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A beautiful game
On baseball, the argumentative origins of America, and the need to gather around a common feeling once in a while
By the strictest definition, America is not a nation in the same way that many countries are. We don't share a common ethnic heritage, our foundation is inexorably tied to religious dissent, and our language patterns have really only begun to converge after many generations of widely varying regional dialects -- to say nothing of the waves upon waves of immigrants who have stuck with their mother tongues for a generation or two before coming around to adopting English first.
■ Many other nations -- bound by commonality of ethnic origins, religious practices, and linguistic identity -- may be counted as stateless, but their unity is visible nonetheless. America is bound instead by creed, by a voluntary belief system stated plainly in the preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
■ As a creedal nation, America simply has to try harder than other nations to stay together. While we believe those limited certain things in common, it also remains expressly within our national identity to disagree. Compromise born out of disagreement is foundational: Checks and balances, vetoes, and Constitutional amendments wouldn't be necessary were it not for disagreement.
■ Thus, on those things on which we can agree, it's important to double down. We require some audacious common projects and some stirring events to bind us together. The Field of Dreams baseball game has the potential to be the kind of potent quasi-religious ritual that helps satisfy that need.
■ Other cultural rituals in America too often become crass outlets for politics. Presidential inaugurals and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade seem to remain safe for now, but we don't have a giant number of culturally significant mass rituals that aren't bent into platforms for performative displays of difference. When was the last celebrity awards show that didn't have undertones of a White House Correspondents' Dinner?
■ Baseball, though, remains one of our most distinctive institutions as a country. It's a game that really doesn't make much sense to outsiders, and so few other countries have bothered to make sense of it that it struggles for recognition as an Olympic sport.
■ As a sport, baseball is unifying in its difference. And while the World Series (and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game) can draw in committed fans of the game, there's a place for an event centered less on the play of the game than on how it makes a nation feel. Perhaps it's even a little bit preposterous that a game borrowing the motif (and site) of a fantasy film from 1989 should have such an effect.
■ But the commercial success of the film is a result of how people feel about baseball, not the cause of it. The movie simply captured a deeply held sense of attachment to the sport, and the TV ratings for the themed games (which clobbered the rest of the season, both in 2021 and in 2022) reveal how much many Americans long to feel unified by that emotional pull.
■ Americans need the glue of at least a few rituals to hold us close enough to one another to remind us that not everyone actively recommits every year to the tenets of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism, no matter how much they are baked into the mechanisms passed down from the Founders. It does us some good to engage in feeling a sense of commonality, not just thinking about it. We need more of those events, not fewer. Making a game at the Field of Dreams an annual event would be a very fine start.