New York Times Columnist David Brooks on Baseball as a Passion

As part of our summer series on baseball and American society, we present today a conversation with David Brooks. The New York Times columnist fell...

As part of our summer series on baseball and American society, we present today a conversation with David Brooks. The New York Times columnist fell in love with the New York Mets as a young boy in the late 1960s. He has remained a devoted baseball fan, including raising two baseball-playing sons.

In this interview, Brooks explains his passion for the game, the challenges before the sport and why he believes David beats Goliath.

You have described your discovery of the New York Mets in 1968, which was followed by the team’s  unexpected 1969 World Series triumph, as shaping your whole religious philosophy. Why does baseball have such a grasp on you?

It was a miracle. I had just followed a team that was in last place, or close to last place. They were the adorable losers. Then, in the ultimate David versus Goliath story, they came back the next year and beat the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles.

Joseph Campbell said that we have certain myths embedded in our unconsciousness. The myth embedded in me by baseball is that David beats Goliath, that the world is structured in a generous, humane way. The small guy beats the big guy unexpectedly. The game gives me an optimistic view of reality that maybe I would not have gotten if I had been a Chicago Cubs fan.

What do you see as the game’s biggest challenges today? Speed of play? Attracting young Americans?

The biggest challenge is youth baseball and the number of people who are not playing. A lot of us came to our love of the game through playing baseball, not just watching it.

The challenge there is that you more or less have to have a dad, or an exceptional mom, to teach you the game. And a lot of people are growing up in homes without dads.

The quality of youth coaching is also very bad. In practices, you see 15 kids on a field with one ball in play. At any moment, one kid is engaged and the rest are bored.

Improving the long-term health of the game depends upon getting kids playing and loving it and that follows them through life. Improving quality of youth coaching would be the thing I would focus on the most.

You had a son who played serious youth baseball. How did he come to love the game? Did it come from you or from some other way?

Baseball was a language we spoke when we wanted to speak about our love for each other. A lot of guys don’t talk about emotions directly. They express their love obliquely through a shared language. For some fathers and sons, it’s hunting. For others, it’s working on cars. For us, it was baseball.

He’s a pitcher, so I caught him straight through age 20. Then, I threw him batting practice. That was true for both sons.

When he got older, I traveled with him around the country when he was playing. Baseball became the bond between us.

It was true for me, and for my sons, that baseball became a way of organizing the world. It is really a complicated world. But baseball teaches lessons, such as learning success and failure. It is a structured way of grasping reality.

You said in an interview last year that baseball has taught you self-restraint. Expand upon that.

Baseball is a game where the harder you try, the worse you do. You have to stay within yourself. Also, mental discipline is required. When you pitch, you only should think about the pitch selection, where the catcher’s glove is and very little else. If your mind is wandering, it is time to get off the mound. Baseball requires you to focus.

Baseball also is a game where failure is common. Losing will happen at least a third of the time. You can’t let your emotions get too high in victory or too low in defeat. That’s another form of self-discipline baseball teaches. Players control those emotions through habits and rituals that anchor them in the moment and calm the emotions.

You also said last year that “football is an action game, baseball is a drama game.” Expand upon why baseball is a drama game.

Baseball is a drama game because so much happens between the pitches. Each pitch builds upon the last one in an at-bat. Each hit or ground out builds upon the last.

When you watch a game, especially in post-season, and the camera cuts away from the field to show fans or players in the dugout looking nervous or fearful, that arouses the emotions in between the pitches. The emotions are between each pitch and hit. That’s the dramatic tension in baseball.

In football, you celebrate the big hit or the big pass. You have drama, but it doesn’t build upon itself the way a one-one pitch builds into a two-one pitch and then a three-two pitch. That is an accumulation of dramatic moments.

In the introduction to his baseball novel Calico Joe, John Grisham writes: “To understand every minute and complicated aspect of the game is to take away from the fun.” Do you agree or disagree with that?

I am not sure I agree. You can watch for years and in almost every game or every third game you will see something that you haven’t seen before. To understand the game is a never-ending process.

Frankly, a lot of people who excel at baseball are not the brightest people on earth. But there is beauty in the way they play. 

There is also beauty in the way a statistician who follows the game. There is a beauty in that, too.

One of the developments for baseball fans has been Oakland General Manager Billy Beane’s philosophy, which was captured in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. A walk is as good as a hit. Avoid bunting. It’s all about getting on base and not making outs. How much do you buy into this philosophy?

I am 50-50. Michael Lewis is a dear friend, but I thought it only got Billy Beane’s team half-way there. Some of the good pitchers were still selected by old school scouts.

The moneyball emphasis on the small game of walks and bunts and statistics is a useful addition but it doesn’t take away from the artistry of the scout seeing how one raw player could develop into a big league player and another player could not. There is plenty of artistry left in the game that moneyball will never get at.

George Will has said that “baseball is the background music in my life.” In the summer time, how does that music play out in your head on a daily basis?

I have had a summer of travel. When I fly into a town and look down, my eye gravitates to a baseball field. When you drive along and see the yellow top of a Little League park, you know that is a baseball field. When you walk into a bar and see a game on TV, you get struck by the beauty of it. You see a pitcher throwing a slider over the corner, and then a fastball high-and-inside,  you suddenly become transfixed by the sequence of pitches. There is an eternal beauty in a beautiful pitch and seeing the pitch sequence.