Saturday, January 17, 2015

Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Baseball

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 21, 2007

We are, in some ways, a peculiar church. That’s a good thing. This week it’s baseball. Next week, it’s Bruce Springsteen. The week after that, November 4, we consider “The Gospel According to Michael Moore”. That’s a pretty wide waterfront. Those aren’t your “typical” religious topics.
It’s not that I have this overarching need to be “cutting edge” or “trendy”. I hate both of those words. (Just look at the way I dress: Trendy? Me? Hardly.) It’s not a desperate thrashing about to find ways to make this old institution of the church “relevant” to a modern age. No, it’s something more:
One declaration we make in this particular (maybe peculiar) household of faith we inhabit is that everything we do is gist for the religious mill. All aspects of our lives are relevant to the consideration of our spiritual souls. We seek a unity between body and soul; between the physical and the spiritual; we recognize no stark and austere division between sacred and secular, between holy and profane.
“This is my Father’s world!” the more traditional among us might sing: all of it; all the world is God’s creation; all aspects of our living are reflections of the unfolding of the Holy in our lives. Or, as we sang earlier this morning:
“For all that is our life we sing our thanks and praise;
for all life is a gift which we are called to use
to build the common good and make our own days glad.”
So we are talking about baseball this morning because baseball is part of life (for many of us)—and, as Gibran said, our daily life is our temple and our religion.
But on a deeper level, too, baseball may well have lessons to teach. Many wise men (and, no doubt, a few wise women) have sung its praises and plumbed its insights. There is a book called The Tao of Baseball, and one called Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Successful Management in Any Field. The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Donald Hall, wrote a well-known essay called “The Country of Baseball”. A. Bartlett Giamatti, whose reading “The Green Fields of the Mind” we shared earlier, was a scholar in Renaissance literature, president of Yale University, and only then Commissioner of Baseball. (He was also a die-hard Red Sox fan, up until his death in 1989.) Conservative columnist George Will wrote a book about baseball as well. But as I have said, numerous intelligent people have considered its lessons, too.
Baseball has its own high priest of sagacity and wisdom: the inimitable Yogi Berra, who has added such wealth to our collective intellectual treasure as:
  • "90% of the game is physical, the other half is mental."
  • "If the people don't want to come to the ballpark, how you gonna stop them?"
  • "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
  • "You can't hit and think at the same time."
  • "If Babe Ruth were alive today, he'd turn over in his grave."
And (my favorite):
  • "You should always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise, they won't come to yours."
In his own defense (I think), Yogi was also once quoted as saying: “I never said half the things I really said.” But as he was also the first to say, with much real wisdom, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” (He said it when the 1973 Mets he was managing trailed the Chicago Cubs by 9 ½ games late in September. They rallied and overtook the Cubs in the end.)
“It ain’t over till it’s over.” And in baseball (and in life) it’s never really over—not for the long haul. For a single game, maybe. Or a single series. Or even for a season. But as in life, our Octobers have in them the seeds of our Aprils; and every Game Seven of the World Series beckons expectantly toward the next Opening Day.
There is so much wisdom in this game that is so like a religion to so many. The same could be said of many sports, I know. But I have never felt the same allure that many feel for football, and the poets and the scribes have not (to my knowledge) waxed as poetic of the gridiron as they have of the baseball diamond.
All sports have their myths and heroes, I suspect. But nowhere are they as widespread as those about baseball. Nowhere do these more general myths touch and intersect and resonate with my own personal narrative.
Not that I was much of a ballplayer myself (hard as that might be for some of you to believe). My position in most games was “left bench”. I was always the reserve right fielder, put in only in the seventh inning. Of a seven inning game. If we were ahead (or behind) by at least seven runs. Ten runs if it was an important game. I can remember coming to bat nine times altogether—and I got two hits (which makes me a lifetime .222 hitter, which could be worse; so I quite while I was ahead—in junior high, at about 12, I think, so that I wouldn’t become like Dave Stapleton, the former Red Sox first baseman who was the only player in all of the history of baseball whose batting average actually dropped every year he was in the majors: from an awesome .321 in 1980 to a pathetic .128 before his release in 1986. I had an inkling that that sort of fate might await me, so I settled for .222.)
Time is relentless, especially when we start considering chronological milestones like anniversaries. They really give us some idea of how far we’ve traveled (which is to say “how old we are”, but “how far we’ve traveled” has a nicer ring to it.) Next year (2008) will be for Elizabeth and me, the 30th anniversary of our wedding, which is hard to believe. But even harder to believe is that this year—indeed this very month—is the 40th anniversary of the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team of 1967. Can it be forty years already? It all seems as clear as day. Why is it, I sometimes ask myself, that I can name for you the entire Sox starting rotation in the 1967 Series (Lonborg- Santiago- Bell- Lonborg- Wasilewski- Lonborg), but forget the names of half of my cousins? It’s been a long time ago now; but with each new season, it all becomes as fresh as ever: a grand re-creation of the new day. The slate is wiped clean, all past errors are forgiven (if not forgotten) and everything is possible. When the 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote that “Nothing worth doing is achieved in one lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope,” he wasn’t writing about the pre-2004 Red Sox, though he could have been. Maybe he meant the Cubs (who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and heavn’t even gone to the Series since 1945).
But every season, as April with its sweet showers comes, the Cubs are right there, willing and able, along with the Red Sox and all the rest—to give it another go, with the thought that “this could be the year” abiding in the hearts of their fans until they are statistically eliminated (October 7 this year) – or lose the best of five Division Series—or the best of seven League Championship—or the best of seven World Series. Or until (saints be praised, as the Red Sox in 2004), they win, and be darned, it really is “the year”. But it does make you doubt that there is, in baseball at least, such a thing as “divine justice” when the Yankees can make the World Series 25 times since 1945—and even teams like the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins can make it (twice for the Marlins), but not the Cubs.
But then again, maybe it’s not supposed to be about divine justice. Maybe God has nothing to do with it. Maybe, when it comes to baseball, God is agnostic. As much as we might like to think that God is Red Sox fan, He (or She) is not (history, at least before 2004, would seem to indicate that). So if the Yankees have won the pennant those 25 times since 1945 (39 times over all, with 26 World Series wins), doesn’t that mean God is a Yankees fan? I shudder at the very thought (I would believe in pre-destination and original sin before I ever believed that!) Maybe, in baseball at least, God is a deist (perhaps the Deist-in-Chief): “I gave you legs to run and arms to throw and keen eyes to discern a fastball from a curve,” God seems to be saying. “I gave you minds creative and nuanced enough to come up with something like the infield fly rule or the dropped third strike. I did not smote you (though I was tempted) when you instituted the designated hitter or moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. Now, it’s your game—go and ‘Play ball!’”
So, it’s only a game. But it entices us with its rituals and bewitches us with its drama, year after year—perhaps because, in so many ways, it mirrors back to us in high resolution these lives that we lead:
It’s all about the dramatic moments of truth when life seems bases loaded and it’s three balls and two strikes with two out in the bottom of the ninth).
Or it’s about those much more frequent, ordinary times, of the middle innings of our days, and we’re winning (or losing) 6 to 1—and the challenge is to stay involved, stay engaged, because this is the game (the life) we are in right now, and you never know what the next inning (the next pitch) might bring.
Life is about setting out from home, and remembering to touch all the bases of our lives, and trying with all our power to get back home again. It’s about getting a hit, and rounding first base, and finding ourselves fully alive in the fields of life. It’s about heading into second—with so much ground behind us, but so much more to go; reaching the point where there’s no turning back, as far from where we started as possible, but with still no guarantee of success. It’s about getting to third (which seemed so far away when we first started). It’s about finding a place in the world which is truly our own—where we know who we are and where we stand—and where we have risen so heroically over so many of life’s epic challenges.
It’s also about praying that we won’t get stranded at third: left just outside the boundaries of our aspirations; just short of the calling of our full potential.
Though that may be exactly what does happen. In baseball, it’s been often said, even the very best hitters succeed only one time in three. Achieve a lifetime batting average of .333, and you’ll no doubt end up in the Hall of Fame. But that also means that even the very best fail two times out of three. Most of those who reach base don’t make it home again. The mighty Yankees may have made it to the Series 25 times since 1945—but that means there were 37 times-- including this year, praise the Lord!—when they did not.)
The line score of every baseball game includes runs and hits and errors. There’s an open acknowledgment there that failure is just part of this human endeavor. It is part of being in the game. It is part of what makes us human.
Baseball fills our hearts with wonder. But it also teaches us humility.
Or, as another observer has put it: “Every home plate is the center of the earth, where the quarter of the world that is fair territory meets the three quarters that is foul.”
Life is not easy. Nor is it a game. Certainly, in this world of ours, there are countless joys and sorrows infinitely more important than who wins tonight’s game between the Indians and the Red Sox.
But it is these silly diversions—like sports in general and baseball in particular—and like so many of our little endeavors—which make us human, and keep us humane, and give to life its color and its fragrance; its sound and passion; its very vividness; and starts these shut-up hearts of ours to beating once again.

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