The Best Of All Possible Games

Via Crooked Timber, I see that John Rawls got at least one thing right. Here he is channeling the legal scholar Harry Kalven on the perfections on baseball:

… the game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types, e.g., to tall men as in basketball. All sorts of abilities can find a place somewhere, the tall and the short etc. can enjoy the game together in different positions.

… the game uses all parts of the body: the arms to throw, the legs to run, and to swing the bat, etc.; per contra soccer where you can’t touch the ball. It calls upon speed, accuracy of throw, gifts of sight for batting, shrewdness for pitchers and catchers, etc.

… all plays of the game are open to view: the spectators and the players can see what is going on. Per contra football where it is hard to know what is happening in the battlefront along the line. Even the umpires can’t see it all, so there is lots of cheating etc. And in basketball, it is hard to know when to call a foul. There are close calls in baseball too, but the umps do very well on the whole, and these close calls arise from the marvelous timing built into the game and not from trying to police cheaters etc.

… baseball is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball, and this has the remarkable effect of concentrating the excitement of plays at different points of the field at the same time. Will the runner cross the plate before the fielder gets to the ball and throws it to home plate, and so on.

Finally, there is the factor of time, the use of which is a central part of any game. Baseball shares with tennis the idea that time never runs out, as it does in basketball and football and soccer. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback …



One could go on to note the perfect balance that baseball strikes between team effort and individual performance, a balance at once deeply Christian and deeply small-d democratic. Or its paradoxical nature, which inspires quantification and romanticization in equal measure, and offers food for statheads as well as novelists, conservatives as well as liberals, historians as well as business writers. Or …

No, enough. No argument, however self-evidently powerful, will persuade those deluded souls – and they do exist! – who would argue that the qualities that Rawls and Kalven considered strengths are actually weaknesses. Those who would claim that baseball’s physical ecumenism – the sport’s ability to find a place for Chone Figgins as well as Vladimir Guerrero, for John Kruk as well as Bo Jackson - makes it ultimately inferior to basketball or football or soccer as a test of athletic ability. Those who would assert that the skills that baseball requires are too idiosyncratic to be interesting – that whereas everyone can appreciate the physical strength required to be an offensive lineman, or the speed and agility required of a small forward, only a crank or an obsessive can get worked up about how well a paunchy middle-aged man flicks a curve or spins a knuckleball. Those who would aver that baseball’s clocklessness, its out-of-time quality and its inclination toward eternity, just means that the games take too damn long.

Such people are beyond the reach of reason. Also, they’re communists.