Friday, January 22, 2016

Nostos: A Phenomenology of Baseball and the Play of Verticality

Just in case you missed it, Baseball is the Great American Pastime; if we didn't know it before, we certainly knew it after Ken Burns' Baseball.

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some
peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

The first person to ever 'steal home' was not even a ball player, though he would have made a great manager: Odysseus. It took him 20 years to get back home, only to find his home defended by the visiting team; and the only way he can finally get home, is to steal it back again. In the process he drives home at least 2 points, one through the ax-heads, the other through Antinous's  throat, the locus of his usurpations. For Odysseus, these are all ecological matters, but to return to baseball, it's just part of the game.

Baseball is based on home, based on home base, based on a diamond-shaped field of 3 other bases, which need to be traversed prior to arrival at home. Putting aside the adolescent sexual metaphor of getting to 'first base,' and Elaine Benes' warning Keith Hernandez that she's not 'waving him in,' or Woody Allen's classic schtick about thinking of baseball to defer the moment of ecstasy, we can safely say that, for the most part, baseball is not really, or at least not just, about sex. Baseball is about nostos, and it enacts the epic journey of the hero returning to where he started, through trials and tribulations; and, in its fanfare for the common man, provides structures and patterns of human experience.

Come to think of it, perhaps baseball really is about sex, but 'sex' as generation and generativity, about the navigation of homeworld and alienworld, and the constitution of the lifeworld. Baseball entails home teams and visiting teams, about playing 'at home' or 'on the road;'  about playing in one's 'own house' or at someone else's 'own house.' We root for the 'home team' and, presumably having left our own homes to get to the home field, the matter is so grave that we 'don't care if we ever get back' (something Odysseus could never say). Baseball is alienating for fans and players alike.

When a batter comes 'up to the plate' he stands very near home, oscillating over the base. The game invites him to leave the environing region of home through the trial of a 'pitch,' a projectile aimed at home but sometimes at the batter's head: baseball is a dangerous endeavor and being 'safe' is never guaranteed. If the batter gets the better part of the pitch, the battle is joined and the journey begins; if the pitch gets the better of the batter the batter is out, and retired to the dugout.

The home field is filled by 9 visitors, invaders really, who have pitched their tent for a few days, and who dedicate their play against the home team's desire to generate 'runs' or points that increase their score by crossing the threshold of home, home plate. Scoring is about reduplication, a generativity of returning home that increases the mass of home itself. Home is defended by increasing the home team's score and limiting the visitors' victories, their crossing the threshold of a home not their own. Each alien transgression of home is an assault, a diminution, an idolatrous delimitation of the home team, the home crowd, the homeworld.

Of course there would be no game were it not for competition, the engagement with the alien, the visitor[s]. Therein lies the threat to verticality: in baseball terms, the coming together of the team and the fans in the generativity of 'scoring' and 'winning.' There is no generativity apart from the creative tension between home and alien: teams can play all the 'practice games' they want, but growth in stature, fecundity in competitive and comparative standings, occurs only with respect to the alien. Sameness---intramural sport--- generates no real points, scores or statures. The threat to verticality is embedded in the inherent 'hospitality' of the game.  It is constitutive of baseball, as lifeworld, to play out on the co-constitutive and co-relative interface of the homeworld and alienworld. After all, in any game of baseball, the visitors come up to the plate as well.

When the NY Yankees host the Boston Red Sox, the pregnancy of hospitality starts the 'game' before the actual game begins. Sport-talk happens, on the parts of the players and the fans. In this example the Yankees are home, and the Red Sox are  'on the road.' Ya gotta love this 'on the road' business: everyone in baseball understands the metaphorical character of the phrase. No one familiar with the game thinks play will occur on some interstate highway. 'On the road' and 'away' euphemistically refer to a game to be played on alien territory. This state of affairs reminds us of the enemy attack on the homeland or homefront (to use a WWII expression) as I have recently discussed in Grendel's visits to Heorot. The Red Sox dedicate themselves to committing what Anthony Steinbock has dubbed 'idolatry' (as I alluded above), which manifests as the denial of the Yankees' achieving 'verticality': a fecundity of scoring, of generativity.

Baseball understands the centrality of the 'other' and its relation to the 'self,' or to use Steinbock's wonderful term, the Myself. Co-constitutive, co-relative play of the homeworld and alienworld makes baseball more than a game symbolic of the acquisition of private property, of adding someone else's home to 'my home;' that doesn't happen in baseball,  even if the standing of the Myself is competitively portrayed in scoring and statistics. For baseball, hospitality is always generative, 'for the love of the game.' The threat to verticality, played out as idolatry of competition, of defensive play, is constitutive of baseball, whose rules are laid down on the horizontal but played out always pointing to the vertical.

Beginning with Ken Burns' Baseball was no mere gratuitous reference. I began there because Burns' documentary, along with other kinds of films, such as Field of Dreams, The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, For the Love of the Game, underscores the importance of Baseball to the American imagination, its culture and values, and Baseball's reach into the experience of actual persons. The penetration of baseball-talk into everyday life speaks to the experience of Americans as Baseball itself has been woven into the fabric of Americana. Baseball language has legal ramifications, such as in the '3 strikes and you're out' rule; it has business ramifications as well, as when, after a boardroom meeting, Harry says to Sally, 'hey you really hit that one out of the park;' or when, after a business lunch Bill says to Susan, 'you really hit a homerun.' In business or politics people 'strike out' all the time, or something really comes 'out of left field.' Indeed, many people's failures are expressed as such persons being sent 'back to the bullpen.'

Baseball, in common parlance, bespeaks the navigations of the homeworld and alienworld, and traversals of territories. Threats to verticality---suppression or delimitation of any social, political, commercial, moral, ecological, religious orientation other than the status quo, the horizontal axis of monochromic, totalized closed-off existence---enter experience as perturbations in the co-constitution and co-relativity of home and alien. Moral and ecological phenomena, and other phenomena of home-coming, cut across the plane of the natural attitude, and point off the horizontal toward an intersecting plane at angles ever so acute, but always poised for vertical flight.

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