Over the years I’ve watched many of the Ken Burns PBS documentaries while running on my treadmill. I started with The War (WWII), and then it was on to Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and most recently The Roosevelts. If you’ve never seen any of them I can’t encourage you enough to check them out because they are amazing!
I must admit, I’m not much of a baseball fan but the storytelling from the narrator and interviewees were so compelling and the players so interesting in that series, that I found myself excited every day to learn more about the history of the sport. Something that really stood out was the importance so many people put on the game of baseball as well as the meaning and significance they attached to America’s national pastime.
When it comes to necessity, I think it’s safe to say the local grocery store, corner gas station, a nearby hospital, your town’s fire department, banks and any number of other businesses or institutions are far more important to daily life than baseball. If baseball were gone tomorrow many people would be upset, would miss it terribly but life would go on pretty much as it does during the baseball offseason. However, without some of the institutions noted above, life would be much more difficult, dangerous and perhaps deadly in a matter of days in some cases.
So why is a sport like baseball so important to so many people? I think much of it has to do with the meaning we ascribe to it and the significance we attach to the game, its players, and the statistics. This line of thinking was driven home as I read the following from Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, in which he quoted a prominent linguist, George Lakoff:
“‘A large part of self-understanding,’ says Lakoff, ‘is the search for appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives.’ The more we understand metaphor, the more we understand ourselves.”
In his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl shared his life experience having survived three years in four different Nazi concentration camps. He believed he could translate the pain he endured into a meaningful life where he helped others.
It’s a subtle, yet important difference: drawing meaning from what you’ve personally experienced versus something else like a sport. But in the end it’s the same desire – we want to know that our lives have meaning and significance. It’s inevitable that sometimes we attach more meaning to some things than perhaps they deserve. From the Burns’ series on baseball here are some examples:
Willie Mays is known more for his famous over the shoulder catch than any other play. It took incredible skill to cover as much ground as he did then essentially make a blind catch over his left shoulder. People who saw it swore nobody else could have made that catch. Spectacular? Yes! Impossible for anyone else? Doubtful.
When the Dodgers and Giants left New York it seemed disastrous! Fans were outraged and felt betrayed but the sun came up the next day and has every day for 60+ years. Life continued on just as it had before baseball. Their well-being and significance wasn’t as wrapped up in a team as they thought.
It was thought that no one else could have done what Jackie Robinson did. What he did was heroic, considering all that was going on in society and he is to be admired for his courage to step into the situation becoming the first black player in the majors. But if it were not Jackie, someone would have eventually taken on that role.
This post in no way is meant to diminish baseball or any of its heroes. In fact, quite the opposite for me because I haven’t been as drawn to the game as I was watching the series, since I was an adolescent.
However, sometimes we attach too much significance to things, people, and events and that choice ends up hurting us. If your favorite team fails to win the big game or championship it stinks but life goes on. Or if a hero turns out to be something different than what we thought (Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose, etc.) it devastates some people. To allow any of these situations to do more than give you a bad day or memory is to give it more power over your life than it deserves.
People, places and things do not define us. We define ourselves and that means we can narrate our own stories. So I’ll leave you with this question – What story are you writing?