that the fans have vested him with for this three hour period; that it’s an illusion, a fantastical stage production designed solely to ignite the pleasure sensors in that dozy, gullible mass, the human brain.
Should we, then, give it all up, these rituals (the derivations of which I’ve tossed into the culture-blender for my own feeble purpose), and tend to adult things, tilling the fields and falling asleep as dusk darkens, a copy of The Economist rising and falling on our chests? Of course not. The theater is a sound and forgiving medium for human expression, ready to take us in and give back to us in equal measure. Do we need to think about the stage and the players and the director? No, but it sure is fun. Is barking at insubordinates while vaccinated by maximum power as enjoyable as it looks on screen or on the field? Probably, but I I’ll never know.
For now, and forever (hopefully), the ring will be there for us to throw our caps into; those dad caps and those promotional giveaway caps, the throwback caps and yes, the fashion caps, and the Dodgers cap stacked perilously and improbably on a pile of infuriating dreadlocks.