In the latest issue of Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” co-host Josh Levin ironically commented on what he saw as the tendency of pundits to confuse the Kansas City Royals’ aggressive base-running and ability to put balls in play–the “actual” skills helped them defeat the New York Mets and win the World Series in 5 games–with clichéd “intangibles” like “heart” and “hustle.”
I’d argue that Levin (an avowed and disappointed Mets fan) doesn’t quite give enough credit to the Royals’ collective will and focus, but I’m also interested in his critique of one of the central myths of sports culture: that performance and achievement “between the lines” can and should manifest broader ideological values. This aesthetic ideology of sports culture is a central theme in the readings on modern sport and amateurism we’ll be looking at over the next couple weeks.
Baseball is, in many ways, an ideal place to start our conversation on this subject because of its residual dominance of US culture. To this day, many of the idealized and contradictory definitions of identity, sport, and achievement that were embedded into baseball’s roots as both a game and a spectacle linger on in the myth of “America’s National Pastime.” At the same time, changes in the makeup of the game and baseball’s decline in popularity vis-à-vis professional football and basketball raise questions about the continuing power of the game to re-incarnate hegemonically dominant definitions. Among them: is baseball “out-of-step” with these post-modern times? In what ways does it continue to structure our understanding of our identities, and in what ways have our identities left the game behind? How are these tensions reflected in the performances of ballplayers on the field, and in the commentary on the game? Do we still believe in the much-vaunted aesthetic and symbolic power of the diamond?