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Opening day is about more than baseball

Today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball Season, a day in which guys making fifty thousand a year take the day off to see men making millions play ball, on a day when it is usually too cold to sit outside for three hours. But they do anyway.

That’s because this is about more than sport. It is a cultural happening, and a rite of spring. Baseball is pretty much the only sport intellectuals write books about.

They love to quote the French-American historian Jacques Barzun, who famously said:

“Whoever wants to learn the heart and mind of America, better learn baseball.”

There may be something to the theory that baseball has grown out of American culture, that it emphasizes and glorifies both individual talent and teamwork and statistics.

That doesn’t explain, however, why it may be even more popular these days in cultures as different from ours as Japan’s.     

Those going to Opening Day in Detroit are likely to face logistical difficulties, since some streets are torn up for the M-1 rail project.

That too, while inconvenient, is as American as Opening Day itself: A sign of progress. Progress and rebuilding.

But I have to confess that I have a hard time caring about baseball any more.

There are few things as pathetic as an old man saying “it was better in the old days.” But I feel baseball was better in the old days, when there were fewer teams and most players were largely homegrown in the club’s minor league systems.

Teams stayed together longer, with some changes every year but with the core of the team staying intact. As a boy half a century ago, I lived and died with the 1965 Detroit Tigers. I felt terrible when Dave Wickersham lost nine games in a row, and was still rooting for our team to beat out Cleveland for fourth place, long after the pennant had been cinched by the Minnesota Twins.

Most players did not make much money then; salaries averaged between seven and eight times what an average worker made. These days, the average major league salary is nearly a hundred times the average person’s income.

Half a century ago, the team that won the most games was guaranteed to be in the World Series. Today, it is even possible that a team with a losing record could win the series.

Seemingly endless rounds of playoffs have made the regular season more and more meaningless. Teams jump back and forth between divisions and even leagues. Steroids and other illegal substances have made statistics, the game’s holy writ, suspect.

You might wonder what Barzun, who made his famous pronouncement sixty-one years ago, would say about what the game says today about our evolving national character. It should be noted that his comment at the time referred only to the game itself, not its economics, ownership structure, or the way players are treated.

Yet this is still the only game in which you can be behind by ten runs with two out in the ninth inning, and still somehow win. In baseball, nearly anything is always possible.

 Today, on Opening Day, it would be nice to think that was true for Detroit, for Michigan and for our own lives.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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