“Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark”
The author: Alva Noe
The publishing info: Oxford University Press, $21.95, 208 pages, released April 1.
The review in 90 feet or less
Our attempt each year is begin or close the 30-day series of baseball book reviews with some really deep thinking.
Use your brain. See how it connects to your heart.
This fits perfect into our philosophy. How else can we put it?
In 2018, we led off with “Why Baseball Matters” by Susan Jacoby, and ended with “If God Invented Baseball” by poet E. Ethelbert Miller.
In 2014, it was Hal Bodley”s “How Baseball Explains America.” The year before, it’s “Baseball as a Road to God” by John Sexton.
We ended 2010 with “Six Decades of Baseball: A Personal Narrative” by Bill Lewers, a dad who wanted to leave a document for his sons. A year earlier, the closer was “Parables from the Diamond: Meditations for Men on Baseball and Life” by Phil Christopher and Glenn Dromgogle.
(Apologies, but as we’ve recently learned, the reviews posted for those books above, except for 2018, have disappeared from the platform where they were posted. The platform, for that matter, was taken down by the original publisher. It’s too bad, really. Like a giant erase board, as if they didn’t exist in the first place. Let’s ponder that another day).
Noe, a writer and philosopher living in Berkeley, comes from the world of deep thinking, a contributor to the now defunct National Public Radio’s science blog “13.7: Cosmos and Culture” (www.npr.org/137) from 2010 to ’17. (At least they didn’t just tear the thing down and make it disappear. It’s still there. Thankfully.)
These are the best of his posts — we trust an editor may have also helped select, because the writer often doesn’t know which is his “best” until someone else says so — as they pertain to a few specific areas of what he observes about baseball. He breaks it into five main themes: The beauty of a “boring” game, why we keep score, baseball as its own language, the game’s “cyborg” nature, and then his personal memories. For Noe, it comes in the context of being a kid growing up in Greenwich Village with two artists as parents who didn’t believe in having a TV, only a radio. Which made following Mets games in the 1970s a bit antiquated. But you had to use your imagination.
Simply put, as Noe does on page 176, this is a book “about why baseball is worth loving. Really, it’s a book about why baseball matters, and why it has much to teach, even those of us who aren’t lifetime devotees of the game.”
He also reflects on why the game lends itself to the best writing, and writing by intellectuals, referring to how the great paleontologist and scholar of evolutionary history Stephen Jay Gould has a noted collection of baseball writing that resonates with him — like the 2003 “Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball.” (Which has a David Halberstam intro, also to our delight).
Noe goes on in a footnote to list more personal favorites: Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding,” John Updike’s essay on Ted Williams in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” George Will’s “Men at Work,” and “everything by Roger Angell.”
(Ah, may we suggest: “No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing” by Joe Bonomo, which, in the great circle of these baseball reviews, we posted about on Day 1 — noting this isn’t a “best of” collection, but an intriguing sort of bio that gets to the heart of his messages. It also comes out … tomorrow).
Noe explains particularly how baseball is an infinite game. Or not really a game at all, “it is a world.” We’ll save his words for your eyes and not try to deconstruct anything here. It’s like a painting in an art gallery. You’re supposed to inhale it and process it yourself. Don’t get a critic get in the way of any esoteric interpretation.
OK, we can’t help ourselves.
Ultimately, the message we come away with is that Noe seems particularly offended by those who complain about the typical length of a game. He argues it should be longer so we can process things during its lulls better.
Like, in philosophy.
(Sorry, were we clapping out loud after that?)
From page 32, he throws a flag about how rule changes to speed up the game “aren’t designed to improve the game but, rather, to improve the product.”
(Again, a hearty cheer on this end).
Here’s the text:
“I can’t second-guess Major League Baseball’s analysis of marketing realities and its economic interests. … But I think they are making a big mistake nonetheless. What makes baseball boring – and I agree that lots of people think baseball is boring – is the same that makes classic music boring: it’s difficult. It takes knowledge and focus to understand … You’ve got to be quick to keep track of what’s goin on so that you don’t get stuck making decisions too late. … (Everyone on the field0 is hard at work, deliberating, communicating, deciding. And delivering action in real time.
“(If you find all this boring) maybe you just aren’t even really paying attention, multitasking as you may be with your smartphone. Boredom is the fruit of your disconnect, your disengagement. But speeding up play is not a remedy for this kind of boredom. … The problem baseball faces isn’t that it goes too slow. The problem is that it doesn’t go slow enough. Players and spectators alike need to slow down and let baseball happen.”
Those slowly rolling their eyes at this point need not continue. But we did, and will.
How it goes down in the scorebook
A sideways “8” … fly ball to a Little League center fielder, who happened to be laying on the grass looking at the clouds and had the ball land in his glove.
He came, he saw, he caught the ball. What else needs to be accomplished?
Read a Q&A with Noe in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.
We came across a story recently that cited a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts in 2017, It noted the average person spends just over 27 seconds looking at a great work of art when in the non-rushed process of touring a museum. Why are they in a race to finish? Maybe because of a time limit, or they’re with a friend who is a competitive critic.
As a result, there is what’s now called Slow Art Day, which aims to encourage people to learn the concept that it’s the quality, not quantity, of art-looking that matters. It happened last April 6.
Why can’t we have a slow baseball day? And during it, have people read this book between innings. Instead of complaining about Why Baseball is Slow, embrace it as a new branding slogan in today’s mixed-up, atoms-colliding, noise-abounding mess of an unorganized polarizing system?
(OK, here’s another NPR take, by Scott Simon, posted last month, on why the game is so slow …. Read it quickly because you already know where it’s going.)
Also, take a moment to see how this Little Leaguer — again, they’ve got it figured out — seized the basepath:
For this simple 5×7 notecard sized publication, we congratulate Oxford University Press for even having the audacity to print this. It is available in CD and might be better consumed through audio headphones. But this really is an extension of the University of Oxford, which has produced poets and playwrights, composers and explorers, 27 British Prime Ministers, 50 Nobel Prize winners and 120 Olympic medalists. Plus Dudley Moore and Hugh Grant. Who probably once saw a baseball game but didn’t understand the least of it.
It’s with gratitude we offer a couple of “professional” reviewers to also shed their light on this, such as the aforementioned George Will (“He does what a philosopher should do: When you finish this slender volume you will have a new way of seeing familiar things.“) and ESPN’s Jeff Passan (“Noe wields a philosopher’s wit and wisdom to cut through modern sports’ recycled rhetoric and arrive at a place we all should be: that baseball is life, it’s love and it’s damn near perfect.“)
A perfect ending, indeed. Our affinity it pledged to infinity and beyond.