Good job today boys. . .I really missed it the last year. Nothing like the brotherhood of softball. . .fresh air. . .the crack of another wood bat. . .stinging hands. . .the smell of old leather on my hand again…Walter talkin fishin. . .body soreness. . . . Great to see all you boys again.
–Joe D., middle-aged infielder, Nativity parish Team II, after the first practice of 2021
American professional sports leagues no longer provide the same kind of bonding experience for the nation that they used to. The NBA and the NFL saw ratings drops when they became opportunities for left-wing displays and harangues by players, coaches, and officials. The NBA is perhaps wokest of the leagues and has accordingly seen their ratings dropping over the last decade. This year they have been 13% lower even than last year’s COVID-impaired season (NBA Ratings Prove the League Is In an Undeniable Decline – OutKick). But the once-patriotic NFL and Major League Baseball have been getting into the act over the last few years, with kneeling controversies in the former and now this spring the latter’s decision to move the All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver because of proposed Georgia election reforms. This was particularly stupid given that baseball had been struggling with declining numbers of fans even before they decided to join the other professional leagues in left-wing political posturing. Nobody says, “MSNBC is not coming in clearly on the television—I’d better watch some professional sports to keep up on progressive thought!”
The tragedy of these decisions is not just that they mean less money for the millionaires and billionaires who play for, coach, and own these leagues. The tragedy is that sports have always served as an agent of unity not just for fans of the same team but for Americans as a whole because of the role they have played in aiding in the development of “social capital.” In Harvard Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam’s famous 2001 book Bowling Alone, which lamented its decline, he defined “social capital” as “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” A society in which people develop broad social networks by working together on various kinds of projects, serious and playful, leads to a society in which people can trust each other and work together even when they disagree seriously about major issues. As any American who has traveled abroad will understand, bonding over American spectator sports can take place even if you and your fellow traveler or expatriate root for the opposite teams.
Yet if the divisiveness of woke sports is a problem, the title of Putnam’s book itself pointed to how the sports we play are even more important than the ones we watch—the decline of bowling leagues was a bad sign for the country. We have yet to see the advent of politically-oriented amateur sports leagues. That is why one of the most hopeful things this year has been the return of summer softball. Even in COVID-tyrannical California, a return to the softball diamond has been deemed possible. Steve Loomis, commissioner of the Western Nevada County Slo-pitch Softball Association, announced before the beginning of their May 1 opener that there was so much interest that he was organizing two seasons for spring and summer (Local softball leagues set to return after lost 2020 season | TheUnion.com)
Here in Minnesota my team, Nativity of our Lord parish Team II (we’re not terribly creative about naming at the parish) also started at the beginning of May. The Slo-Timers League, to which we belong, demonstrates exactly how social capital is built across socio-economic, ethnic, and racial categories. Most of all, it builds it across age categories. Though the league might sound as if it’s for older players alone, by league rules you only have to be 28 to play, with two players under the minimum age allowed per team. This means that some teams have dads and sons playing together.
The rules are set up such that all ages can play and have fun and, well, be safe. Wood bats alone are used, leading to fewer hard hits at the pitcher than leagues with aluminum bats. Any batter who can make it to first may request a courtesy runner. That first base is itself one of the double-wide versions that mean the first baseman can be far enough way to avoid collisions with the runner. Only the managers are allowed to argue with the umpire according to league rules, though in our two first games this year we had no umpires—and there was even less arguing than usual.
Young, middle-aged, and old all share in the excitement and, most importantly, the post-game beer. Win or lose, the saying goes, the beer is cold. The bringer of liquid refreshment—traditionally the first guy to strike out—brings non-alcoholic beverages for the kids who’ve come to watch dad or play on the playgrounds. Sometimes on summer evenings we stand long after dark talking about sports, work, kids, grandkids, our many injuries, and faith. We get recommendations for repair guys or where to go for good fishing or hunting. We tell jokes and share neighborhood gossip. Rarely does politics enter into the conversation, but when they do, it is generally the local issues that quite often cross the boundaries of our national political tribes.
You know what they say about diamonds and girls, but for a country with fraying social trust and a good deal of rancor, softball diamonds look more and more like one of Lady Liberty’s best friends. Play ball!
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