As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A night was getting long in the tooth last week. My usual bedtime came and went, evidence of a successful battle against “the responsible thing to do.” A channel scroll had revealed “10th Inning”, the 2010 additive chapter to Ken Burns’s epic nine-episode/inning 1994 documentary “Baseball”. This was worth forfeiting sleep. Lord knows I have borrowed from the next day for more frivolous pursuits.
In one excerpt, legendary Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell explained that poet John Keats considered William Shakespeare’s literary brilliance rooted in Shakespeare’s lack of “negative capability” in his writing – the tendency to want to explain everything, to work out every detail, to put a tidy bow on every story or deliver a definitive conclusion. Keats contended that comfort in passive writing – letting the story breath, letting loose ends dance in the breeze – indicated the potential for creating great literature.
One of my all-time favorite sports writers talking Keats, Shakespeare and an essential element of great prose…in a baseball movie. And I was supposed to go to bed? Or record it and watch later? No chance.
Burns’s “10th Inning” devoted considerable time to baseball’s steroid era, years when the sport soiled its most hallowed records, great players compromised careers and legacies and the American pastime lost its innocence. Every year now, when Hall of Fame votes are cast, we’re left to sort through the rubble and debate the accomplishments and sins of players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens. It’s a messy exercise with no satisfying conclusion. Who was clean in that era? Who was dirty? Who was at fault? The players? The union? The owners? The commissioner? The rules were loose, enforcement was spotty and too many people were comfortable with either intentional deceit or blissful ignorance.
Boswell’s reference to Shakespeare’s negative capability has interesting application to the steroid era. It will likely always remain a confounding and disappointing experience, one incapable of being fully understood or fairly judged. Attempting to force a definitive conclusion is a fool’s errand of well-intended souls lacking negative capability. Good and bad have always co-existed in the world – the explanation may be that simple, no matter how ungratifying.
Looking around, there’s much to cause concern and thwart any mere mortal attempt at negative capability. Russia’s war in Ukraine. Political strife. Inflation. COVID. Inequitable wealth concentration. “Isms” and phobias – race, gender, national origin, etc. Climate change and natural disasters. Gun violence. Erosion of democracy. Cheap, repackaged corporate music. Ultra-processed foods. Electronic friends and virtual existences.
Sports has its worry list too. Excessive strikeouts in baseball. The struggle to balance player safety with the inherent violence of football. The three-point-obsessed, no defense, no physicality, no walking or carrying NBA. Big-time college sports that are more bedrock of sports capitalism than amateur athletics.
It is enough to conclude that this is it: the moral and ethical rot of humanity is complete, final judgment is near and the world and all its sports finally stand at the precipice of Armageddon.
Such a leap, though, would dismiss all other incorrect doomsday prophecies (Y2K, Mayans, Pat Robertson, Nostradamus, etc.), ignore humanity’s resilience and expose an astounding lack of negative capability. Yes, the world is flawed. Challenges abound. But this is perhaps the most tolerant and among the most peaceful times in world history. And our sports now…wow. The athleticism, advances in technology, the worldwide passion – this is arguably sports’ golden era.
As the holiday season approaches, it brings an opportunity for reflection. There is, as usual, much to ponder – personally, nationally and the trajectory of our shared human existence on our tiny blue dot of a planet. And much of it dampens the mood. But to rally the optimistic spirit and inspire negative capability, I’ll offer a quote, with parenthetical adds germane to this piece: “May you never be too old (or jaded or cynical) to search the skies on Christmas Eve.”
Whatever your beliefs, whether that quote be perfectly aligned or metaphorical, I trust the point resonates: there is magic in this world, and on its fields of play, and it is easy to glimpse with a timely peek.