"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... which makes it like sex...I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball."
20 years ago this June, a baseball-loving Southern belle named Annie Savoy spoke those words in the opening scenes of film called Bull Durham. (If you've never seen it, I suggest you check out the new anniversary DVD edition.) And on this, the first day of the 2008 season, I'd like to argue that more women should kneel at the altar of America's pastime and embrace their inner Annies. Because of all the leisurely pursuits — shopping, yoga, Desperate Housewives, husband-hunting — in which the modern American female is pressured to stake a (stiletto) heel, loving baseball is not only her birthright but her responsibility.
1. It's About Family
I know of no other professional sport that brings people together quite like baseball. At the stadium, strangers become friends, the seats are filled with families, and, unlike, say, a football, basketball or hockey game, conversation is not only possible but encouraged. The same is true for the men on the field; it is rare to hear trash-talking, grunting, or yelling; in baseball we meet men who are asked to keep their mouths shut in the service of the greater good — those who don't comply are often thrown out of the game — but smiles and playful slaps abound. The game's demands of loyalty and teamwork creates (or, perhaps, attracts) men who appreciate the beauty of routine and the rewards of commitment, qualities many a woman can appreciate. (Certainly, the rise of free agency has changed the nature of loyalty in the game, but let's forget the Johnny Damons for a second and concentrate on the Cal Ripken Jrs. instead.) As a onetime single girl with many like-minded friends, I can confidently say that baseball players have kept us warm on many a lonely, unaccompanied spring and summer evening.
2. There's Method Behind The "Monotony"
Many women tell me they don't understand the appeal of baseball because it's "slow", or "boring", that "nothing happens", that it "takes too long". They "get" how the game is played — understand that three strikes equal an out, that the way to home is via the basepaths — but they don't appreciate that that the devil is the details, that entire athletic operas are being performed through glances exchanged and glances avoided, seemingly neurotic adjustments in gear, in balls dropped and misthrown. What a woman will see upon careful examination of the game is that what at first seemed arbitrary is in fact, well-orchestrated: a foul ball is not an insignificant annoyance, but an expression of the battle raging between a pitcher and his prey; the left-fielder who once looked to be pacing in boredom in the outfield is not only keeping his blood pumping in the chilly October air but positioning himself to discourage the base-runner on third who is angling for home. For longtime baseball fans, this may sound naive — of course the little dramas are what the game is about — but for someone coming to the game as a virgin, such secondary plots are far from obvious. "Getting" the game of baseball requires the same sort of diligence and patience demanded of the players themselves, and, if a girl's lucky, a particularly poetic baseball announcer or fellow fan will help her to "get" it. (Even though I consider myself a longtime fan, I still prefer watch games on television, or at least take my radio and headphones along with me to the ballpark so that I can hear the announcers describe the action.) The game of baseball is not unlike a lifelong, well-worn, comfortable love affair: After a time, you know what to expect, but you can never predict what will happen. You also learn how to forgive. (In case anyone's wondering, I'm a Mets woman.)
3. It's Full Of Sex Appeal
I know I'll get excoriated for this — particularly my use of the image of a Derek Jeter fan at left — but the fact of the matter is, for many women, the sex appeal of baseball players is what brings them to the majors. (Bull Durham's Annie Savoy may have said that what's great about baseball is that "If you know where home plate is, then you know where everything else in the universe is", but she was certainly no stranger to the more carnal qualities of the game.) There are few other sports — professionally played and regularly broadcast over the televisions in America, that is — in which the male physique is so plainly on display. The lack of padding and face-obscuring helmets means that female fans get a clear view of players' faces, forearms, and yes, form-fitting pants. But the erotic appeal of baseball goes far beyond ripe rear ends, phallus-shaped sports equipment and grammar-school metaphors in which basepaths double as sexual signposts: Through close attention to the game, women begin to appreciate a masculinity defined not by muscles or money but by hard work and humility. Baseball players are men, after all, who sublimate the more primitive characteristics encouraged in other sports — aggression, rage, dominance — in favor of something approaching grace, whether that be the lift of a soaring, well-hit, left-field single or the determination of a batter who fouls off one nasty slider after another. Certainly, there will always be guys — both in the game and at the corner bar — who behave badly, disappoint, and, for lack of a better phrase, drop the ball. But I do believe that in a cultural and political climate currently awash in exhibitionism, arrogance and chest-thumping, there's nothing sexier than a guy who keeps his head down, shuts up, and plays well with others.