There are those who will wax poetic about baseball, branding it a pastoral pursuit played leisurely over a period of nine innings. They are the fans that descend into the stadium, delight in the scent of peanuts and hot dogs and gaze lovingly at the emerald green field, laid out in precise dimensions. These, the gentler of souls, will marvel at the grace of an outfielder as he chases down the most impossible of fly balls.
But make no mistake. Baseball is war.
Yes, most assuredly, there are rules. The pitcher shall not willingly plug a 95 mile per hour fast ball into the ribs of a hitter who last inning got him for a home run...and stood too long at home plate in admiration. Any contact no incidental to baseball in play is forbidden.
Well, war used to have rules too. Some are codified under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Some others are outdated; up until World War I it was considered verboten to fight at night. That was the unwritten "gentleman's agreement" that allowed warring sides to withdraw, lick their wounds, tend to their dead, eat a meal, sleep, then rise to fight again.
Baseball, like war, has also evolved. No longer does baseball permit players to sharpen their spikes, the better to rip the flesh off a second baseman's leg when sliding into second. The malevolent and most hated Ty Cobb wracked up dozens of doubles and broke up many a double play with those ice pick spikes of his.
But war is war and baseball is baseball...and both have more in common than we might think. After all, before our home boys (our army) takes the field there is the martial music of the Star Spangled Banner, as the pulse quickens and the blood warms. Then the "enemy" takes the field wielding wooden bats and looking menacing.
And just as the military calls for sacrifice, so does baseball, as the lead-off man leans over the base, hoping for a hit, or to be "hit" and taking the home territory of first base. At the first ball contact from hitter number two, hitter one is off for second and, if called for, is ready to fling his body horizontally into second base to break up the double play.
The number three hitter then approaches home plate, digs his heels into the soft dirt of the hitter's box, then raises above his shoulders 34 ounces of ash, determined to smash the ball into the deep confines of the outfield. After active combat with 90 mile per hour fastballs, or deceptively devilish curves, the hitter drives a high fly ball some 400 feet into the sky. But our "home boy", our center fielder, at the first crack of the bat, makes instantaneous judgements to move right or left, or elects to turn his back from home and begins sprinting toward his best guess of the track of the ball. Even if at Wrigley Field, he'll keep his eye on the ball, and if necessary hurl himself into brick and ivy, sacrificing his body for the good of the team. And if playing elsewhere he'll slam into hard lumber and his concussion will last but a few days.
And for fifty years, like war, baseball will fight at night now, under the glare of a thousand lights. But the battles are no less fierce and unit loyalty is no less important if the ultimate battle victory is to be achieved.
Sadly, despite a long history of Black heroics in our military, it took our military over 200 years to integrate; to recognize talent and character means far more than skin color. It took baseball almost as long.
After all, whether we are fighting wars, or playing baseball, we want our best and brightest on the field.