As spring dawns on New York City it will mean much more than the end of a snow-coated winter. New Yorkers are anticipating their first season as reigning World Series champs in almost ten years and Yankees fans are as tense as ever about racking up another crown. Shrinks across the city are reporting anxiety dreams involving unknown archetypes of cloth pinstripes and the number 28 etched in gold.
Some say we are in the bottom of the ninth of a stormy game in this country, rife with economic, psychosocial, religious and political problems. Yet we have much to learn from baseball in the vein of Ken Burns' trope. Fully seeing how baseball mirrors our lives and can help us to change the problems besetting us.
The destructive games we as a people play are past time to end. Violence, prejudice, cynicism and injustice are so entrenched it makes it seem impossible to do anything about them and other patterns that trammel us. However, the elements of hope lingering in the air from Barack Obama's election and the momentum of the green movement can crystallize into a real gem. We can see that for as much as individuals must act in order to reshape our culture, it is a also a team effort.
Bonds between players result in winning ball. After years of assuming the Jackson Pollock role of the baseball world and waiting for a championship team to work itself out, last year Yankees brass did more than throw money at the stars. They learned that money does not buy success anymore and fostered camaraderie.
"Chemistry," as trite as it may sound, is the art of success. Direct and positive communication, when spoken and modeled, changes dynamics on a team of athletes as much as it does with coworkers. Most managerial models are disconnected and reproach-based. Bosses create crises that must then be solved amid a fog of white-knuckled stress with a red eye on the deadline. While these approaches can energize workers, they charge them at too high a cost. It creates an atmosphere of fear and the sense of needing to please authorities. When leaders cultivate intuitive, collegial and playful energy, latent talents emerge. Spark-plugs like Nick Swisher augment everybody's production numbers, and wise leaders know this.
In addition to intuition, sensible reason is a friend of any endeavor. Boston's primary Yankee yegg in the '40s and '50s, Ted Williams was the first professor of the game and perhaps its greatest hitter. His style was a moving lecture in physics and math and he explained as much in a popular book for hitters released after he retired. He looked at the game logically--as a quickly swung bat meeting a ball. He sharpened his mathematical mind at Amherst studying to fly planes for the Navy before World War II. His precision is well documented. In John Updike's eyes, he shone a "hard blue glow of high purpose."
Less known is his combination of reason and compassion. Though he shrugged off the opinions of Boston fans and the media, he related to the sport and its players with earnest care. Contrary to popular belief, he was not selfish, just gritty. He was forthcoming in his hitting advice and his empathy, poignantly evidenced in his personal encouragement of rookie Philadelphia pitcher and Purple Heart recipient Lou Brisse in his debut after a series of major surgeries following a war injury.
In a serious contest for the head and heart of this country, we can be as analytical and no-frills-sincere as Williams in our living. We can use our whole intelligence in order to transfer power in a concentrated system that gilds lilies instead of working with most people's interest in mind. Politics and business, as usual, favor their own. They are inside games fueled by the rush of power and surface success. Many of the privileged and powerful are convinced of the cult of cleverness and the gospel of social Darwinism. They believe the fate of the "stupid" is their own reckoning. This is an arbitrary cultural miscalculation passed down throughout the ages. Williams proved that smart people can have plenty of occupations and a deep side. When we come to see each other as uniquely talented, all people can make an impact in any field.
Our problems cannot be righted in a formulaic way, but they can be solved in a practical and perceptive way. A basic principle of Williams' other love, physics, is the equation "power=work/time." In a society fueled by speed and the work (or energy) of perfectionism, we can use the gears we have to transfer power by changing speed over time and modifying our expectations of when work is good enough. Shifting into freer ways of thinking and feeling will allow us to take a break from the dominant cultural vision and see where it has led us: playing left out. This change of pace and mindset will allow us to be resourceful in fixing injustices while still enjoying our lives.
First, to address speed: even as activists fiercely press for social change, most middle- and upper-class Americans do little aside from voting. The lower class generally is so stultified they have little motivation for action. Changing the pace of change is essential. The key is not conformity to a certain tempo, rather that a new approach appeal to each person and that each person make change. Going from next to nothing to open action redirects energy through time. In our personal lives, we can balance ourselves by slowing down and understanding each other as valuable and our problems as the products of deep-seated cultural misunderstandings.
Our cultural view of work must also change. The path of least resistance is, of course, ideal. In reality, it is impractical today and probably infeasible anytime. Our cultural perceptions are off; people dropped the ball a long time ago and it will take some effort to make living clearer and easier. In order to cultivate productive energy, we can change the looks we are presenting to the problems that pain us. Pressure has had its uses. It has led to medical and technological progress. It has not taken our souls very far, though, because pressure is often rooted in short-term self-interest. Resources can be used much more intelligently when they are guided through communal wisdom toward the common good. To get to this point of better resource use, we have to get to work.
Realizing that conditions in human society and wider reality will never be perfect is a necessary start so we can focus on doing what we can. (Talented hitters are lucky to hit .300 in the Major Leagues.) Writing letters and signing petitions can work as well as the more forceful methods of war tax resistance and inspired protest as long as efforts pierce the heart of the matter of global inequality and at times callous divisiveness. We can speak truth to power plainly and maturely, not using subtle sideline signs, and without fear of failure. Speaking up is itself success.
The only hang-up in this analogy is the role of defense, a factor any baseball student will say is indispensable in building a competitive team. In real life, defensive and reactionary qualities are liabilities. Internal and interpersonal competition may bring out fervor; it also foments pettiness and entitlement. Gently allowing the defensive and reactionary aspects of our psyche to do their thing instead of jumping on them is helpful. Eventually the flames burn out. This does not mean allowing pernicious actions. On closer inspection, it is quite different. It is letting go. To return to the physics equation, power is often a proxy word for control. If we can ground our culturally inherited impulse to control our mental turf, we can do the same in our outer world, pointing out the tragedies borne of this phenomenon to others instead of seeking to control them. We'll all be in better shape after outing destructive tendencies bent on control and thus realizing true power.
Knowing baseball is helpful toward this end. As Yogi Berra famously said, "Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical." Adding a grander worldview to sound reasonable action, we can go deeper than we ever thought mathematically possible.
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