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It's an example of perfect timing. Like a shortstop's balletic pivot high above the flashing spikes of the visiting team's base runner before getting off a swift, sure throw to first and retiring the side to end the inning.

Yale University Press has published Why Baseball Matters by Susan Jacoby, which rises above the usual sentimentality of a requiem for baseball to take a good hard look at the game's history--and to ask why baseball has yielded its place as the national pastime to brutal bone-crushing football.

According to Katherine A. Powers' review in the March 28 Wall Street Journal, a new generation of sports addicts complains that baseball is much too slow, forgetting that it is played not just on a field of dreams but in the mind, where it demands full concentration.

For it is not only what happens on the field that counts, but what doesn't happen: the plays considered, then rejected as baseball's timeless clock clicks on from here to eternity. A true fan can lose himself--or maybe find his better self, one capable of living a life of the mind. For this is a beautiful game that's about much more than mere hits, runs and errors.

Its statistics are encyclopedic, and beat anything that fantasy baseball can offer. Indeed, it's almost sacrilegious, besides still illegal in some instances, to bet on the outcome of ballgames. Much like April itself, the month of opening games, this can be the cruelest of times without inflicting any merely physical pain. For there's such a thing as mental cruelty, too, and it exists well beyond the divorce courts. To adapt a phrase from the poet, baseball can be the cruelest of sports, mixing memory and desire.

Jacoby's book is free of cant and clichés, mixing memoir, history and insights into the game's evolution. Or maybe devolution. The attentive reader also gets a philippic against the game's decay in this, the age of distraction. For electronic media now take the place of print. Lost are the satisfying feel, smell and texture of print--just as the baseball fan loses something of the ineffable flavor of the game when it becomes just another sport.

Baseball has rightly been called the thinking man's game. And is much in need of restoration. Like the Bourbons of old France, the baseball fan seems to remember everything but learn nothing from history's passing parade. This diehard fan of the game can remember watching the one and only Connie Mack signaling pitches from the visitor's dugout at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Even though that ballfield has long since been demolished and replaced. Despite the sheen that memory lends history, the game is still in flux, its timeless quality only a cherished illusion. Much like the ruins of ancient Rome, only a few landmarks still survive, precious as each may prove.

So the old-time baseball fan may be reduced to a collector of antiquities. And though such memorabilia may be limited, there are those who love every trace of what baseball once was. In a changeable world, only the past in this fan's mind never changes. Until the revisionists release their own version of it for historians to argue over. And so it goes as each generation succeeds another, replacing its predecessor with a graven image more to its own liking. Since history, contrary to popular belief and desires, is not chiseled in stone but rather written on the water rushing past in its eagerness to get to the next cascade.

Baseball isn't unique, but it has earned an iconic place in the pantheon of Americana. You don't have to be a fan to know that you'd miss it if it were gone or blurred in the nation's memory. So hold fast to it. It deserves the homage.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 04/08/2018

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