My friend Bill is a seminary professor. He caught my interest when I saw he was teaching a graduate course called “Baseball as Metaphor.” When I asked him about it he told me it explored two incidents in baseball history — the Chicago White Sox (“Black Sox”) scandal of 1919 and the integration of baseball with the coming of Jackie Robinson in the 1950s — and how these reflected American life and culture at the time.
Bill’s approach got me to thinking about baseball — the sport for which we share a common passion — and the ways in which is it “more than a game,” the ways in which it points beyond itself to a bigger picture of life. Further reflection as a theologian led me to nine (a good baseball number!) ways baseball provides “spiritual lessons” that help with the living of our days.
1. Life is nine innings. The game is over after nine innings. Sometimes longer games go into “extra innings.” The game may take two hours or stretch on for four. But an end is in sight and sooner or later the game is up.
So too with life. Our nine innings may be over much too soon. Others get a longer time to play. But we all know there is a finality to life. The last run is scored; there is always a last out.
2. Decisions must be made. Baseball is a game of decisions. From the front office to the field manager, to the players on each play, decisions are made every instant. Victories often are won by the accumulation of small advantages — good decisions made again and again. As New York Yankee Yogi Berra put it, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He reminds us of the need to decide; we cannot escape making decisions about how we will play the game or live our lives.
3. Errors will occur. Over the course of the long season, every player makes errors. A misjudged fly, a bobbled grounder, a wild throw — all spoil a perfect fielding record.
In life, mistakes are many. Our theological tradition calls them “sins.” We cannot expect perfection. The fact that the final box score shows runs, hits, and errors reminds us of our all-too-human fallibilities, and our proneness to make mistakes, to do wrong, and not to live up to our best potential.
4. Comebacks are possible. As long as there is an at-bat, a chance in the field, another inning, or another game — comebacks are possible. The errors may stand on the record, or the string of losses, but redemption can happen. The player or team that is on the skids may suddenly start to put together a hitting streak or a winning streak that can turn a season or a team around. In 1914, the Boston Braves were in last place on July 19. But remarkably, they won 60 of their last 76 games and ended up winning the pennant by 10 1/2 games over the New York Giants. The comeback was fantastic!
In life too, “comebacks” are possible. Religious faiths speak of “redemption” or “salvation” in which life can become brand new. No matter how “far down” we are, we can be forgiven, restored. The last can “become first.” Baseball reminds us of these possibilities.
5. Miracles can happen. Baseball is exciting because the unexpected, the “miraculous” can occur. Teams come from behind, upsets happen, and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. One of baseball’s most famous moments was the home run by Bobby Thomson to win the 1951 World Series for the New York Giants, the “shot heard round the world.” As Yogi Berra aptly put it: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
So too in our experience. Life can be turned “upside down” — or “right side up” in an instant. There is always the positive possibility of a new situation, person, or relationship turning our lives into wholly new directions. In a minute, new life can emerge. Religious folks may see this as the work of God. But the fact that new potentials are always there ought to give us confidence for living.
6. Concentrate on the basics. The best baseball teams and players over the long haul are those who concentrate on and master the basics of the game — hitting, fielding, base running. This focus on the key ingredients of play can eventually pay off. In the early 1960s when Yogi Berra was manager of the New York Mets, after a particularly dismal game, Yogi closed the clubhouse to reporters and said to his team: “You guys played lousy today. You were terrible. We’re going to go back to basics: This is a ball. This is a bat!” Then from the corner up piped Jesse Gonder, a reserve catcher, who called out: “Slow down, Yogi; you’re going too fast!”
Sometimes in life we go too fast and forget the basics, the things that make life count and worth living. We skip over love, forget to care, or take for granted our friends, family, or the needs of others in society. Religious faith can help us focus on these basics. Baseball reminds us of the need for basics.
7. Teamwork is necessary. One of a ballplayer’s statistics is assists. The player who is directly involved in a play where another player gets a “put-out” is credited with an assist. On a larger scale, the nine players on a team have to depend on each other and work together in order to win. When the Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez was asked the secret of his success, he replied: “Clean living and a fast outfield.” As a pitcher, he needed his outfielders.
We all need each other in life. The “rugged individualism” of the American frontier has given way to the “global village” in which nations are fully interdependent on each other and people realize their need to give and to receive from other people in order for life to succeed. Religious communities are formed around these recognitions of the need for mutual care and support. None of us can live life totally “on our own.” We all need each other. While we may pride ourselves on “clean living,” we still need a “fast outfield.”
8. Runs count. At the end of the game, the winner is the one with the most runs. It is not how many home runs, how many hits, or how many stolen bases that tell the tale. It’s how many runs did a team score?
Spiritually, we assess our “runs” in various ways. For some it is how much we accomplish in life, or how much we are able to help others. It may be how we have grown — in knowledge, or faith, or service. “Runs” can be assessed differently. But most important is our need to realize what does really count in our lives and then to live so that these “runs” will become realities.
9. Be sure to touch all the bases. Even when a player hits a home run, the player must circle the bases and touch each one. Failure to do so invalidates the home run and the hitter is out. Baseball’s most famous incident of failing to touch a base was “Merkle’s boner” on September 23, 1908. The game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds could possibly decide the National League pennant. With the score tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Giants had runners on first and third with two out when shortstop Al Bridwell hit a single to center. The runner on third scored. But the runner on first, 19-year-old Fred Merkle, should have touched second base before heading to the clubhouse. He didn’t. The alert Cubs second baseman, Johnny Evers, got the ball (or “a ball”) and touched second, turning the hit into a force out at second. After much controversy, the game was declared a tie, a playoff was ordered, and the Chicago Cubs — instead of the Giants — went on to win the pennant and the World Series. Forever after, Merkle had to live with the stigma of his failure to touch second base.
In our lives and the meaning we seek, it is crucial for us to “touch all the bases.” We must realize what is most important and seek a fullness of life that engages us with all the parts of our existence: our environment, society, friends, family, and — if one is “religious” — with God and our faith traditions. At the end of the game, we do not want to look back and find there are relationships unresolved or vastly important areas neglected.
When we hear the cry, “Play ball!” we can remember that baseball is more than pleasant recreation. It directs us to realities beyond itself and offers helpful pointers for the game of life.
Donald K. McKim is executive editor for Theology and Reference, Westminster John Knox Press.