Welcome to States of Play.
Much as I would love it to be, this isn’t primarily a project about baseball.
Rather, it will hopefully be more about America at an uncertain and potentially dangerous time. It’s about institutions, what we thought were established norms and those things that are supposed to unite us rather than divide us. It’s about changes in how we live and organize ourselves, connections between past and present, and where we all might be headed in the shadow of something as both tragic and momentous as a global pandemic.
It’s also going to be about journalism; the world in which I’ve been fortunate to spend my career and where the ways people create, share and use information have been undergoing unprecedented disruption. Technology has meant we’re more connected than ever before; and yet we seem to be growing increasingly disconnected, with fewer shared experiences, let alone a collective understanding of who we are.
Baseball is simply the window I’m hoping to use to explore some of the issues of our time with people who are smarter than me. I’ve been a journalist for thirty years and over these next three crucial seasons I hope to call on some of the folks I’ve met along the way – and some I’ve yet to meet – to help take the pulse of the country as we move towards what looks sure to be a pivotal set of elections in 2024.
Update: Take a look at this piece by David Leonhardt at the New York Times from September 2022 as an indicator of just how far things have moved, even since the beginning of the season. He writes:
“Some experts remain hopeful that the growing attention in the United States to democracy’s problems can help avert a constitutional crisis here. Already, Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election failed, partly because of the refusal of many Republican officials to participate, and both federal and state prosecutors are investigating his actions. And while the chronic decline of majority rule will not change anytime soon, it is also part of a larger historical struggle to create a more inclusive American democracy.
“Still, many experts point out that it is still not clear how the country will escape a larger crisis, such as an overturned election, at some point in the coming decade. “This is not politics as usual,” said Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University and the author of the book, “One Person, No Vote,” about voter suppression. “Be afraid.””
The following January, meanwhile, Danielle Allen wrote eloquently and personally that the nation had been undergoing a “great pulling apart” and the house we all share was in need of renovation.
“My overarching goal,” she wrote, “is a Great Pulling Together that gives us the civic strength needed to tackle the challenges that stem from the remarkable scaling up and complexifying of our society. Those challenges include stalled mobility and dysfunctional immigration policies; the climate crisis; social alienation, disempowerment and violence. These are our most difficult problems. We need governance up to the job of tackling them.”
In America today, what defines “community” is changing – perhaps faster over the past few years than at any time in recent history. As this project unfolds, I imagine it being part-travelog, part-memoir, part-snapshot of a country and how it thinks about itself. But that will depend on the interests of the people who sit down for a chat, so hopefully the temptation of taking a couple of hours out to watch at least part of a game in one form or another will help sell the idea.
The rhythm of a baseball game allows for conversations about things that matter as well as things that don’t; about both serious events that overshadow the moment and ephemeral things that are gone in the time between one inning and the next. The usually friendly confines of a ball game, therefore, would seem to be the perfect catalyst for a series of conversations reflecting the state of the nation, large and small.
For some people, of course, baseball will always be a means of temporary escape from the “real” world – and that, too, tells us something about our modern lives as well as the state of the nation and the resilience of the game as a refuge from it.
It seems that anyone writing about baseball and society – particularly someone who grew up outside the US – invariably ends up quoting Jacques Barzun, the French-American cultural historian who famously wrote in 1954 that “Anyone who wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Yet half a century later he apparently recanted, alluding to how commercialization of the nation’s pastime had disconnected it from the soul of the country, part of an overall worldview reflecting what he saw as the accelerating decadence of the West.
(It was probably appropriate that when Barzun was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, a recipient posthumously honored that day was Roberto Clemente.)
Matthew Trueblood wrote on Barzun’s passing in 2012 about how the game and American society had changed since that initial romantic observation, saying that “although he opined less on sports as a vehicle for public edification and diversion in recent years, I suspect he would approve of what [baseball] has done, and of what it’s capable of doing.” Given the ever-more rapidly cyclical nature of popular culture, we can obviously only speculate what he might make of it now, a decade after his death, as it prepares for the rebirth of a new season after yet another potentially debilitating labor dispute.
When I was trying to describe the idea behind States of Play to someone recently, I said it would be like if Barzun, Bill Bryson and Alexis de Tocqueville were all having a beer in the bleachers and Alistair Cooke did a broadcast about it. I can only hope it turns out to be a fraction that much fun.
Let’s see what happens.
April 1, 2022
- A quick note about the image: I took this (unfiltered and unretouched – read “artistically blurry”) photo at Camden Yards in Baltimore a few years ago and was always fond of it because it was in Orioles’ colors. Not to get too serious about these things, but maybe you might see a metaphor in it today; something grandiose about the world being on fire, or the sunset of democracy? I couldn’t possibly comment.
Most of the photos on the site are mine. The ones that aren’t are credited. If I miss any, I apologise in advance.