Unfinished Business

Doing the right thing.

Why Soccer Will Never Replace Baseball in America's Psyche

Two riddles and a personal reflection reveal the sport's enduring appeal

Dad and me playing ball -- circa 1956
Dad and me playing ball -- circa 1956
First, a riddle: I'm five-sixths of the way between Babe Ruth and Roger Maris? How old am I?

Here's my favorite photo ever of my father and me. I was three at the time. My father was considerably younger than my current age, which is 60 years and 10 months old. That's five-sixths of the way between the number of home runs Ruth hit in 1927 (60) and Maris hit in 1961 (61) to break Ruth's record.

If you're an American male who loves baseball, you got the answer to my riddle the second I asked it. This one will be a lot harder, unless you happen to be a family member or friend: If Ruth and Maris had been on the same Bronx-based team that played in Yankee Stadium on June 12, 2014, who would have been playing in the outfield between them, presuming that Maris was in right field and Ruth was uncharacteristically in left?

Answer: Ben Kravitz, my 17 year old son. Ben fulfilled every father's dream when he played centerfield for the Bronx High School of Science during the New York City public school championship game at Yankee Stadium. The evidence is in the photographs below.

Ben at the plate
Ben at the plate

 

There's a reason so many fathers who never cry do so at the end of the film, "Field of Dreams," when Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) sees a young catcher walking out of the Iowa cornfields to play on the field he's built in his backyard. Ray realizes that the catcher is his father. "My God, I only saw him later in life, when he was worn down," he tells his wife. "Look at him…He has his whole life in front of him, and I'm not even a glint in his eye. What do I say to him?"

On his wife's advice, Ray says, "Ya wanna have a catch?" And John Kinsella, never acknowledging that Ray is his son, but clearly knowing that he is, says, "I"d like that." But not before he asks if that field of dreams is heaven. 

Ben in dugout
Ben in dugout


Baseball lays a powerful claim on the American (and now Dominican, Venezuelan and Japanese) male's psyche. When we are children, we memorize its statistics; when we are adults, we use statistics that didn't even exist when we were young to create fantasy teams that compete against those of our friends. We mark our age by baseball, and harbor improbable dreams that our sons will play big-league baseball some day.

Ben on the base baths
Ben on the base baths
Soccer is fast, athletic, sexy, global. But, watching the World Cup, it is hard to imagine that low-scoring game ever becoming the stuff of American dreams. It doesn't produce baseball's wealth of statistics, the mechanism we Americans use to measure value, or baseball's nostalgia trove.

It's incredibly cool that I got a chance to see a child of mine play in Yankee Stadium. But I'd be remiss if I didn't reveal the parental heartbreak that preceded the surprising event. Two years earlier, during his freshman year of high school, Ben quit baseball for track. He said he was tired of baseball and liked the kids who ran track better. I took it hard. As I write in my new memoir Pilgrim, I had been looking forward to his playing baseball all winter, but now "I was losing my ability to influence my son, and it depressed me."

If I had made a similar decision as a teenager, my father would have bullied and teased me to stick with baseball, and I would have resented him for it and rebelled. I didn't want to put Ben in that position, so I swallowed my parental pride and "prerogative" and learned to live with the heartbreak as I watched him sprint through his freshman season of track. Then, in February of his sophomore year, he announced that he was going to try out for the varsity baseball team. I couldn't have been happier. Ben had come to his decision on his own, not to please me or anyone else. Baseball had exerted its claim on my son's American psyche and soul.

 

Lee Kravitz is the author of the memoirs Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek (Hudson Street Press/Penguin) and Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things (Bloomsbury) and the former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lee Kravitz is the author of the books "Pilgrim" and "Unfinished Business" and formerly editor-in-chief of Parade magazine.

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