Bodley's book captures pulse of national pastime

Bodley's book captures pulse of national pastime

Baseball touches so many aspects of society that most people barely stop to think about it. From the culture to the language to the history, the national pastime has influenced the way people talk, think and entertain themselves.

Veteran journalist Hal Bodley, the senior correspondent for MLB.com, stopped to think about it. The result is "How Baseball Explains America," a loosely arranged collection of 17 chapters that connects the dots between the game and the various ways it informs our workaday lives.

Some of the territory covered is familiar. Chapter 9, for example, is devoted to the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Of course, it would be impossible to write a book of this nature and omit Robinson's enormous contributions and how the integration of baseball in 1947 is widely viewed as a spark for the civil rights movement as a whole.

On those occasions, the tone shifts from professorial examination to personal memoir. Bodley is in his sixth decade of covering baseball for a living. He has been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat at many of the important milestones that have occurred in the game since he began his career in 1958.

So, yes, he hits all the obligatory notes about Robinson's struggles. But he adds a recollection of sitting with President Bill Clinton at Shea Stadium on the night baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of that debut and asking Clinton what he would have said if he called to congratulate the pioneer on that historic day.

In fact, one of the recurring themes is the presidential attachment to baseball.

"It has even been reported that troops under George Washington played a form of baseball while at Valley Forge and that Washington himself liked to play catch with his lieutenants," Bodley writes.

He's had the opportunity to interview several sitting presidents and writes extensively on two particular events: Clinton intervening to try to broker a settlement of the 1994-95 strike and George W. Bush's emotional ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Bodley recalls covering Aaron Boone's dramatic 11th-inning home run against Boston in the 2003 American League Championship Series and adds as an aside: "During the offseason, [Boone] tore a knee ligament playing in a pickup basketball game. .... As a matter of trivia, had Aaron not suffered the serious injury, Alex Rodriguez might never have become a Yankee. On Feb. 26, 2004, the Yanks cut Boone from their roster. He was replaced at third base by A-Rod, who was obtained from the Texas Rangers. It's doubtful the Yankees would have tried to obtain Rodriguez in the blockbuster deal had Boone not suffered the injury."

From start to finish, the narrative toggles back and forth between making a scholarly case for baseball as a guiding force in this country to first-person recollections.

There are ruminations on how baseball's drug problems over the years have mirrored the same issues in the larger population; how Little League has been a positive force for youth, at first in the United States, now around the globe; how common phrases -- "Keep your eye on the ball" and "A whole new ballgame," for example -- are drawn from the vernacular of the sport; and how music and the movies are infused with baseball themes.

There are also passages that rely more on Bodley's recollections than research. There's a chapter on owners like Ted Turner and Charlie Finley and another devoted entirely to the late George M. Steinbrenner of the Yankees. Commissioners. Ballparks. The Hall of Fame inductions of Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, which he calls the "End of an Era."

"The job has changed. It's unlikely any of the new breed [of manager] will be able to sustain the types of careers their predecessors have built," Bodley predicts. "Most managers today are an extension of their general managers, the executive wing. They're tied to computer-generated analytical studies of players and teams. They alone seldom make all the on-field decisions."

Baseball has changed. So has America. This book illuminates how much in step one has been with the other.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.