Baseball and Life

During the spring and summer seasons, my childhood days were filled with pick-up games of line ball and backyard Whiffle ball. My buddies and I followed the heroics of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Ernie Banks. We traded baseball cards and attached them to our bikes with wooden clothes pins to hear them flutter against the spokes. As an adult, the beauty and joy of baseball has both mellowed and deepened. Whether or not you are a fan and follower of baseball—I hope you find that these truths to be relevant to your life. REM

Truths Within Baseball: Relational, Theological, and Practical

1. We all have a position and job to do. All baseball teams have pitchers, catchers, infielders, outfielders, all-stars, and role players. For a team to be successful, each player must know his role and do his best to fill that role. A team cannot win solely on the amazing performance of a single player. It takes a complete team effort—those on the field, those in the dugout, and those in the bullpen. At home or at work—to really win, everyone must know their role and how they are important to the team’s success.

2. You are lost if you don’t know where home is. “Baseball is quintessentially American in the way it tells us that as much as you travel and far as you go, out to the green frontier, the purpose is to get home, back to where the others are, the pioneer ever striving to come back to the common place. A nation of migrants always, for all their wandering, remembers that what every immigrant never forgets; that you may leave home but if you forget where home is, you are truly lost and without hope.” Bart Giamatti

3. But—when we return home—we can only stay for a short while. “Baseball is a game about homecoming. It is a journey by theft and strength, guile and speed, out around first to the far island of second, where foes lurk in the reefs and the green sea suddenly grows deeper, then to turn sharply, skimming the shallows, making for a shore that will show a friendly face, a color, a familiar language, and, at third, to proceed, no longer by paths indirect but straight, to home. Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying.” Bart Giamatti

4. To achieve anything worthwhile in life requires real risk. A batter has just hit a crisp single to the outfield and now he proudly stands on first base. This is a fine achievement—but the goal in baseball is not to arrive a first base but to cross home plate. To get to second base will require risk. The runner must creep away from first base and attempt to steal second. This is an opportunity that involves change. But he must take the risk because remaining on first base is of no value. His single only matters if he can get home. Be wise and prudent—but also do not be afraid to take risks.

5. Even fallen stars can provide lessons. When my boys were younger, they were amazed by the batting talents of Barry Bonds. As a hitter, his skill and power were incredible. But, in the public eye, Barry Bonds was not so impressive—he seemed prideful. The boys found it interesting that they were not drawn to Bonds, but to the SF Giants first baseman, J.T. Snow. Snow was not an impressive player—but he seemed like a nice guy—he played the game with integrity. One of my boys once commented, “If Barry Bonds acted nice like J.T. Snow, everybody would really love him. People already love him (Bonds) even though he seems stuck-up. But if he was nice—they’d really love him.” What won their hearts were not the towering home runs—but the winsome guy who smiled.

6. The elegant geometry and timing of baseball. Finding beauty in a moment of time. A runner is on first base and the ball is hit on the ground to an infielder. With the crack of the bat begins a beautiful ballet of sliding and lifting bodies as a double play is turned—the ball traveling to second base and then relayed to first. It is beautiful—it is art–the movement of the players and the transition of the ball in a seamless conveyance of continual motion.

The elegance of baseball-esque geometry is best appreciated with a runner on first base as a ball is hit deep to the right fielder. The ball is hit on a line as the right fielder scampers to track it down. The fielder gathers the ball and comes up throwing as the runner sprints around second base, leaning to his left as he turns the arc toward third. You can see the curved route of the runner rounding second in a race with the ball hurtling on its descending trajectory toward third base. Both ball and base runner simultaneously arrive, lines intersecting in one moment.

7. Always be alert. Baseball can seem like such a peaceful and languid game. The action seems to move so slowly. But, with the swing of the bat, things can change in a moment. And as you sit in the stands—behind first or third base—always be alert and attend to the game. Go ahead and visit with your friends, but never turn your head away from the field or ignore the pitched or batted ball. At times, life can be peaceful and pastoral, but change often comes suddenly.

8. Just try to hit the ball hard. You can only do what you are able to do—but do it! Focus on what you can control. Don’t try to be the hero. Wait for your pitch, be patient, swing at strikes, and make solid contact. Just try to hit the ball hard, and over time, good things will happen. Put the ball solidly into play and make the defense do something. Don’t try to hit for the fence. Instead, be in control of your swing, hit the ball hard, and the big hits will come on their own.

9. Take direction and throw to the glove. Be trustworthy and look out for someone else. Be willing to follow another person’s lead. A successful pitcher must trust and have confidence in his catcher. The catcher flashes the sign to his pitcher, the pitcher eventually and subtly nods his head in agreement, and he throws. The catcher needs to be a mindful shepherd. Guiding his pitcher to throw the right pitch, to the right batter, in the right situation. In turn, the pitcher needs to listen to the thoughts of the catcher and trust him. When on the mound– -the wise pitcher dialogs with the person he trusts so he can focus on one thing—pitching.

10. Most of the time, the signs from the 3rd base coach don’t mean a thing—they’re just distractions. The batter steps out of the batter’s box and glances over his left shoulder as he watches an older man, standing in foul territory near third base, as he wipes his hands on his jersey, taps a finger to his cap, rubs the back of his neck, and then claps his hands three times. In life there are many decoys—there are communications and messages that actually say nothing at all. If you watch the third base coach very carefully, you’ll discern that most of his gestures and movements don’t mean a thing. Most of his movements are theatrical distractions meant only to confuse others—to deceive and distract. So, don’t be distracted, but be watchful, and know what you’re looking for. Look for the indicator, get the sign, receive the message, and then do the right thing.

11. Ballpark food is a nice treat—but it’s a rip-off. Treat yourself every so often. When it is time to celebrate, celebrate with gusto. But, don’t volunteer to get ripped off. I attend many baseball games in San Francisco, but I don’t purchase ballpark food or beverages. I’d rather plan ahead and enjoy good food at a fair price. Rather than having a ballpark hot dog and an overpriced beverage, I prefer to walk to Chinatown and enjoy a bowl of wonton soup and a plate of chow mien. I’d rather walk to the Ferry Building and enjoy a cup of coffee and a baguette of real sour french bread. I’d rather find a sandwich shop and bring the sandwich with me into the ballpark. Ballpark food is not bad, but other food is better. Make your choices wisely.

12. If you’re going to a baseball game—why not make a day of it—celebrate—arrive early and leave late. Make the most of the moment. Going to a baseball game is an event. Don’t be hurried into it. Arrive early and take in the neighborhood. Immerse yourself in the pre-game buzz and excitement. Take in batting practice as you watch players stretch, run on the outfield grass, and shag fly balls. Stand up, put your hand over your heart, and even sing the national anthem. When the game has ended don’t leave early, don’t cheat yourself. Drink it all in. Enjoy the very last drop. And don’t fight the exit lines. Linger in your seat, take in the view, enjoy the quiet and calm following the game. Your car (and the rest of life) will wait for you. There is a season for everything. This is a moment to savor and not rush.

13. Bring your camera and make a memory. Some of my warmest memories from childhood and as a father have been built in ballparks. Memories of exciting plays, memories of standing and cheering, memories of baseball characters who I’ve shared with those I love. And whenever I go to a baseball game, I bring a camera because I want to remember those sweet, shared moments.

14. Bring your glove to the game—good things can happen. Having your glove on your hand keeps you engaged. If you are going to live, if you are going to show up, be fully engaged. If you’re going to a baseball game, bring your glove. Will a batted ball come your way? Probably not. But just having the glove on your hand keeps your mind and heart in the game. So—if you are going to show up at the ballpark of life, bring your glove. Be fully engaged and be ready. Be prepared for a surprise—a ball may just come your way.

15. Bring someone you love to share the game and the moment. Don’t live life alone. And don’t go to a baseball game alone. Baseball players and baseball fans survive and thrive in community. The game only counts if you share it with someone. So buy an extra ticket and bring someone to the game.

16. Baseball and its season (much like life and love) can break your heart. “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the Spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the Summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rain comes, it stops and leaves you to face the Fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, and when you need it most, it stops.” B. Giamatti.

17. Overcoming fear. “A man on a hill prepares to throw a rock at a man slightly below him, not far away, who holds a club. First, fear must be overcome; no one finally knows where the pitched ball, or hit ball, will go. Most of the time control, agility, planning avert brutality and force sport. Occasionally, suddenly, usually unaccountably, the primitive act of throwing or striking results in terrible injury. The fear is never absent, the fear that randomness will take over. If hitting a major league fastball is the most difficult act in organized sport, the difficulty derives in part from the need to overcome fear in a split second.” B. Giamatti

18. Playing catch—the rhythm, reciprocity, and being together—sharing. “Can there be a more peaceful, cooperative, and reciprocal activity than playing catch? In the backyard, at the park, or at the beach. Tossing a baseball. Not too fast and not too slow. Throw the ball just like the other person likes. There might be conversation as you throw the ball—there may be a peaceful silence. The ball whirs through the air and the glove closes on each toss. There is no time limit, keeping score. There is no winner or loser. You are doing this

separately and together. Together you are playing catch with life. But, playing catch can be complicated. A game of catch is a complicated communication. The father has the stronger arms, the surer hands. The child has the enthusiasm, a passionate hope that his ball playing will improve, and something immediate to find out. The first time a baseball bounces against your shin or pops out of your glove into your cheekbone, you learn the presiding reality of the sport. The ball is hard. After that, you make a decision. Is the pain the ball inflicts worth the pleasure of playing the game? Pain and pleasure, the stuff of love and life, runs strong in baseball.” Roger Kahn

19. It’s just a game and a story—but it’s much more than a story. Baseball is a game of history. On a macro-scale its history includes labor strife, geographical change, population migration, and racial integration. But, baseball is also a story of individuals and teams. Amazing stories of struggle, triumph, overcoming adversity, and not finishing well. Stories of Lou Gehrig (“You’ve been reading about the bad break I got. Yet, today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”), the 1919 Chicago White (Black) Sox scandal (“Joe—say it ain’t so”), Bill Buckner (1986 World Series and the grounder through his legs), Jim Abbott (the one-handed pitcher), and Branch Rickey (the general manager who broke the color barrier and introduced Jackie Robinson to the major leagues). Our lives make sense as stories. And our lives are a part of much bigger stories. We all need to know our stories. We need to understand how we are built from the stories that have come before us and how they nurture and propel the stories that follow. As Grantland Rice wrote, “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”

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