Baseball as Foreign Policy

By Matt Lanka
World Baseball Classic

In 1889, the great American poet Walt Whitman said of baseball, “it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.

In 1919, American philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen described baseball as America’s national religion in his book The Faith of a Liberal. He wrote, “by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national. The essence of religious experience, we are told, is the ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.’ And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another?”

In a 2001 essay entitled “The American Church of Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” New York University professor Roberta Newman echoed Cohen, writing, ” In this country, where the secular is frequently imbued with religious significance, baseball, the national pastime, may be said to serve as the American religion. Indeed, our vocabulary is filled with references likening baseball and the places it is played to religion and religious practice.”

In a 2008 article for the New York Times, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called baseball, “this quintessentially American game, with its sudden bursts of drama, punctuated by periods of calm, which permit reflection on the subtle positioning of players, the minute adjustments that mark the difference between excellence and mediocrity, before a new drama subsumes all reflection in the emotion of the moment.”

These four examples (and countless others) serve to show just how closely our national conscience is forever intertwined with baseball and its history. The sport most closely reflects the American ideals of freedom and equality that we ostensibly wish to serve as a model for developing nations.

Yet only relatively recently has baseball started to become a world sport in the same way that soccer is a world sport. The game that was invented in America took the better part of 100 years to find acceptance beyond its borders. It has since been embraced in most of Central and South America, Japan, Korea, and parts of Europe.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception baseball has received around the world by those nations who have adopted it, it is not an obvious part of the United States’ efforts to win respect and affection abroad. In the modern world, the US is most closely associated with unilateral invasions, drone strikes and torture, none of which make for good public relations either at home or abroad. Why couldn’t America’s beloved sport open positive dialogues and bring nations together in the same way it has done so at home between opposing political factions or ideologies?

Much of the ground work has already been completed in the form of the World Baseball Classic. Founded in 2005, this tournament features the best professional teams the baseball world has to offer playing against one another on an international stage. The teams are comprised of current MLB players and young prospects from many different nationalities. The WBC is an overwhelmingly positive thing for both the sport of baseball and the US. It should continue to expand to include more and more countries, and the US should promote it as much as possible.

Sports and games have always been an escape from the realities of life for all people around the world. To be sure, baseball won’t feed the hungry or overthrow oppressive regimes. But it will bring something money can’t buy: happiness. Improving the quality of life of all peoples is something baseball is good at, and we should encourage it to flourish around the world. It can be a way of opening doors that would otherwise be closed. It cuts across cultures and language barriers to provide a common experience among people that is not weighed down by politics. Maybe if we all can experience the same love for the same game, are differences as people wont’ seem as insurmountable after all.

Matt Lanka is a Mariners writer for Follow him on Twitter @mattlanka, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

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