- Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters by Mark Kingwell
Although Mark Kingwell contends that devout baseball fans possess an innate philosophical bent, it is certain that very few manifest the sophistication and creativity of his own philosophical excurses on baseball, many of which are collected in Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters. Professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and author of more than a dozen tomes on aesthetics, political philosophy, and social theory, Kingwell is a passionate baseball fan [End Page 229] who enjoys the artistry and competitive suspense of baseball games, their historic development, and their social significance.
Kingwell's simplest response to the question "why does baseball matter?" is answered with a paradox that informs many of his essays. Essentially, he avers that baseball matters simply because it does not. He reasons that "the genius of baseball is the way that it can be about so many things that it is not, explicitly, about," and he concludes that baseball is significant because the game itself actually achieves nothing. In that regard, he celebrates the playful seriousness of the game – that "what is important is to pretend on purpose but without purpose," a significant form of pretending that generates "the transcendental aspect of play" (emphasis in original).
Although each of the thirty-five essays is discrete, Kingwell consistently reflects on the narrative nature of baseball. Two examples indicate the range of his thinking about the game's linear structure. At a profound level, Kingwell avers that it is in the spaces between pitches and plays that one experiences "active waiting," an anticipatory state of "non-doing" that corresponds to the enigmatic Chinese idea of acting without action. At a more popular level, he suggests that the narrative structure of baseball lends itself to the verbal medium of radio because of its mutual appeal to the imagination.
Recognizing that baseball's aesthetic allure is deeply connected to the experience of "non-doing," Kingwell repeatedly heightens the reader's imagination by aligning aspects of the game with an edifying array of artistic styles and works: from the historic realism of a Pieter Breugel painting to the surrealistic work of Salvador Dali, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to Don DeLillo's Underworld, from the poetry of William Blake to that of Rainer Maria Rilke, from musical compositions by Orlando Gibbons to a ballad by Roy Orbison, and from classic films like Citizen Kane to popular television shows like The Simpsons.
More enriching to Kingwell's analysis than these artistic allusions are his references to, and his application of, various philosophical concepts to baseball rules and plays. Leading the expansive roster of philosophers upon whose works he draws are Aristotle and Georg Hegel (about whom, Kingwell quips, that he understood baseball well ahead of his time). In particularly illuminating ways, he utilizes J.L. Austin's speech-act theory to explain how an umpire's call of a third strike establishes the reality of an out, and he employs David Lewis's distinction between constitutive and regulative rules to explore the relation between rules and action. Although such analysis might be considered esoteric or ponderous, Kingwell always locates the abstract ideas within the ballpark by enlivening his narrative with anecdotes about teams and players during recent years, especially his beloved Blue Jays.
Among the noteworthy essays in this cohesive collection are a piece that examines the origin of the box score as a graphic narrative of a game, one that adapts the mathematical model of space time to intimate baseball's sacred character, and another that lauds baseball's liberating power – its ability to prompt the transformation of colonial identity into national identity, a transition [End Page 230] accomplished for Canada by the Blue Jays winning the World Series. Consistently erudite and astute, Kingwell's tractates are always accessible and often witty, making Fail Better as playful and enjoyable as a sandlot baseball game.
Joseph L. Price
Institute of Baseball Studies, Whittier College