Underdogs

Baseball is the best sport in the United States.

Hands down, no debate, unquestioned: baseball reigns supreme. The game has been played for over 150 years, from coast to coast and it has incorporated players from around the world, and all strata of society. But longevity is only part of what has made baseball great. Baseball stands above because it is, at it’s heart, American. It is the American Dream, the American Way, and the American Spirit all wrapped into one and played out on a close cropped diamond of green, framed by deep, dark brown dirt, guided by sparkling white lines, and guarded by the citizens of this great country.

More than that, every single game on a baseball field is a microcosmic re-enactment of America’s history. A brave, few men stand against a determined foe, defending home territory, or valiantly striding between enemy foul lines. Nine strong soldiers bear arms, bats, and gloves with battle plan and knowledge of their opponent, and an intimate understanding of the coming battle and all its stratagems. They fight for their pride, their right to stand tall, their destiny to achieve the greatest victory available.

Anyone can join this struggle, this game. Farmboys, bean counters, lumberjacks, and geniuses: all have stood beneath the sun and stars to have their moment at the plate, their place upon the everlasting meadow of the ballpark. The poor, the rich, the educated, the street-smart, and the wiseass. Baseball is not a game of privilege, and it does not respect superstars. Anyone can rise above to be enshrined forever in the eternal halls of the famous. Anyone can turn the tide, stand in the gap, or do the impossible in so doing be made mighty.

The game has been played, largely unchanged, since its inception. Twenty-seven outs, eighteen players, three strikes, one blinding white ball wrapped in stitching colored with the blood of those who every day leave it all on the field. And it is all up for grabs, every single time. Every single time an umpire, beneath blue shirt and steel mask, shouts “Play ball!” every single player knows that today could be their day, this game could be their game, it is for them to win or lose.

In baseball: anything can happen. Fortunetellers lose fortunes trying to foretell outcomes. Players defy the oddsmakers like titans defying the gods.

How else do you explain an outfielder named Kirk Gibson, who stood impossibly tall one day in 1988, doubled over from the pain of a stomach virus, hobbling on a pulled left hamstring and a swollen right knee called into action to do what could not be done against one of the most dominate opponents of his era, pitcher Dennis Eckersley. It seemed Gibson’s manager had lost his mind. This was the first game of the World Series, baseball’s ultimate showcase, the stage most ready for the performance of the year from two teams who had proven time and again that they deserved to be there. Winning the first game is beyond big, beyond huge, with it comes momentum and energy. Baseball playoffs are a zero sum game. The postseason is played against time, against dwindling effort and opportunity. Each swing, each inning, each out is lost forever. There are no second chances, and surface mistakes can become fatal wounds. So why would Tommy Lasorda call upon ailing Kirk Gibson, of all people, to stand in the batter’s box and contend at his worst against the best?

Lasorda knew then what he knows now: baseball is a game of heart and soul. In pain, and growing weaker, Gibson took the toughest assignment ever given a ballplayer and quickly looked to be done. Two strikes down, and every movement a torture of battered and broken body Gibson’s heart was strong. He knocked aside two more pitches to stay alive, evading the strikeout with what he could muster. And then: with teammate streaking towards second with theft in his heart, Gibson bent his good knee, and with nothing more than blood and guts he piled upon the ball’s white hump the sum of all the passion of a country, and had his bat been alive, its wooden heart would have burst upon it. Never had leather been struck with more meaning. Though the home run was hit, the game would not be won unless Gibson could complete the play. Gibson had to endure the basepaths. Through burning pain, he grimaced, and limping on both feet, hobbled ’round the bases, pumping his arms and cheering his team’s victory with each pained breath.

One man who know one thought could make a difference changed everything.

Baseball wakes in spring with the resurrection of earth’s northern hemisphere. It grinds through the long, hot summer, but in the autumn, when the leaves explode with color and air crackles in its crispness: baseball comes alive. October baseball is electric. The season races towards the end, each team fighting, desperate to be last standing, desperate for their chance to show the nation that they deserve to be crowned king of their coliseum. It all comes down to division princes, and league champions, and finally, two teams who through determination and desire have dominated all others. In October, the world champions are revealed.

In April, no one can tell who those two last teams will be. In September, still, no one really knows. In November, it is undeniable. But October: that is when bats thunder, crowds roar, balls sizzle, and that is when the magic happens. That is when heroes fall, champions crumble, and the underdog breaks free.

In America, it quite simply does not get any better than the simple game of baseball.