Events: Structured and Spontaneous

As you may recall, my last post took up the matter of lifestyle. For those of you who didn’t read it, can’t recall what it said, or are always looking for the easy way out, let’s review . . . lifestyle was held out to be akin to culture, only with more attitude. That’s because it isn’t something we simply assume and let wash over us; it has to be recognized, contemplated, and intentionality engaged. Like culture, though, lifestyle can be located anywhere and comes in multiple manifestations — often in the same place. In the last post, a list of Southern California possibilities was provided, but homed in on the beach. That was fun — at least for me; refreshing, and it put a little color on my cheeks, too. I don’t know how it was for you, but that really doesn’t matter now because I am about to touch upon a second lifestyle pursuit. Unless you are a porpoise (or even if you are since they are purportedly smarter than the average human being) you can probably infer what I’m going to talk about, based on the pictures above.

Yup: baseball.

Maybe that word alone carries clout sufficient to induce half of you to immediately stop reading, but wait, take heart: this post isn’t really about baseball, at all. It is actually about existence (and not just because for some, the latter is predicated on the former). So now I know you’ll want to keep reading; for who among (the non-suicidal of) us isn’t interested in existence. Right?

You may recall (or, if you didn’t read it you probably won’t) that the prior post asserted this: what distinguishes one lifestyle from another is, in large part, the (physical, political, economic, social and moral) configuration of the space in which a lifestyle emerges. The people found there help configure the space thus (i.e. politically, economically, socially, etcetera), and, so, they also have an important hand in whatever lifestyle results. Resources and history would be other influential elements. Something I didn’t say is about the thing that a lot of lifestyles have in common — and certainly in SoCal: their leisure basis. In fact, this is something we find throughout the industrialized West. And why that might be meaningful to you, I have no real clue, but it is to me in large part because these sort of things start my engine. Particularly when I realize the degree to which (at least in the industrialized West) leisure has been wedded to consumption. In other words, lifestyle has come — indirectly, perhaps, but also possibly by nefarious means, if you listen to certain cynical accounts – to be about spending dough. Lifestyle is about purchasing a good, a service, a practice, in order to complete the acts associated with the lifestyle.

Is your engine warm yet?

Well, if not, let me bring up baseball. Not necessarily the playing of it — which would have less to do with what I just mentioned, above, but the consuming of it, which does. Baseball is to leisure what leisure is to lifestyle; so, argumentum ad logicam, baseball is a lifestyle — a particular kind, structured by rules, its fixed spatial dimensions, and rhythms caused by its habit of carving up and defining time based on a set of non-temporal conditions such as “balls” and “strikes”, “outs”, “innings” (bi-furcated into half-innings), “batting order”, “substitutions”, and fixed min-max game limits. What humans do in and around this particular bounding of time — both on and off the field — is the basis of baseball-based-leisure.

Profound, I suppose, if you look at it for too long. So . . . let’s not. Instead, let’s talk about it this way . . .

Being a leisure lifestyle in the western(ized) context, baseball’s leisurely rhythms are predicated on moolah. Without it, leisure cannot be easily had. Case in point: just getting into the local pro stadium will run you anywhere from four to a hundred and fifty a dollars – depending upon how close-up you like to witness your idols chawing on and expectorating tobacco; parking will remove at least ten from anyone’s billfold. Throw in a hot dog, a libation, peanuts and/or cracker jack, and of course, a homer’s cap and an official program, and you have the makings for a temporary-to-medium-term financial set-back. All in the pursuit of a three hour diversion.

Better hope your team wins is all I can say. Cause if they don’t – like the night I recently took some family and friends to Dodger Stadium – it can sure result in a dreary ride home. Even if you enjoy singing “and it’s ONE-TWO-THREE strikes you’re OUT at the old ball game” and shouting “You’re blind, ump!” after every strike assessed against the home team, there isn’t much leisure in losing.

Actually, even though my team got blitzed, the game was not without its benefits. For one, my son explained to me the mystic physics regulating the curve ball, which made it move right to left (in the case of a righty) – something I had never completely understood – I mean, in scientific terms; in return, I sought to explain to him the mystical financial physics regulating his education, which made our bank reserves inexorably move up to down. I tried to make it sound like it was almost magical that our stores didn’t plummet completely earthward – as if they were governed by a principle of monetary gravity that only I, in my superior exercise of craft and guile, was able to check from hitting rock bottom. Somewhere in that lengthy self-congratulatory exposition I got the sense that my son had grown beyond being fooled by his father’s tall tales.

After we had finished impressing one another with all the wisdom we had accumulated over our conscious years (and embarrassed am I to admit that, despite the disparity in our ages, I ran out of things to share at the same time he did), we returned to paying attention to the game.

Watching the game, something became clear to me near the end which made me think back to all I had witnessed at the beginning. This is called “comparison” and it is a rather useful analytic tool in any number of endeavors, although sometimes it can get misapplied such that it often gets transformed into a moratorium on the past and/or future – neither of which is the point of juxtaposing two objects in the first place. Insight and/or perspective is, both of which I think I gained.

All from engaging in a little spot of leisure. How great is life, huh?

Like most things in life, the meaning of what happened emerged in reconstruction — which is a kind of structuring of events in (and out of) sequence.

In reconstructing, it was clear that baseball — like most games — is all about structure. I mean, yeah, whatever happens is spontaneous and can often be hard to predict — which I assume is one of the appeals of sport; yet, all that transpires does so within such carefully circumscribed boundaries that how can we be surprised at whatever results? I mean just look at the situation Tiger Woods has got himself into this weekend at the U.S. Open. He’s hobbling around on a bum knee, using his club as a walking stick, grimacing on various shots, even doubled over in pain — yet he’s manged a number of incredible strokes and, in the final six holes, made TWO eagles and a birdie, enabling him to leap-frog (on a bum knee, yet!) from third to first. Whether he wins on the final day or not makes the outcome, ironically, predictable. Why? Because the final story is pre-framed either way. It will get written in one of two tradition veins concerning athletic endeavors; either: “Tiger is a golf God” (i.e. the hero’s legacy continues) or “Even Tiger can’t overcome the toll that sport takes on bodies” (i.e. golf’s God is human after all).

Stories and the frames they elicit are one structuring element of any sporting event. These are ultimate things; things we write and think and say after an event is all over. But during the event, as well, there are structuring moments — acts, rituals and practices — that determine what happens, and what we think about when we view what happens.

Before the game, there’s the batting practice, the crowd filing in, wearing their favorite player’s jerseys; there’s the pre-game introductions of the recipient of this citizenship award or that Olympic qualifying team; there’s the hot dog and beer from the vendors strolling the aisles. When it comes to peanuts, the old pros who’ve been lugging the boxes of goodies for years will reward you with a behind-the-back-wrap-around-bag-toss that amazingly can find its mark from twenty five feet. If, for some inexplicable reason, their throw goes awry, it feels like you should consider asking for your money back . . . after all, the guy wouldn’t have acted according to script. The spontaneity of the miss would have gone completely against the structure of the (mini)event.

Just like that, there may be spontaneity at the game — during the game — but it really all follows a particular form. There is the defensive players positioning themselves in designated slots (with slight adjustment for each batter), the offensive player’s introduction over the PA, their entry into the batter’s box (replete with ritual kicks at the dirt, tugs on the clothing, tics in the batting stance, and practice swings), the pitcher’s interplay with the catcher (a limited set of signs waved off or accepted), then the wind-up, and the pitch. The lulls on the field are filled in with computer-assisted stats, interviews, promotional plugs, and crowd shots on the large screens towering over the outfield. Rock music usually punctuates these interludes. An organ plays noises and snippets of ditties over the loudspeaker when a ball sprays foul, into the stands, or else in an effort to jump-start a fan-inspired rally. In the middle of the 4th and 7th innings, the grounds crew restores order to the infield, returning the disturbed base-paths to pristine condition. And, of course, in the bottom half of the seventh, there is pre-programmed revelry: the raucous singing of the time-honored “Take me out to the ballgame“.

Although there is no imperative to change players, as the action unfolds, there is often a pitcher change. Bodies break down, strategic opportunities present themselves, managers think they have to do something to justify earning a big salary. When changes happen, as if following a script, an authority figure (either manager or pitching coach) will trudge out to the mound (many mindful to avoid stepping on the white lines separating fair from foul territory), converse with the pitcher, accept the ball from him, as he departs the field, then wait to hand the ball to the replacement who walks, jogs or (seldom) sprints from the “bullpen”. After handing the new guy the ball, the manager (or pitching coach), utters a couple words of encouragement, pats the guy’s butt, then begins the long trudge back to the “dugout”. With a minor variation here or there, this structured event can be described even without witnessing any specific one.

Which is when the next thing happens that changes everything you (so confidently) thought you knew about life. Within structure, sudden, unpredictable, spontaneity.

A swinging third strike, a dropped ball, the catcher groveling to pick up the rolling orb from between the shuffling feet of the vanquished batter. A (not-so-affectionate) shove by the catcher to move the batter out of the way; the batter turning to retaliate, placing two hands squarely on the catcher’s face; a take-down with two baseballers now looking like they are auditioning for a gig in the WWE. Benches suddenly clear, with players exploding onto the field and converging to a single spot, as if corpuscles suctioned from a unplanned incision.

They mill and lock up — hands in elbows. Do a little pushing and dancing around. No one is careful about avoiding contact with the chalk any more. Fans rise from their seats, excited. Smelling something different than the pre-programmed pablum; they sense departure from the predictable script. Regard: the appearance of a spontaneous event.

And then: just as quickly as the up-cropping, the drama subsides. Form reasserts itself, order prevails. A battery of grey-suited guards take up positions on the field, arms loosely at their sides, bouncing on the balls of their feet, eyeing the stands. The umpires scatter, seeking out coaches and a few key players, disseminating messages of restraint. Acting like firemen digging their heels into a mountain slope, descending in a controlled slide, as they emit bursts of water from their hoses; putting out the random flare-ups in the receding brushfire.

Expunging spontaneity; re-constructing structure. Getting down to the business of finishing off the game, according to design. Fabricating order once more.

Michael Mandelbaum has written about the meaning of sports in America. Among his claims, his accounting for “why Americans watch baseball, football, and basketball and what they see when they do”, is that “life increasingly does not have . . . coherence,” but sports do, since “games have a beginning, a middle and an end. And at the end of a season, we know who’s won.” And, “unlike real life, (sports) feature clear rules, boundaries and outcomes.”

Which may explain why, in this particular Dodger game coherence was (and in virtually all games regardless of sport, it is) on wide display; and why structure prevailed over spontaneity. It accounts for why rationality trumped the free-form flow of emotions. Not only were both players who were party to the original tussle tossed from the game, they were subsequently fined and suspended by the League office. Their departure from the structured event was not to be rewarded; they were to serve as an example against spontaneous action.

Which is perfectly understandable, right?

After all, we wouldn’t want any disorder creeping into our leisure. Would we?