Searching For Home (Plate) in Indonesia

There aren’t that many passions that have stuck with me since I left New York City some ten years ago. But one thing feels like home wherever I encounter it: baseball.

I came to the game in the late 1990s, when the teams were great in both Queens and the Bronx. I savored Mike Piazza’s iconic 2001 home run, our city’s moment of catharsis and renewal after 9/11. I hollered from the right field bleachers at Yankee Stadium as Roger Clemens recorded his 300th win. (As a Mets fan, I attended for history, not for fandom). Since leaving the US, I followed my home team, listening to Mets broadcasts in Indonesia and Australia, if not always joyfully, then with the dogged sense of a duty fulfilled.

It took the greater isolation of field research, in Flores, Indonesia, for me to fall out of touch with the game. And I missed it. I missed its rhythms, its daily grind, its oddball terminology (“bloop,” “dinger,” “can of corn”). And I missed the feeling of continuity with history that baseball has cultivated beyond all other sports.

My participants lived in constant connection with invisible ancestors, whose actions in the past gave meaning to the present, by creating social structure and passing along their mores and traditions. In the US, that nation of immigrants, few of us can claim such a personal connection to a local past. Baseball provides us with one, offering up an air-brushed and self-serious image of a past tied to a locality, complete with fallen heroes, mischievous ghosts, and villains whose names are cursed for generations.

I thought I would have to resign myself to a year without baseball. But then I heard rumors of a local game called kasti, played with a bat and a ball. Could it be? An Indonesian version of baseball? I promised myself that I would find it.

Grasping at the familiar

Why was I so dead set on finding kasti? There were at least four reasons.

First, I thought it might help with my research. The game could provide an easy in, like an ice-breaker, to talk to new people. And in this new place, where I was always a beginner, needling my informants with dumb or obvious questions, kasti could be an area where I had particular expertise — knowledge about “true”, professional baseball. I hoped that knowledge would win me respect.

Second, I developed an elaborate fantasy about two articles I would write about kasti. One would trace the history of the game in Flores, and run in a journal of Southeast Asian studies. A second, popular version I would sell to a website dedicated to the history of baseball, which, in America, is a scholarly pursuit with a wide and dedicated audience. I thought it would be easy, and fun to boot.

Third, my actual project was hard — using the cottage textile industry to explore changing wage and gender relations, and concepts of value and exchange. But kasti wouldn’t be hard. Kasti promised to be fun.

Finally, kasti promised to feel familiar. Like visiting a McDonalds in a foreign country, playing another version of baseball promised to be just different enough to be interesting, but its differences minor, and safely contained. Everyday life in Flores wasn’t always pretty. I saw a lot of animals slaughtered, plus motorbike accidents, and the constant grinding of poverty. It was gritty, confronting, and occasionally felt dangerous. I hoped kasti would be safe and non-threatening, a source of delight, instead of fear, consternation, or disgust.

“Children play it, but they don’t play it”

And so, for months, whenever I spoke to young children, I asked about it. “Do you play kasti?”

“Yes!” they said.

“Can I see a game?”

“Oh, we don’t actually play. We just play soccer and volleyball!”

I asked people in their 30s, my own age cohort.

“Oh sure”, they said. “Kasti. We played when we were in school. Elementary school students play kasti”.

“Where could I see a game?”

“You can’t”, I was told, over and over again. “Children play it, but they don’t play it”.

Kasti became a chimera of my fieldwork year; a ghost, immaterial and untouchable, but tantalizing. Now, as I look back on that year from my office at ANU, kasti stands in for everything I failed to learn. There were so many myths that people mentioned, then declined to recount, for which I never got the full story. So many scraps of ritual speech for which I got general or metaphoric translations, but not specific, literal word meanings. And so many practices that were described to me as “something that ‘we’ do”, that nobody actually did.

Why we seek to know: to belong

There is some information about kasti on the internet here and there. Apparently kasti is a Dutch game, similar to rounders, and after Indonesia became independent it largely went out of fashion. Unlike most of the country, Flores remained largely under the control of Dutch and German missionaries into the 1970s, and so perhaps it made sense that kasti held on longer there than in other parts of the archipelago.

Learning these facts has left me flat. I’m no longer interested in writing seriously about kasti. Its emotional purpose has passed. Truth is, I probably never really cared about kasti. I didn’t want the knowledge at all. What I really wanted was an emotional crutch for my fieldwork.

I hoped that by discovering baseball in that mountain town, far from American shores, I would discover an underlying sameness that would make my presence in Flores natural and justified. In the end, I survived without it. There were plenty of other common practices that helped me fit in. But nothing else gave me the feeling of belonging that I hoped that kasti would provide. Instead, I was merely an ethnographer; not out, but not quite home.

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