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Robert Gomez

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Play Ball
3/13/2008 12:44:30 PM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Before the start of Game 1 of the World Series, the umpire yells out, “Play Ball!” As the opening kick-off is about to go underway, a large man with a painted chest bellows, “Play Ball!” The 6’5’’ league scoring champ lends high fives to each of his teammates while they get in position for tip-off before quietly whispering to himself, “Play Ball.” The common factor for all of these instances, besides the words that are spoken, is the concept of just going out there and playing the game. Nike got it right with their slogan “Just Do It”. There is nothing complicated about just playing baseball, football, or basketball. Even when it is played at the highest level, none of the greatness that is immortalized in commemorative issues of Sports Illustrated or classic re-plays on ESPN Classic can be accomplished without just going out there and playing the game.

So often in what a particular game can mean that they forget how the game is being played in the first place. Not that the games that are played are meaningless, not to the people with a vested interest in them, anyway. It is that, no matter how important you make a game, it is still just a game. Nothing done inside of the game should be treated as a personal act, and nothing should be held against the players outside of the arena or stadium. Fans and parents for the softball team of Westbrook High School threatened the team’s coach, Steve Vowell, over playing time and other matters so much that the man quit. Vowell had come up to the Maine high school after Hurricane Katrina ruined his previous home. One of the threats read, "Go Back to the South. We don`t like your softball. We know your wife`s and kids` schedules." (Chard) Neither his wife nor his kids had any involvement in the way the softball team was being coached. For people like this, people who make threats over a high school softball team, the words “Play Ball” are a simple reminder of all that is to be done in the games that are played. The games are not to be taken so seriously that it inspires people to terrorize the people players, officials, and/or the coaches who take part in them, they are simply there to put two opponents against each with the goal of seeing who the superior at that sport is on that day.

In H.G. Bissinger’s book, Friday Night Lights, which chronicles the 1988 Permian High School football team, one player forgets what the game is all about until he is given an unfortunate reminder. James “Boobie” Miles was the team’s star running back, and he let everyone know about it. Boobie wasn’t a bad guy; he simply got a little ahead of himself in terms of his future in football. Before his senior season, Boobie said, “My last year…I want to win State. You get your picture took and a lot of college people look at you.” (Bissinger Pg. 55) He didn’t say he wanted Permian, the team, to win State; it was “I” or Boobie who wanted to win State. He said he would get his picture taken and a lot of college people would be looking at him, but no one will even notice the other members of the team, who would have won State just as much as Boobie.

Well, neither Permian nor Boobie Miles ended up winning State that year; Miles got injured in a pre-season scrimmage and was never a factor. After not being able to play during the season, Boobie had a lot of time to re-think his views on football and his life. When Permian was playing Dallas Carter in the State Semi-finals, Boobie knew he no longer was a part of the team, but he wanted to be. “‘I wish I was out there with ’em,’ he thought to himself.” (Bissinger Pg. 332) Before Boobie realized football wasn’t only about him and getting noticed by everyone else, Boobie playing football meant playing with the other Permian Panthers. To Boobie Miles, “Play Ball” came to mean being just one member of a team that collaborates together in hopes of achieving a goal that is only possible when everyone on that team is on the same page. Boobie Miles used those two words to simplify what the game really meant to him.

After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, race riots of some form broke out in over 100 American cities, the biggest of which occurred in Washington D.C., Chicago, Louisville, and Baltimore. After a week of rioting, the Baltimore riots included over a thousand fires, about 4,500 arrests, 700 injuries, and six deaths. The cries of racism around the nation, and more specifically, Baltimore, had not been so numerous since the Civil War era. The cause for ending the race riots was not helped when Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew was critical of the local black leaders saying they weren’t doing their part to stop the violence and destruction, causing even more commotion within Baltimore’s black population. America was at a crossroads: either another major war would break out within the nation, or a major breakthrough in race relations would have to ensue.

Detroit had experienced even worse race riots the year before, and while the city never fully recovered, order was aided by the city rallying behind the Tigers winning the World Series the following year. A similar result occurred in Baltimore in 1968.

In his book, The Meaning of Sports, Michael Mandelbaum writes, “Team sports reflect the goal designated on the great seal of the United States and on the country’s currency: e pluribus unum. Specifically, they express the ongoing national effort to overcome two of the country’s main sources of division, geography and ethnic differences.” (Mandelbaum Pg. 34) Mandelbaum is saying that sports have a way of bringing people together. The NBA’s Baltimore Bullets were last in the Eastern Division in 1967-1968. In the off-season, the organization went out and brought in Wes Unseld, who was black, and teamed him up with Ray Scott, Gus Johnson and Earl Monroe, who were also black, and Kevin Loughery and Jack Marin, who were both white. The Bullets were much improved in 1968-1969 compared to the year before and ended up finishing in first place in the East. Their tremendous turnaround was largely attributed to the team’s ability to play well with each other, which meant black players and white players working together without any conflict. And while they would not end up winning an NBA Championship that year, the city of Baltimore devotedly followed the team.

Attendance jumped from an average of 4,754 per game in ’67-’68 to 7,635 in ’68-’69 . Some of that large attendance can be accredited to the fact that better teams tend to draw better crowds (36 wins to 57 wins), it can be noted that the following year, ’69-’70, the Bullets still won 50 games and only drew 6,096 a game. The difference was there were no race riots in 1969 and the city was not in as much turmoil as it had been the year before. And whether the majority of fans who went to those games were black or white, they still were supporting black and white players working together. In Baltimore, like it had been in Detroit the previous year, “Play Ball” was a way to bring together two races that were on the verge of a full-blown war, and prevent the violence that would have followed.

When I think about what “Play Ball” means to me, I must consider what it has meant to different groups of people over the years. When the overly-intense people hear the words “Play Ball”, it should remind them that the game is not to be taken so seriously that when a team loses, the people involved in the loss are to be condemned for it. For people like Boobie Miles, and there are plenty of them, those two words show him for whom the game is played for: the team. And for the city of Baltimore, fresh off of the low-point of the city’s century in the 1968 race riots, it was an outlet for different races to come together, because everyone was supporting the Bullets that year.

What that means to me, though, has to combine all three meanings. Not to say there are only three meanings for “Play Ball”, I am sure many other incidents have yielded many more meanings, but these are three good examples that the other meanings have to be related to or are derived from. There is no denying that the words “Play Ball” signify the start of a game. But they mean the beginning of something that brings together fans of all different demographics and players of all different demographics in a setting that is controlled. Yet it has the ability to let the players try to beat their opponent, giving the fans something to be proud of. After the game, the defeated team can be disappointed and the fans can be hurt, but there is still support for the team because there will always be another game to prove their worth.


Bissinger, H.G. Friday Night Lights. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2000.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Meaning of Sports. Cambridge: PublicAffairs, 2004.

Chard, Tom. “Westbrook Coach Says Threats Made Him Quit.” Portland Press Herald 31 May. 2007. 23 Sept. 2007

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More Blogs by Robert Gomez
• Cuban Baseball: The Hidden Struggle - Friday, March 14, 2008
• Sexuality in Sports - Thursday, March 13, 2008
•  Play Ball - Thursday, March 13, 2008  
• It’s Never Too Late for Chivalry to Ride Again - Tuesday, March 11, 2008
• Boredom on the Amtrak Express - Monday, March 10, 2008
• Hey You... Leave Me Alone! - Sunday, March 09, 2008

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