It’s October. That means it’s time for post-season baseball, where people you never would have guessed were “sports fans” come out of the woodwork. I love this game. I love it on a visceral level — this game where the grass is perfect, where the distances are measured, where the hot dogs are worth your five dollars, and where thousands of people wrap themselves around the two teams in three hundred and sixty degrees of fickle scrutiny. The smells, sights, and sounds of a baseball stadium come together like a symphony for the senses.
I also love baseball on a philosophical level — this game where if you succeed one third of the time, your peers regard you as one of the great ones. Where though you cannot single-handedly give your team a victory, you can single-handedly cost them the win. Where you must describe the outcome of the game in the form of a story. There are no clocks in baseball. The game takes the time it takes.
I discovered baseball in 1997, when my wife and I moved to St. Louis for graduate school. It was the year the Cardinals signed Mark McGwire. Whatever you think of that home run race now, know this: at that time Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were in an intoxicating race toward history, and the world was watching. I know grown men who wept when McGwire broke the single season home run record — sober men (cough, Charlie Peacock).
Why? Why would grown men cry over someone hitting a ball with a stick? It’s a fair question since this has been going on for the better part of two centuries now.
My answer is that baseball is a grand analogy for life as we know it. Baseball has much to tell us if we will listen. Baseball reminds us that life is hard. Statistically, no one has ever been good at baseball. If you’re going to play this game, you’re going to have to deal with personal failure. If you drop a routine fly ball in the outfield allowing two runs to score — game deciding runs — that’s a failure that belongs uniquely to you and you alone, no matter what your life coach might try to tell you. You know it. Your teammates know it. And so does everyone watching from the stands.
Baseball also heralds the inevitability of pain. When my son started playing kid-pitch baseball, the inevitable happened — he got plunked. The pitcher threw high and inside, and my boy took a ball to the shoulder. It’s funny how that little incident redirected my parental coaching. Instead of training him how to throw or read the bases, my job as his dad became about one thing — teaching that little boy that there is pain in this world, and that he can play through most of it.
After he got hit, he developed a fear of the batter’s box — he started planting his heels to hug the back line so he could be as far away from the strike zone as possible. He felt certain every pitch was likely to hit him. What could I say? I knew his worst fears weren’t outside the realm of possibility, since we were at the mercy of the accuracy of an eight-year-old throwing a ball from thirty-five feet away.
The only card I had to play was trying to persuade him that there were different levels of pain, and that he could endure the pain of being hit by a ball thrown by a kid his age. In other words, “Yes, son, any pitch you stand in for could hit you. Yes, son, it hurts. But no, son, it doesn’t hurt that bad.” I believed in him. I knew he could take it. I also knew, though, that he’d have to learn the difference between “Walk it off, rub some dirt on it” pain and “Let’s get you an ice pack, can you tell me where you are?” pain.
Why would any dad contend for his son to learn such a lesson? Because I know there’s hurt coming his way, and I don’t want him to fear. Life offers us so many things to fear. Baseball has no room for fear — fear of getting hurt or fear of failing. Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “You can’t be afraid to make errors. You can’t be afraid to be naked before the crowd because no one can ever master the game of baseball or conquer it. You can only challenge it.”
The catch, however, is that the better you become, the less forgiving people are when you do fail. But herein lies the paradox, since, as Reggie Jackson said, “People don’t boo nobodies.” Being booed is a recognition of ability and value. To whom much is given, much will be required.
And what is required? In baseball, only four things — hitting, throwing, running, and catching. That’s it. Pretty simple. But it is in the combinations of these four things and in the accuracy with which you do them where the problems are born. You must catch what someone else hits or throws. You must run faster than the opposition’s combination of a catch, a throw, and another catch. You must hit what is thrown, and most of the time it’s coming at you fast — sometimes at your head. Simple? Yes. Nerve-wracking? You bet.
But baseball also teaches us that we’re not on the verge of ruin nearly as often as we think. Like life, the regular season is a long haul of going to work every day. And there’s grace in the time given. A baseball season consists of 162 games over the course of six months. That’s a lot of time to shine and a lot of time to fail. There’s freedom there. Today’s failure doesn’t have to define the rest of the year. Today’s stinging welt becomes tomorrow’s bruise that fades as the body regenerates itself as it was created to do. Today’s fear of getting hit becomes a reality that teaches you getting hit isn’t as debilitating as you thought it would be.
So every time Uncle Albert (the name I’m teaching my kids to call Albert Pujols) steps into the batter’s box this October, though statistics tell me he will probably let me down, I will hope. And I will be thankful, because even if he does fail, he stands there willing to fail in the hope that he might not. And that’s a sort of courage I want for myself and my family.
I believe life is good. But the goodness isn’t found in home runs alone. It’s found over the span of a long season — one that is filled with more failure than success, more routine than exhilaration, more anonymity than recognition. Sometimes we hit it out of the park. Other times we strike out looking. Sometimes we make that impossible diving catch. Other times we miss the routine grounder hit right to us. And as it goes for us, so it goes for everyone else.
Still, if we’d look around, we’d see that baseball, like life, is beautiful.
Russ Ramsey worked for the Art House back in the mid 90s before heading off to seminary. He and his family currently live in Nashville where he serves as one of the pastors at Midtown Fellowship. Russ is a regular contributor to The Rabbit Room and is author of the book Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, a companion to Andrew Peterson's record by the same name.