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Friday, July 19, 2013

Visiting BBC newsman sees baseball as metaphor for traditional notion of life in America where one is guaranteed to fail more than win

7/18/13, "Why baseball is a metaphor for life in America," BBC, Simon Wilson

"US baseball players have been taking some rare time off this week. In a gruelling sport with at least 162 games between April and September, the so-called All Star break gives weary bodies a chance to rest. The BBC's outgoing Washington Bureau Chief, Simon Wilson, who became a fan during his posting, says the sport helped him grasp something about what makes America tick."

"Even living here in Washington DC, it is a rare thing to see two US presidents together at the same time.

So imagine the excitement for my young daughters on a recent family night out to watch our adopted Washington Nationals baseball team

In between innings we are treated to the sight of no fewer than five previous presidents. And they are not making boring speeches or shaking hands. They are chasing each other around the edge of the field like wild kids on a playground break, pushing and tripping until one emerges victorious.

Now, of course, these are not the actual presidents themselves, just giant bobble-headed mannequins depicting Messrs Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Taft.

It is all part of the slickly-packaged razzmatazz you get at an American sporting event.

At baseball, the crowds are constantly on the move - buying beer, hot dogs and popcorn, except of course when they stand motionless together, caps over their hearts, for a belting rendition of the Star Spangled Banner or God Bless America.

On the surface, this is the America of my imagination - loud, proud and in your face.

But there is another, less obvious side to baseball that says perhaps even more about the country.
And the secret lies in the statistics.

Now, there are many, many, statistics in baseball. But the single most astonishing one is that this is a professional sport where the very best players in the world only actually hit the ball successfully a third of the time.

The other two thirds, they miss completely, are caught or thrown out and face the long, humiliating walk back to the team dugout.

Now, imagine this in any other sporting context - if two times out of three David Beckham slipped on his backside as he ran up to take a free kick.

Or if Andy Murray, serving a key point at Wimbledon, whiffed completely 66% of the time. It is unthinkable.

But this, I have come to realise over six years of intense study (and it has to be said the occasional pitch-side beer and hot dog) is the key point about baseball.

As a sport, it is really all about failure. Or more precisely how the players psychologically handle failure - the fact that they are going to miss the ball more often than they hit it.

And as I have sat in the stands over the years, I have begun to realise just why there is such a rich tradition of treating baseball as a metaphor for life in America.

This is indeed the land of opportunity where children grow up being told what a "great job" they are doing and how they might all be president one day. Which is all fine of course, except that for many, perhaps for most Americans, success never really comes. 

For much of the half decade I have lived here, this country has been struggling economically.

All across the land, in previously well-off towns where half the high street has now closed down, you meet people fighting to make ends meet.

It has also been arguable in recent times that America itself is failing, losing prestige and influence around the world while new powers such as China are on the rise.

But, just as their baseball players do, Americans are adept at picking themselves up when the market fails.

Economists have long admired the capacity of workers here to move huge distances to wherever the jobs are, something that has made the US economy so robust in the past

And it does seem to be happening again, in remote places like North Dakota where new energy discoveries are creating modern day boom towns.

In Silicon Valley in California young computer entrepreneurs are actively encouraged to take risks - even to embrace failure. The theory is that in the fast-paced world of hi-tech they will come back stronger, perhaps with the seed for the next Facebook, Apple or Google. Failure - the theory goes - will breed the next success.

So, back at the baseball game, in what has been a disappointing season so far, Washington are once again losing.

It is late in the game and 20-year-old batting sensation Bryce Harper comes to the plate. One big hit from him and our team could be back in with a chance.

He swings... he misses - and starts that long walk of shame back to his teammates.

But tomorrow Harper, the rest of the baseball team, and millions of their fellow countrymen will dust themselves off, pick themselves up - and start being American all over again."

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