Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2005 / 24 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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America, the game

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Years ago an Italian exchange student asked me what he should know to understand America. Three things, I told him:

The Constitution.

Jazz.

Baseball.

Each represents the basic aim of American society: an ordered liberty. Each is dedicated to bringing order out of chaos. Not just any order but the kind that preserves the sense of possibility present at the beginning.

Consider the Constitution. Its great interpreters, the John Marshalls and John Marshall Harlans, took risks that seemed daring at the time, if not outrageous. Yet in retrospect their interpretations now seem as inevitable as a Mozart symphony, with each note falling into its foreordained place like the consequence of some natural law.

Lesser judges are locked into the present, unaware of the possibilities that the past presents for molding a more perfect union. They are judges of their time but no other.

Jazz, too, is a product of continuous development — from slave chanties to the blues to ragtime to swing to progressive . . . . Like constitutional law, jazz stays true to its original intent yet remains a living thing.

To keep the dream alive requires the sporadic appearance of a great artist who stretches the boundaries of the possible — a Satchmo or Bix Beiderbecke or John Coltrane . . . .

Then there is baseball. Has ever a game been so simple in its original, pastoral conception, yet so complex once its rules are applied? It's no easy thing to achieve an ordered liberty. Three-strikes-and-you're-out is a long way from the intricacies of the infield fly rule. Even the rules governing plays as simple as bunts and foul balls have acquired a Talmudic complexity over the years.

What's the difference between a bunt and a checked swing? A wild pitch and a catcher's error? A constitutional exercise of authority or an abuse of executive power? That's why we have umpires and judges.

The law is not only a matter of factual evidence, or even of rules and statutes, but sound judgment. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it: The life of the law has not been logic but experience.

An umpire's call can set off a brouhaha that only begins with a difference over the facts of the matter. Soon questions are raised about the nature of truth, authority and the desirable order of things in the baseball universe.

It happened in Chicago during the American League playoffs. At the center of the commotion was a White Sox batter with the very American name of Pierzynski. (Hey, it's as American as Pulaski County, Ark., or Kosciusko, Miss.) With the game tied and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the umpire called strike three on Pierzynski — but not the third out of the inning.

How can that be? Because, according to the ump, the catcher for the Los Angeles Angels had trapped the ball in the dirt rather than made a fair catch. The catcher, who was under a quite different impression, knew it was strike three and therefore assumed it was an out and the end of the inning. The batter knew better. He took off for first, hustling all the way. He knew that in baseball anything is possible. For example, three strikes and you're not out.

The result was the kind of delicious hullabaloo that baseball fans and constitutional scholars live for. To many watching and re-watching the tape of the play, it was clear the catch was legit and the umpire behind the plate wrong. Their conclusion: We wuz robbed! But that wasn't what the umpires saw, or decided. As in constitutional law, it's a mistake to take anything for granted in a baseball game.

A dispute like this one concerns more than an image on film. It gets into philosophical territory — much like the old story about the three umpires who are asked how they call balls and strikes.

"Balls and strikes?" replies the first umpire, an ordinary sort. "I calls 'em the way I sees 'em."

"Balls and strikes," says the second umpire, supremely confident in his eyesight, "I calls 'em the way they are."

"Balls and strikes?" says the third umpire, "They ain't nothin' till I calls 'em." He understands his function best of all: to bring order out of chaos. Just as the function of a complicated old mechanism like the Electoral College is to make the outcome of an American presidential election clear, simple, prompt — and final.

Should the Electoral College fail, that role may fall to the courts, whose duty it is to provide finality, without which there is no justice but only a never-ending disputation. At some point a clear, unappealable decision is necessary so the country will have a government. And the nation consensus.

At such times it matters not who wins or loses, or even how the game is played, so long as it can go on. What matters, and not just in baseball, is the game itself.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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