When I moved to China almost six years ago, one of the few things I truly missed about life in the US (aside from family and friends) was baseball. I was a religious follower of the game – the Yankees in particular, but mostly the game itself. A few months after I arrived, I took a trip to Inner-Mongolia with a colleague of mine from Britain who had almost no concept of the game. One night, in one of the dirtiest, filthiest hotel rooms I’ve ever seen, I spent hours trying to explain baseball. That might seem like an easy task: one guy throws a ball, another guy hits said ball, men run around in a circle. Repeat.
For a die-hard fan, it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. There are the complicated rules, of course. Understanding the infield fly rule, ground-rule doubles, balks, et cetera can be difficult to someone who has never seen a game. So can explaining the strategy of baseball, which approaches and exceeds the strategy needed for chess. Those are just technicalities, however. What’s most important, and perhaps impossible to do, is to explain the essence of baseball. To tell someone why its magical to sit in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium with thousands of other fans and watch the Bronx Bombers win the American League pennant. To explain the euphoria of catching a line-drive foul that nearly breaks every bone in your hand but leaves you grinning like a loon. To articulate the smells and sounds of a ballpark, the hoots and hollers, pretzels and hot dogs. To explain why an ordinarily rational individual would sit alone into the wee hours of the morning, screaming at a television set and biting his nails when a good game’s inning count creeps up into the mid-teens. These are mystical experiences which the uninitiated cannot begin to comprehend.
In Shoeless Joe, baseball is more than a national pastime. It’s a framework for life, a source of hope, something to hold onto and believe in when everything else is collapsing around you. It’s a shamelessly sentimental book, right down to the earthy metaphors and long-winded characters who talk with a strangely poetic fervor about anything baseball. But, it’s that sentimentality which keeps the book going. It’s about believing in something even when reality stands squarely against you. As the narrator intones, “baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true and precious as diamonds. If only life were so simple.”
I realize that much of what I’ve just written will be disregarded as nonsense by a lot of people, just as the atheist roundly disregards religious faith. That’s ok. In this regard, Shoeless Joe isn’t for everyone. Someone with no interest in baseball might see this book as a rambling, nostalgic fairy tale. Sometimes charming, sometimes hokey but ultimately unsatisfying. For a true baseball fan, this book reminds them why they love the game in the first place.