Fail Better: What baseball can teach us about failure and community
Baseball may have inspired more books than any other sport — but none quite like philosopher Mark Kingwell's recently published, Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters. It's the first book-length philosophical meditation on what has been called America's national pastime. Paul Kennedy takes him out to a ballgame, and discusses everything from RBIs, to the metaphysics of failure, and how Kingwell borrowed the title for his baseball book from a work by Samuel Beckett. **This episode originally aired June 7, 2017.
Baseball As Failure
"It is a commonplace among baseball people that the game is about failure. Very true. It comes in many forms. Most obvious: failure at the plate. Everyone knows that if you fail seven times out of ten to get on base with a hit — walks and struck-batsmen don't count, nor do sacrifices (bunt or fly) — you are a potential Hall-of-Fame hitter. Reaching first base on an error or a fielder's choice also doesn't count as a hit, though it does count as an at-bat, because rewarding somebody just for getting there would give credit where credit is not due, or maybe it would be too easy."
The Beauty of Failure
"Every book fails, as [Samuel] Beckett reminds us. That's because books are human projects and every human project, including each human life, fails. There is no perfection in the republic of letters any more than there is in the mortal realm. But an imperfect life can still be a beautiful one, and though all of our lives must end, there is much success in that universal failure of mortality. That is the nature of things: a life finished is not, any more than a game suspended, a final decision. And always, always, there is the possibility of better."
Baseball and Infinity
"An infinite game is a game that has no purpose beyond itself. But the purpose within itself is precisely to expand the realm of human possibility… An infinite game is governed by the norms of poiesis, in the original Greek sense of creativity itself. In English we hear this etymological root when we talk about poems and poetry, but poiesis in Greek just means 'making'. Poiesis does not necessarily mean the making of things; it can be the making of moves, of gestures, of ideas…. You do not have to be Georgia O'Keefe to see that art is an infinite game in this way. Philosophy and poetry are also infinite games in this sense of undirected, non-utilitarian purposiveness. Baseball stands unique in this array, it seems to me, as the technically finite game with infinite possibilities, the closest a competitive sport comes to the status of art..."
Baseball as Paradox
"Baseball generates its own paradoxes, and exerts its own particular seductions. Why should it matter to me that these players, on this day, engaged in this odd contest? It should not, and yet it does. If you love the game, that is more than sufficient: if you do not, no amount of argument will shift the balance — a fact known to anyone who has taken a skeptic to a baseball game. As Homer Simpson realizes when Duff beer is suddenly unavailable at Isotope Stadium, baseball without love is just boring. It can also seem endless, infinite in the bad sense."
There are 162 games in every "regular" season of major league baseball. As all true book-loving baseball fans almost intuitively understand, there should be at least that many titles on any list of "best baseball books." There is nothing "normal" or "regular" about any given year. Baseball has fascinated more writers than any other sport, and thereby produced an inordinate number of truly extraordinary books.
Off the top of my head, here's a short list of five books. If you asked me again tomorrow, I could (and probably would) suggest five completely different titles.
I'll start with The Longest Home Run by Roch Carrier. (For parents with young children, think of The Hockey Sweater combined with The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch.) If you're not hooked by the opening sentence, there's no reason to read any further: "The longest home run in the history of baseball was hit by a girl…."
Another Canadian baseball book deserves a much wider international audience. Paul Quarrington's second novel was a mini-masterpiece called Home Game. A team of small-town fundamentalists challenge a team of sixty-ish freaks to a game of baseball to decide which side should leave town. Quarrington wrote ten novels before his premature death in 2010. He was getting better all the time. If he'd lived a decade Ionger, I believe he was capable of producing the best baseball book of all time.
W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe gets included in almost every list of best baseball books, although most people are more familiar with the movie Field of Dreams (which was based on the book.) This is an obvious example of the book being MUCH better than the movie!
It's the other way around with Bernard Malamud. The Natural was the author's first book. The plot follows a prodigious baseball player named Roy Hobbs, who tries to make a comeback after being shot by a mysterious woman named Harriet Bird. Robert Redford played Hobbs in the 1984 film adaptation, which is only spoiled by the happy Hollywood ending. Read the book!
Finally, The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, is on almost everybody's list of best baseball books — which is where it definitely deserves to be. It's a glowing autobiographical romp about growing up within a short line drive of legendary Ebbet's Field, and becoming a sportswriter who writes about the Brooklyn Dodgers. I once made a radio show about Jackie Robinson. I will forever regret that I didn't interview Roger Kahn.