In the opening of the film Bull Durham, the camera pans over an empty baseball field at sunset, while one of the main characters, Annie, says in a voiceover,
“I believe in the church of baseball….There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it didn’t work out between us….I’ve tried all the religions, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”
I think Annie was wise to see the connections between baseball and faith, but she gave up on Jesus too quickly. I have always considered baseball a mystical, even holy, sport. Since we’re about to enter the most joyous time of the year for a baseball fan: October; it’s the ideal time to take a look at the spiritual insights that it has to teach us.
The Journey and the Return
The object of baseball is to leave home in order to eventually return home. For this to happen, the players must advance on the base paths; support their fellow players; and experience small victories, like extra-base hits and stolen bases. Leaving home involves the risk and danger of being called out at any time, perhaps even for reasons beyond your control, but the player that does not accept the risk and never leaves home, has never really played the game.
As Christians we also embark on the Journey and the Return. We serve a God who is both our origin and our eternal destiny. And just like the baseball players who leave home, God calls us to leave our homes: our comforts, our prejudices, our complacencies, and our unquestioned assumptions; but we leave them behind for better things: our growth, as we experience the joy of the journey; the confidence of knowing we can confront obstacles and conquer them; and the community we build by supporting and helping each other.
Errors and Failure
Baseball is also a game of failure. Consider that the best hitters in the game only get a hit three out of every ten times they come up to home plate. Even your Babe Ruths, Tony Gwynns, and Sammy Sosas never batted far above .300. You might know this already, as I learned the first time I went to a batting cage and tried (and failed) to hit a 60 mile-per-hour ball, but failure is part of the unique truth of baseball. It is a game where errors are tracked and charged to players like parking citations. Some errors are inconsequential but others are disastrous and change the entire outcome of a game. Nevertheless, all errors matter in some capacity.
It reminds me of another truth in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Just like baseball’s greatest stars, we, even at our very best, still fall far below the mark. Baseball teaches us that failure, errors, and injuries are part of life and have their purpose in forming us. We are fragile and imperfect on a journey full of obstacles and pitfalls.
Slumps and Streaks
Finally, baseball teaches us that we all go through slumps, and we all go through streaks. This season I have watched my beloved Dodgers play beautifully through a stretch where they won 43 games out of 50. And just as they concluded that historic stretch, they began to lose game after game, series after series, even to teams they had bested throughout the season. The slump is just as mysterious as their winning streak. Nobody knows what brought the magic, nor what took it away.
Often, people tell me that baseball is too slow for them, but it has a rhythm all its own, just like life. Sometimes our quest to love and care for one another is slow and laborious, and at other times it moves so fast we can scarcely savor its joys. Likewise, there are times when the journey is smooth and predictable and times when things fall apart unexpectedly.We can never understand it completely, but embracing its mystery is an inescapable part of life.
Every year around this time we begin to look forward to everything the autumn has to offer: cool weather, Thanksgiving, and pumpkin…everything! I love the changing leaves and apple cider, but at this season of my life where church has been disappointing and, at times, unbearable, I have found that my favorite part of fall is the baseball playoffs. I find refuge in the church of baseball, and this attachment goes beyond distraction and getting out of my head after a long day; It’s the place where I have found God, drinking beer with friends on a summer evening. Even the poet Walt Whitman saw its beauty:
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game–the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
It certainly has been a blessing to me.
Have there been unexpected places in your life where you’ve encountered the divine and gleaned spiritual insights?