Play Ball!

America's national pastime has always been ripe for thoughtful musings, from the metaphysics of Yogi Berra to the serene prose of Roger Angell; now, in Infinite Baseball (Oxford University Press, $21.95), Berkeley philosophy professor Alva Noë ponders the game with clarity and wit as he dissects his own claims about baseball, such as that scorekeeping is about figuring out how to tell a story. Baseball is not a numbers game, it is a quantitative game; its main concern is "who deserves credit or blame for what," and, in this sense, it is a philosophical game.

Watching, playing, umping, coaching--we observe, we cheer, we participate. If we take it seriously, we become preoccupied with keeping score. That leads Noë to the criticism that baseball is boring (it's not, if you pay attention to more than homers; but it is difficult--it requires knowledge and focus). Baseball is slow, it takes however long it takes. But, he says, we need to slow down anyway. "We need to unplug.... We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent outside of real time." He explains the "epic opportunity for self-actualization" in the showdown between pitcher and batter, wherein the at-bat is a delicate dialogue (poet Robert Francis wrote, "Not to, yet still, still to communicate/ Making the batter understand too late."); baseball on TV ("passive and sedative"); no-hitters and the meaning of life; baseball and linguistics. He dives into the controversy over PEDs: How is so-called Tommy John surgery different from performance-enhancing medicine? What if, he asks, under the right conditions, drugs "might actually improve [athletes'] health and safety by helping their bodies cope better with the extraordinarily brutal wear and tear of their labor."

Exploring the mysteries and nuances of baseball is one essence of the game. Alva Noë writes that baseball is exceptional "because we care so much about it, because we play baseball and sing its praises and write about it and endeavor to revise it and make it better." Infinite Baseball does just that. --Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness

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