June 03, 2020

A Sociological Celebration of Baseball

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

I love baseball. It’s always been in my life. In childhood it was playing Little League baseball, watching Major League Baseball games, and playing the All Star Baseball board game. As I got older it became attending minor league and major league games. Now, as a parent, it’s playing catch with my kids and watching one of them play on a team. While my 12-year-old is drawn to soccer, my 9-year-old has a passion for baseball. In any other spring, he’d be busy with baseball practice and starting a season of games. But in this spring and summer, we don’t know if he’ll get to play baseball, as COVID-19 has interrupted life as we know it. We’re still playing catch at home, and his brother tosses wiffle balls to him in the backyard, but there’s no way to replicate playing the game.

As I reflect on our pause from baseball, I’m sad for all that he’s missing. First and foremost, I think of time missed with his teammates. If we remember not to take youth sports too seriously, we appreciate it as a form of play. If we don’t get caught up in wins and losses, we see value in the simple act of kids playing together. They socialize. They laugh. They fool around. They run around and burn energy. They get dirty. They have fun.

Fun and bonding happens for parents too. We spend a lot of time together at games and practices. Some of us have been watching our kids play together for three years. We aren’t just baseball parents, we’ve become friends. Our baseball life blends into our social life. Normally we have drinks together and laugh it up this time of year. I’m hoping it won’t be long before we come together again.

When it comes to the actual game of baseball, players and coaches are always working together. The amazingly talented shortstop Ozzie Smith still depended on someone playing first base. A pitcher needs a catcher. A manager needs assistant coaches to talk out ideas and strategy. Kids are constantly reminded, as the saying goes, “there’s no I in team.” You can’t win a baseball game all by yourself. You need your teammates and you need to work together. The beauty of a sacrifice bunt is that you give yourself up for the benefit of the team. It’s not all about individual accomplishments. Baseball is a game of interdependence!

As George Herbert Mead recognized, in playing baseball you learn to the take the role of other people. You need to know what your teammates are going to do in order to make a good play. A hit and run play on offense and a double play on defense requires anticipation, coordination, and trust. The Houston Astros devised a system of carefully coordinated actions to steal signs from opponents. I don’t condone what they did. Still, it serves as an example of orchestrated behavior with players being in tune with each other’s roles.

Okay, so let’s think about wins and losses. As in the case of the Astros scandal, cheating in baseball represents a win at any cost attitude; in Robert Merton’s strain theory, it fits into the innovation category. In the theory, “innovation” doesn’t carry its customary positive connotation. Instead, it refers to finding illegitimate ways to achieve a culturally valued goal.

For some players and teams, winning becomes more important than winning under the rules of the game. There’s a difference between striving for a win and in promoting a message that winning is the only thing. An obsession with winning invites rule breaking and bending the rules of the game. To me, it’s critical to teach kids to play baseball the right way and to emphasize skill development, rather than to constantly emphasize the goal of winning. Sure, winning feels good, and one should take pride in victory, but one can also take pride in improvement and in being a good teammate. Inevitably, losses will occur, presenting opportunities for kids to learn and mature. Losing is a lesson that everything doesn’t always go your way. You can’t win all the time. You can work extremely hard and still not achieve your desired outcome. Sometimes you will make an error that negatively impacts your team. Losing hurts, but you should congratulate the other team for their victory.

So my message to young players is as follows. Be a good teammate. Cheer for each other. Help each other get better. Try your best. Play fair. Work together toward a common goal. Remember it’s not all about winning. Don’t yell at the umpire. (By the way, an umpire definitely has to do emotional labor as part of their job, like when a coach engages in theatrics or a player screams in their face.)

You might not ever be able to scale a wall like Bo Jackson (or break a bat over your knee after you strike out), but you’ll develop physical and social skills and maybe even make some friends for life. So have fun and play ball!  

Comments

Thanks for your useful post.

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