Backyard Baseball; The Social Contract is Born

It’s mid-morning on a perfect Up North summer’s day.  While I’m still recovering from taking a line drive off my knee a few days ago, it was my intent to get my office cleaned up and rework my resume for the tenth time in hopes that a social studies teaching position opens in Northern Michigan for the upcoming fall.  (Being laid off due to our mismanaged state budget under Governor Snyder and the GOP legislature, who are intent on destroying public education in our state, is probably as sweet an irony for them as it is sad irony for me.)

As I started moving papers around, the 10 o’clock smores party in the front yard moved to a pick-up baseball game in the backyard.  I have no idea how many children were over, but among the familiar neighborhood voices, there were several new ones.  As the game got going, I realized that everything we need to know about society, government, and the social contract was playing out in my backyard.

Anyone who has ever sat back and listened to young people ranging in age from about 6 to 15 or so trying to organize and execute a game without adult supervision is well aware of what Hobbes meant when he called life without government “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Baseball, of course, comes with its set of rules already in place.  In fact, baseball has the longest rule book of any of the four major sports and undoubtedly most of the minor ones too.   But a game with that many rules doesn’t really translate well to a backyard where there are trees, posts, decks, no bases, no room to lay out a field where all the bases are evenly spaced, no equipment, no umpires, and no designated hitter. Perhaps the only thing in common the backyard game has with real baseball is that they are throwing something round at each other, swinging with some sort of stick, and presumably running counter-clockwise if they happen to make contact.

So I listened to the boys argue about what ball to use, what sticks were legal to use as bats, and who should be on what team.  The appropriate vehicle to getting one’s way seemed to be based entirely on who could yell the loudest.   There was no legislature to debate the rules, just chaos until everyone but one person just simply gave up yelling.

As the game got under way, there was arguing and yelling on just about every pitch.  “Strike!”  “Was not!”  “Was too…it was right here.”  “Was not!”  and on and on until one side just gave in.    Next pitch, and the same scene plays out again.   Without an impartial judiciary, everything was seen from one of two or more biased sides and, without instant replay in my backyard (maybe next year?), there was no way to know who was “right.”

But as the game progressed, I noticed less and less yelling (except for right now as a new rule is being negotiated to take effect after the next pitch.   Ah…the lads have discovered the fact that there can be no ex post facto laws!)  Many times I heard things like “I gave you the last one, I get this one,” followed almost immediately by tacit recognition of this claim by the offending side.   It was pretty clear the boys wanted to spend more time playing and less time arguing, but no vehicle existed to solve their disputes other than what they volunteered to give away in a compromise.

There were a lot of sophisticated rules that I could pick up from the “discussions.”   Remember that I can’t see any of this.  I’m sitting in my office with all the windows in the house open and simply listening.  At one point, the youngest player has struck out for like the 10th time in a row.  Someone chirps in that younger kids should get more strikes before they’re out and everyone immediately agreed.   The boys had figured out that life is not an even playing field and that the least fortunate among us sometimes need a rule written in their favor.   It is not Shane’s fault he’s the youngest; he didn’t choose when to be born the same way that race, gender, sexual orientation, and poverty are not choices in our “real” lives.  But as a group, the boys knew that if they didn’t do something, Shane would probably just give up and the game would lose an enthusiastic boy.  They’d have to redraw the teams and NO ONE wanted that to happen!

At one point there was a very heated discussion about the interpretation of one of baseball’s rules.  Back and forth they went until the inevitable “Let’s go ask Mark,” came through the window.  As quick as I could gimp, I locked myself in the bathroom and flipped the fan on knowing no one would dare interrupt me.  And they didn’t.  They went back outside and figured it out.  Had they been able to employ the dictator to enforce their rules, I have no doubt they would have had me sitting there the rest of the morning solving their disputes….fully expecting me to come up with rules, judge them, and keep the game going.

By the time the game wrapped up they had entered into a social contract.  They all gave up something they wanted in order to keep the other side from quitting.  Getting your way all the time might be fun in the short run, but if it means the other side just goes home, you’re left with being “right” but without a game to play.  So they worked out how to get along.  They had their eyes on the proper prize: playing.  They gave in on one dispute knowing that the other side would be forced to reciprocate next time.  They figured out that adding new rules could only have effect going forward because reconstructing plays after they were over using new rules would be complicated and unfair.

It is not as if there were no disputes right up to the bitter end.  But because they had constructed an atmosphere of compromise, they were settled more and more quickly and they got a lot more game in.  There’s a lot more cheering and jeering coming from the backyard now and a whole lot less screaming at each other.  Maybe I ought to throw these guys in a van and drive them to Lansing.  I could toss them on the lawn of the Capitol and tell them to play ball.   If the windows in the Capitol are open, these boys could probably have Lansing fixed in the time it took me to write this.


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