Play ball, America

Fifty-six years ago, the French historian Jacques Barzun wrote: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

Fifty-six years ago, the French historian Jacques Barzun wrote: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Just as surely as the fans in Boston will root against the dreaded New York Yankees from now until October, Barzun's line will be recalled this season by those pontificators passionate about the game of Ruth and Mays, Koufax and Jeter, Ripken and Pujols.

Ever since fathers started playing catch with sons and the first recorded baseball game was etched in the books in 1846, baseball has been the American sport that captures the imagination of both intellectuals and six-year-olds. "Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season - these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?" wrote George Will, the columnist who ponders public policy when not waxing eloquently about the game.

In baseball, little things matter a great deal: a ball ruled foul by inches that could have been a game-winning home run, a called strike three on the outside corner, an outfielder shading a few feet to the left to get a better jump on the ball because the right-handed batter tends to hit to the opposite field. In baseball, both patience - waiting for the right pitch to hit - and persistence are rewarded. In baseball, there is no clock. Time is not a factor.

Baseball blends moments of contemplation with those of great intensity: game tied 3-all, bases loaded, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, 3-2 count on the Cardinals' Albert Pujols - one of the game's most feared hitters - facing the Giants' Tim Lincecum, the youngest pitcher ever to win two Cy Young awards. "Accuracy and speed, the practised eye and the hefty arm, the mind to take in and readjust to the unexpected, the possession of more than one talent and the willingness to work in harness without special orders, these are the American virtues that shine in baseball," Barzun wrote in his book God's Country and Mine: a Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words.

While much has changed in the United States, including the percentage of Americans who prefer other sports over baseball, since Barzun penned those words, the game remains a constant in the psyche of fans. Spring to many does not really start until the umpire yells "Play ball" on Opening Day, striking the chord that starts the sweet symphony that does not end until summer gives way to autumn and the final out in the World Series is made.

On April 5, the US president, Barack Obama, continued a tradition that began with William Howard Taft in 1910, by throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals game. There is no similar presidential performance for American football, basketball or any other US sport. The left-handed Obama's toss was high and wide, leading him to later say his pitching was "heartbreaking". Even presidents dream of being Koufax. Mr Obama can take solace in the fact that he did not repeat the performance of Franklin D Roosevelt, whose wild throw in 1940 broke a Washington Post photographer's camera.

"I'm the ultimate flag-waving American," the Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman told the media before the season began. "I love all that stuff. I love the fact that the president is going to be there on Opening Day. It's baseball, it's America. It's our national pastime and it's the president of the United States. It's the way it should be." Thomas Boswell, the Shakespeare of US sport writers, once penned a book titled Why Time Begins on Opening Day.

Notice the additional Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs attire appearing this time of year, even in a place as far removed from Yankee Stadium as Abu Dhabi, and you might agree that for many people it certainly does. Yes, football and cricket rule in much of the world, and despite the growing international reach of baseball - 27.7 per cent of the 833 major league players on opening day this year were born outside the United States - it cannot compare in worldwide popularity with those sports.

But to those who love the game, there is nothing better than a day at the ballpark - eating hot dogs, cheering for the home team, watching today's stars - while remembering youthful dreams of being one of them. For them, the start of the season, like spring itself, brings a new lease on life. Their favourite team, no matter the preseason predictions, has a chance to win it all. Six months of box scores and television highlights to peruse. With baseball, America is reborn each season.