What more could be perfect then spend a birthday at the ball park? After all I did spend two months hammering out a four part series about it. The birthday ballgame was the Seattle Mariners vs. LA Angles, and it was little league day. During game pauses, the camera caught many of the kids dancing to the music on the jumbo screen. This made for a very entertaining day.
Thirty two years never looked so good! And a great start to another year of anything possible when you looked at this view from the beginning of the game. Just by the view we had great seats! Even eating one ballpark brat, countless handfuls of white cheddar puffs, and a few peanuts, I just could not beat how good it felt to pig out for once (training for the 5k is hard at times). Next month I will be running around this field for 5k so I look forward to “running” the bases.
I’m so thankful for these wonderful friends who made the day fun and exciting! Even with the seats being in the sun, we all some how survive the heat and may have sunburns to prove it. Also the arrow pointing to me is in reference to the other girl on my left is my birthday twin.
The game was interesting with at least one home run by the Mariners, but alas, the Mariners lost to the Angles. Maybe at the next ball game I attend the Mainers will win! Keeping fingers crossed!
Whew this has been one long stretch to write this series on this blog. In the last installment of this series I will be going though the last three innings to the final destination, the clubhouse. The place where baseball legends never die.
7th Inning: Saints and Sinners:
When I think of saints and sinners in baseball, the movie Sandlot comes to mind. There are references to Babe Ruth littered throughout the whole movie, and yet one scene that comes perfectly clear of saints is the chewing tobacco scene before the fair ride. “Chaw-saving for a good time.” Well you know exactly what happens after they chew it.
So how does it play into saints and sinners? Think about how the group of boys look up to the ballplayers of the day (1950s) and doing the same things as they do. Perspective is often central to how a fan feels about a ball player. The very definition of sainthood serves to make human beings whom we other humans can relate. Its an induction into a honor society of those who are the best of what we can be. Baseball celebrates its heroes, the legends, and immortalize them into what is called the Hall of Fame. Same goes for religion where Christians have a number of ordinary humans who managed to before immortalized as saints (Mother Theresa).
Yet what fans think players are saints, could be in fact a sinner. Yes I went there! If ballplayers are judge on their performance on the field, they would look like saints of the sport. But when you think of it, they are simply sinners or worst, nasty people at times. Now not all are nasty, but when you hold someone up to the highest, the not so great things are swept aside. See reputations do in fact follow on and off the field as most major athletes can attests to. Baseball shines a spotlight on each player on the field and in some capacity the player is fighting their own demons or moral dilemmas. Professional baseball is played by humans, surprising-if hardly- the sport reveals the human propensity to cut moral corners. Even as far as cheat. Baseball like in religion, judging others is a flawed endeavor whether in professions or in athletics because it is done by fallible humans. Still baseball celebrates both flawed heroes and it’s saints in equal measure.
7th Inning Stretch
Anyone who has been to an intense ballgame or religious service is well aware of the intermission. At the church I attend there is an intermission between praise worship singing and the preaching in the form of going around shaking hands in fellowship. The same can be said of baseball, where as a community of fans and players go through the age old tradition of a rousing version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” No announcement, no request, just rise from the seat as a congregation and break from the intensity of action on the field. Just as different faith denominations, baseball does not have an uniform version of the seventh inning stretch. Each team, each stadium has traditions in which the all moving parts come together in unity. Really the seventh inning stretch is moment of prayer, a reflection, a pause of self awareness, and setting stage for the next moments of the last two innings. A moment of stillness before the storm.
With the stretch completed…. the ball, sacred symbol and reality, remains in play for all, and the game of life.. I mean baseball game continues.
8th Inning: Community:
The community of baseball has a power to bring people together in expanding levels of relationship: parents and child, neighbor and friend, community and city, state and the nation. Think of those summer days watching a game, all assembled as one in a park sharing in the awesomeness of the moment together with like minded people. Community made up of many different groups of people in one common shared belief. Collection of rituals, tall tales, homespun charm, carefully passed down from one person to the next. Same goes for religious faith where the belief is not confined to sect, class or race. A common faith of mankind. The community of rooting for one’s own team is accessible to anyone who simply revels in the beauty and gifts of the game. As of date the game reaches not only the American people, but around the world. Japan’s love affair with Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees runs deep. The community of baseball fans in Japan would lead the Mariners to play their first game of 2019 season in Tokyo against the Oakland A’s.
The best thing about baseball is the last attraction flows from the game’s ability to bring people together to create community to foster bonds of lasting power based on shared memories and experiences. Not only from a fan base, but also from a players base as well. Think about all the players in little league, middle school, high school, and college who build a community or are a part of a everlasting community for the rest of their life. Religious communities are more than the congregations that gather for services, but a community that shares a same belief and lasting bond. Baseball communities large or small is where the spirit lives beyond what appears to eyes and mind.
9th Inning: Nostalgia:
Baseball, almost alone among our sports, traffics unashamedly and gloriously in nostalgia, for only baseball understands time and treats it with respect.
This inning is really about the myth of the eternal return. The throwback journey from baseball’s present to its past and back again. Nostalgia is one of baseball’s defining attributes according to John Sexton. The game’s past shadows its present, and there is conjured for instruction, to prod memories, and revive dormant emotions. On the road to God, Christians pay tribute to the past while in the present. The same rituals done over millennium still being done today, each paying respect to those who have come before in form of memorials. In baseball there is one important respect to the originals, the numbers stitched to the present player’s back. Today numbers memorialized a great player, each one retired for all time on a that team or in the case of Jackie Robinson, on all teams. These numbers are plaques marking a person’s life in baseball, as plaques are laid where a love one has been called home to the Lord. The practice of retired numbers started when Gehrig courageous revelation he was suffering from the disease (Gehrig Disease) that killed him and Babe Ruth’s in 1948 when dying of cancer. Old uniforms and numbers in baseball, as is in religion, are venerated and treated with respect.
How can this be similar to religion you ask? Mircea Eliade wrote “nostalgia for origins is equivalent to a religious nostalgia.” We as humans desire to recover the active presence of the gods; we desire to live in a world as it came from the Creator’s hands. The pure, fresh, and strong aspects of the world. See the journey home (as it is in baseball’s ultimate goal) is what Eliade called the myth of eternal return; going beyond marking an event to reliving it. A ceremony (liturgy), a memory celebrated, and religious man attempts to approach the gods to participate in being. The past and present are more clearly linked, one enhancing, informing the other. The dialog between the past and present causes us to touch a spot deep within ourselves-to thank God for what has been.
Baseball is defined by wonder and amazement; it is defined by elements of faith, doubt, conversion, accursedness, blessings-all associated with religious experience-the spirituality of the game. Baseball is as in religion is a deep faith that cannot exist inless there is doubt, its handmaiden as John Sexton points out, confronting doubt is a central challenge on both religion and life from the earliest Christian theologians to the Seattle Mariners journey to a Wold Series game.
1st base is temptation, 2nd base is sin, 3rd base is tribulation. Jesus is standing at the home plate, he’s waiting for you there. Pitcher is Satan, Solomon is the umpire and the lead off man is Daniel, who gets the first hit. The game’s home run is hit by Job, wielding the ‘strong bat’ of prayer. The chorus ends with a rousing “Life is a ball game,” but you’ve got to play it fair.
Sister Wynona Carr “Life Is A Baseball Game”
Baseball through in through is a game of life and one of the many roads to God. Each inning in a person’s life is played out in one game, whether loose or win, you have to play if fair.
In this third part of the series we will be talking about the fifth and sixth innings in the bigger picture of baseball as a metaphor road of to God.
5th Inning: Miracles:
Prayer changes people, not things.
Same can be said the most nuanced notions in the study of religion is miracles. Some are looked at as answers to prayers, an effect of a magic trick. But miracles are really a special kind of hierophany. The definition of a miracle is moments of deep inspiration emerging from unlikely outcome at the most crucial times. Baseball miracles invoking ecstasy, electricity, and awe with the fans. To go deeper into the definition is to understand the Latin root of the word miraculous-object of wonder, a manifestation of the divine, and a revelation on a different plane.
True miracles in baseball change the course of the game, a series, and a season. Most of these miracles happen in September and October with the occurrence of the World Series. One true example is the perfect game played during the 1956 World Series game. That day in baseball lore, the game was pitched perfectly not seen since 1922 World Series game. To this day the miracles that happened during this game has not been seen to this day in any other World Series played since.
But there is of course “false miracles” in baseball which appear to be miraculous, but in truth are really ordinary products of coincidences or probability. One such example in the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” also known as the “shot heard’ round the world.” What Giant’s Bobby Thomson’s swinging connection on a fastball from the Dodgers pitcher resulted in pennant game. The ball to this day is missing in the stands. But decades later the unsettling fact became clear that the Giants had cheated using a sophisticated signaling system to players on the field. A miraculous moment diminished as false.
How do baseball’s miracles coincide with religion’s take on miracles? Miraculous is the gist of myth, myth permeates religion. Sometimes the story of a miracle entails the intervention or manifestation of a higher power. In itself, miracles convey a wonderment and amazement that transpires a sacred about all place. In baseball some of the solid hits become line drive outs, some of the weakest become box scores hit, few even win games. Other times players accomplish what their team needs at the expense of their statistics diminished as a result both on paper and scoreboard. All comes to the idea of concupiscence.
6th Inning: Blessings and Curses
What makes baseball so great is that everyone can play it- little kids and old people. But only the blessed are destined to play in the majors.
When we speak of a blessed ballplayer, we use the word blessing in many other ways and contexts in both religious and secular. Blessing is a function of our belief that somehow God is on our side-either the team, the individual players and the fans are invoking a God as well. However, the deeply connected sibling of blessing is a curse. The word bless is ecstatic sensation one experiences after the release of profound accursedness, where a curse is associated with painful prolonged suffering that “sticks” to an object. Both are intertwined as faith and doubt. This all plays into baseball by the slow intense rhythms the game goes through at times.
The great baseball curses are associated with painful prolonged championship droughts, booted ground balls, most of all wrenching defeats. Blessings and curses also are tied to events off the field in bizarre stories of omens and harbingers. This bizarre practice even involves teams whose identities are deeply tied to how they and the fans have dealt with accursedness and epic adversity. It not so much how the teams, towns, and fans handle the curse, but how a reaction to it. The reaction, in the end, shapes the blessing when it comes and determines the effect it will have as a whole. This is where the famous cry in baseball come from “wait’ll next year.”
For teams accursed repeatedly to suffer preordained pain or hardship, the hardship is a necessary prelude to being released from its clutches and receiving great blessings. The most famous of all curses in baseball is the Course of the Cubs World Series appearance drought. It would take until 2016 to finally lift the curse dating back to 1945 and a World Series win since 1908. All this time Cub fans have accepted the fate with a good measure of cheer. Neither hopeful nor despairing but delighted in the status of baseball’s lovable loser.
Adversity is baseball’s handmaiden; the great challenge and it’s a great lesson. Like in religion, a baseball game is founded on aspirations rarely met. It generates far more failure than fulfillment. No matter how high the aspirations are, there still is joy, defeat, a cause of sorrow, but it is not about the curses, but about baseball and the moment of ecstatic release of blessing. Baseball can be a catalyst for everyone everywhere to see through curses there are blessings.
As in life, baseball too has it’s saints and sinners. In the fourth and final part of the series, the last three innings inches closer to the clubhouse of life. Stay tune!
In continuing this four part series we will look at faith, doubt and conversion a person goes through in playing the game of baseball or as a fan, as a road to God from the book Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game by John Sexton.
2nd Inning: Faith
Ya gotta believe!
Tug McGraw (NY Mets 1973)
Baseball offers a window into the nature of faith even in the deepest meanings of the word. Faith is often the handmaiden of hard work, intellectual and otherwise. But in baseball faith is something more than coincidence. It is involved in most delightful anomalies. Faith, not reason, gets us to God, just as faith in one’s favorite baseball team will make it to the World Series.
Looking at some of the most famous players in baseball history, each one of them had faith in themselves, their teammates and the fans to step on the field to play the game. Looking closer, does each player show faith? Faith does not have to be loud or full of swagger. It often is private. At little league games you see it, a coach, a parent or family member bestowed this faith principle to each child who plays. Over time as the child move through the different levels of the league, one element of faith is acquired at a time. In a Christian’s life, each person who walks the road to God has faith principles bestowed on them by others in the community of believers. As the person moves through life’s stages, each stage they acquire one element at a time. Each of the four elements: comfort, motivation, understanding, meaning and ultimate purpose are tough at all levels of the game. Each blend together to form faith-baseball faith.
It can come in flashes, come very slowly, or even painfully. On a baseball field, as it is in life, faith is not certainty; it is a special kind of confidence. A leap of faith when stepping up to the pitcher mound, stepping into the batter’s box, and when run the bases. To have faith in something unseen, is to embrace feeling over logic. As Tug McGraw said many of times in his baseball career “ya gotta believe!” Faith goes century by century. Baseball as Sexton points out baseball can lift us from the ordinary to a different plane as well propel a drive toward something. Its the faith anything can happen during baseball season.
3rd Inning: Doubt
Doubt is but another element of faith
As a Seattle Mariners fan, each season ballplayers and the fans start the season with fans doubting the team could win games. It is this doubt that at times can make it harder to have faith. When the victories in the games being played happen, the player’s outlook starts to move from doubt to hope and even faith.
Doubt is at the core of baseball. It touches every player and every fan. You don’t even have to look far to find doubt happening in baseball games. Take a look at the players in little league, middle and high school teams to see doubt playing out. The player telling the coach they doubt they can even hit the winning home run, but the coach pushes the doubt aside. Baseball tolerates doubt, even when it can be resolved. Baseball embraces the human judgement rather that the science of insta-replay. Even with all the technology going into figuring out if strikes happen in the strike zone, the umpire still makes the call.
Doubt is central to religious experience, just has it is in baseball. Faith and doubt are not separated, they coexist together. In baseball as in religion, doubt and faith are intertwined in the flow on the field. In Eastern tradition there is a saying “great doubt, great awakening, little doubt, no faith.” Baseball players, fans and faithful live with doubt, even Jesus had doubts at times (Gospel of Matthew). Faith communities at their best add to the storehouses of human well-being.
4th Inning: Conversion
Is God a clown who whips away your bowl of soup one moment in order, next moment to replace it with another bowl of same soup? Even nature isn’t such a clown as that. She never plays the same tune twice.
Conversion is not for the faint of heart. It can begin with a dramatic external event or it can be a result of lengthy period of reexamination and introspection. It is a difficult process requiring effort and perseverance. Ask any baseball fan-or any fan of a team, the heart breaking feeling when a team so ingrained in their life move on to another location. The same for a favorite ball player to another team. One story of baseball lore I know well is the Portland Mavericks back in the 70s, a team stitched together by unexpected players. Then the end of the team after Major League Baseball expanded with the team Portland Beavers in 78. Many fan would eventually convert not only to the Portland Beavers team, but also to the Seattle Mariners.
In baseball it can be entirely about the future, requiring no rejection of previous allegiances. Spiritual conversion looks forward and backwards, same as in baseball. Previous allegiances are in the end rejected even as new ones faithfully embraced. Think about one of your favorite baseball player. How many times has this person been traded or went to another team? Each time they go through conversion-a great leap froward. The same can be said of the fan who looses their favorite team to another city. This conversion mirrors the nature of religious conversion each full of feeling, emotion or acceptance. At times it can be a journey from a sleeping baseball fan to awakening. Every experiences, spiritual or secular is an experience of conversion.
In the first inning, of sacred space and sacred time, the idea of baseball touching transcendent comes into perspective when it comes to conversion both on the field and in the stands. Conversion is a serious matter of two components: dilemma and choice. Both put many players and fans at a crossroads before, during, and after a season. Conversion in baseball cannot be a crossroad of stop and wait, because baseball pushes forwards by life.
Conversion possess a powerful capacity to induce this sensation and stir feelings of childhood excitement, anticipation, sorrow and joy. All components players and fans go through in a single game, if not life.
Baseball is more than a game. It’s like life played out on a field.
Back when I was a student at Northwest University, a professor of Christian Thought had the class read an excerpt from John Sexton’s book Baseball As a Road to God to understand how sports can and at times lead people to God. The game of baseball has deep-rooted features associated with life and the journey many Christians take on the road to God. Yet two years later I would pick this book up again after reading Lou Piniella’s autobiography.
Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game grew out of John Sexton’s courses tough at New York University. It all started when a fellow student told him how silly people are for thinking baseball is life. This sparked a challenge to see what makes baseball so true to life and how the game is one of the roads to God. Little did Sexton knew, it would become one of the most popular courses among students.
In this four part series I will go through what I learned about the game of baseball as a road to God, and how it has made me look at baseball differently all because of John Sexton’s book.
The Knothole Gang:
The knothole gangs came about as professional ballparks were first being built with wooden fences. Kids without the price of a seat would find that the wooden fences surrounding the parks provided spy holes to watch the games for free. These holes were created when knots in the wood popped out. Naturally, gangs of kids gathered around the knotholes.
Baseball evokes in the life of it’s faithful features associated with life; faith, doubt, conversion, blessing, curses, miracles, saints and sinners, and community. In Sextion’s book, baseball is really the physical representation of the road to God played out before an audience.
How is this sport closest to the road of God you ask? It is a superficial similarity between baseball and religion. Sextion spells it out:
Ballpark is a church
Ballgame is a mass (Sextion is Catholic)
Three strikes to an out
Three outs to an inning
Three holy trinities (baseball diamonds)
Nine positions on a field
Nine innings to a game
Nine muses in Greek mythology.
To the outsider peeking through the knothole of a ballpark fence they see a game, but if look closely, there is a complex sacred dance playing out in all corners of the ballpark.
1st Inning: Sacred Space & Sacred Time
Unity in time and space in the nature of the show.
John Updike (Unity In Life
Sexton starts off the road to God at the first inning, the inning where baseball moves beyond ordinary space, time, in the flow of feelings and images. Baseball in full context is “constructed stage beast three folds of Dante’s rose (heaven, hell, and purgatory).” Remember the knothole? Looking through it, does it look like a game of chess or ballet or both? Baseball is a combination of both. When looks like nothing is going on choose a player and watch the reaction. The game ebbs and flows like water. A sacred water flow coming from within the deepest recess of a player.
The sacred space of the ballpark is similar to a sacred place like a church. Sexton notes that a day at a ballpark summons an inner self-conjured as one moves through the entrance to the park. Crossing the threshold separates the profane world outside the sacred world lies inside the gates. Most people find a state of being, a transformation evoking a deep and meaningful connection to something within the ballpark. A stadium a church. The bleachers are the pews. The intersection between our world and the transcendent world, the connection between ordinary from spiritual dimensions.
Baseball operates out of ordinary time-timeless in it’s essence. Sitting in the seats, what do you notice?
Length of an inning or game is not set by a clock.
Time is not linear (simple: past, present, and future)
Time is cyclical building towards certain quintessential moments in baseball game according to Sexton. This same cyclical building mirrors religious times: liturgical. The time marked by ritual and ceremony. The liturgical time of baseball is the season from opening day to World Series. But it goes further than this. According to Sexton, it all starts before opening day with Easter/Passover (spring training) where there is a sense of renewal and the “wait until next year”, the prolong replaced with hope. Opening day with pomp and circumstance of something wonderful can and will happen (the beginning). The great time of the season (midseason), and the holy of holy days in baseball, the World Series. The World Series according to baseball lore, is the holiest of days where baseball stories become memories passed down to the next generation.
Yet Sexton notes, during this time overwhelming occurs throughout the ballpark. As you sit in the seat watching the game, notice the crowd around you. The cheering crowd wells up and carries you along as a powerful wave. In this wave, there is a solid foundation supported, and riding this wave carries you along. There is meaning to life in this powerful feeling of waves, just as this powerful wave moves through worshipers during Sunday morning service. Baseball creates and lives the cyclical repetitive liturgy and sacramental time of religion.
Over millennia such sacramental moments have been a part of human’s efforts to touch the deepest place of existence.
This time exists within the realm of baseball fields, parks and stadiums. Each field holds the greatest show, the greatest game, a journey, a road each person takes in life, all within nine innings.
Baseball is more than a game. It’s like life played out on a field.