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July 26, 2016
On the Stadium
The other day, I went to a baseball game. I don’t get out to the stadium often—first time all year, in fact—what with the 3-year-old and the 0.75-year-old and the plants that need water. But I abandoned said children into the capable care of my wife, drove downtown, and fell into an old, pre-writing routine. The Historic Triangle Pub for cheap beer, the faint mix of cigarette smoke and body odor, a book and a notepad, east coast baseball games on televisions too high up and too small to watch. Occidental Avenue, the long walk of truck-based culinary commerce, the sparse, weary cries of hawkers, the footlong hot dog with chili that melts through the bun instantly. Then inside, for jersey-spotting, inside jokes with friends, the occasional guilty livetweet, a familiar losing performance by the hometown nine. And home, too late to read to children.
The stadium experience, which we all pay so dearly for on April 15th, seems weirdly extraneous for me as a baseball fan. I don’t mean this as a pejorative: when my kids are old enough I’ll take them to the local short-season affiliate and lay in the grass, with the game as our backdrop. And I enjoy every bit of the itinerary listed above. But that stadium experience is so different than the baseball I consume on television, through the news, and on Twitter, to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable as baseball. The detail is largely washed out, even at the decent seats my friends and I snuck our way into: no slow motion, no better angles, few advanced stats. The entire game feels like the cheers of the crowd: emotional, indistinct. It draws me back to that book I was reading in the pub, talking about an old dead Frenchman: Rene Descartes.
Most people know Descartes for one thing, if they know him at all: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. He got on this path after being fairly dissatisfied with his education and wondered what he could actually be certain he knew. He predicted The Matrix 350 years in advance and admitted the possibility that all sense-data could be falsified, that the devil could be projecting illusions straight into his brain. The only thing he was left with was the fact that he was thinking about it. With that sole data point, he had a platform for creating a philosophical approach that would lead into the Renaissance.
Unfortunately, this unassailable piece of logic led him astray quickly. If he had an undoubtable mind, but a doubtable body living in a sensory world, mind and body must be separate, which meant that the physical world and the mental world must be separate as well. The latter is what gives us our souls and our creator, invincible and unchanging, even as everything in the physical world falls apart and rots around us. It’s pretty much essential, if you want there to be a heaven that something in us could go to. But that led to a new problem: if we had a mind separate from that problematic physical brain that tells our legs to move and also gets crippled by head trauma and whiskey, the mental and the physical realms have to touch somehow.
Baseball analysis, for many years, appeared to suffer from this same divide. Men with ideas about how to play and think about baseball sat at computers, ignored or undiscovered by those who played the game. And in turn, the “reality” of being in baseball seemed incommunicable to the writers. It’s not a schism unique to baseball; you see it in the accounting and sales departments of every corporation, if you’re willing to look. In terms of the game’s front offices, the gap has been all but bridged recently; two guys recently wrote a book about it. But for fans, dualism is a much more difficult task, because it leads to paradoxes. It’s much easier to exist on one plane or the other.
Descartes’ solution to this was the pineal gland: a tiny little spot in the back of the brain that he claimed housed the soul and sent orders on to the brain for processing. We now know that its task is to secrete melatonin, but for so many years its purpose held mystery that it took on all sorts of magical properties. It was whatever the philosophers and mysticists wanted it to be. Regardless, he was never able to establish exactly how the pineal gland was bridging the entirely separate realms of mind and matter, and pretty much everyone was dissatisfied. The only trouble is that folks haven’t had much luck offering an alternative.
Strict dualism isn’t the most popular theory around these days, but its ironic cousin metaphysics is doing better than ever. We enjoy our layers, and baseball is rich with them: The interconnectivity of the physical act of the game, the strategy of its managers and general managers, the finances of its owners and players, and the hopes and happiness of the people in the seats. Each of them wraps around each other in different and interesting ways, and contributes to what make the sport so interesting.
Reflecting and predicting on these things with our advanced statistics and simple narratives would be classified by Descartes as res cogitans, the ethereal plane, where the Greeks kept their Platonic forms and their virtues. It’s a place I don’t mind living, as a baseball fan and a writer, separated by a television screen from the real grass and the real people who live real lives while simultaneously hitting and throwing baseballs for our amusement. That separation isn’t superiority: the physical plane is as untouchable by me as I am by it.
It feels strange to me, sometimes, that we devote ourselves to a sport so wholly ignorant of our existence. Rooting, and internet analysis, are often unidirectional pursuits; we’re like ghosts trying to write “boo” on the foggy mirror, but passing through it. But the stadium, awkward and expensive as it is, is the single point of connection, where we can, barely, interact with baseball, be heard by our heroes and our foes, be felt by our team’s owners in our paid presence or absence. The stadium is baseball’s pineal gland, in the Cartesian sense. And even if it’s not terribly necessary in a world with MLB.tv, HiDef cable and PITCHf/x, it’s a good place to visit, now and then. Nobody should always live in the clouds.
Patrick Dubuque is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @euqubud
4 comments have been left for this article.
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Memories of baseball become inter generational moments not from MLB or ESPN TV shots but from the smells, sounds and feelings of the ballpark experience. Your article was right on!!!
Jul 26, 2016 18:07 PM
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Great article, Patrick. I find the joy of the ballpark experience lays in choosing where to give my attention, rather than having the TV producer choose for me. Descartes would approve of exercising your free will, right?