Major League Baseball Opening Day.
Just typing that phrase makes me feel a bit better. I mean it. Mentally and physically better. I cannot sufficiently explain the way the game is good for my soul, but I know that it is. I take pleasure from the game, and I am thankful to God for that pleasure. Opening Day certainly involves optimism as fans attempt to convince themselves that their team has at least a chance this season. Of course, as an Atlanta Braves fan, I know such thoughts are currently an empty sentiment, but I still enjoy the mental dance.
My delight in the game came to me the way it has for many—my dad loved the game, and passed that love down to me one ground ball, fly ball, game of catch and batting practice at a time. Baseball is a communal and conversational sport that cannot be played or practiced for much benefit in isolation. My parents bought a house, in part, because it was next to baseball fields when I was young. I had a makeshift-pitching mound in the backyard where my father catechized me on the finer points of pitching. I played baseball informally and formally, as often as possible, under a sunny Alabama sky.
Baseball is not simply a sport that I enjoy. The game is baked into who I am. What I have learned from the game, and just being around it, affects the way I lead, husband and parent. Now, do not get me wrong, baseball is just a game, but our games can be formative, and none are more so in American history than baseball. It was former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton who said, “A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” I am creeping close to having lived half a century, and I find myself just as eager and excited for Spring Training and Opening Day as I have ever been.
A shared passion
Growing up, morning breakfast always included checking the Braves box score of last night’s game and family talk of the game to come. My dad would throw with me almost every day the weather permitted, and thankfully in central Alabama that was most days. Now, my wife and I laugh about one of our sons who was homeschooled and wore a full baseball uniform almost every single day for about five straight years. This is the way a passion for baseball, a love for the game, is passed on to the next generation. I know there have been days in my life I have not thought about baseball, but I do not remember them, and I suspect the same will be true for my sons.
Roger Angell has written, “Baseball and memory come together so naturally.” In what other sport are children playing today able to recall the games heroes of the past? I have tried asking kids on a youth basketball team if they knew who Wilt Chamberlain was, only to be met with blank stares. The same was true when I have asked young football players if they knew who Jim Brown was—nothing but silence. But, there is always a kid on a youth baseball team who knows of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. Baseball encourages its participants and followers in the discipline of communal memory.
When I meet someone for the first time who loves and knows the game, then they are not entirely a stranger to me because we share a common history and language. One of the amazing things about baseball is its consistency. It is essentially the same game that was played in earlier eras. Unlike most major sports, if you were able to take a couple of fans out of the stands of a major-league baseball park in the 1940’s and transport them to a park this opening day, they would be at home because they would still understand and enjoy the game they were watching.
A lesson in American history
I teach my children American history using baseball as a touchstone. Before the Civil War, baseball was played recreationally in communities. After the Civil War, professional teams started forming. The roaring 20s were the end of the dead ball era, and the Great Depression was the era when Babe Ruth starred and the home run became a significant part of the game. Baseball historian John Thorn contends that the 1940s was baseball’s greatest decade, which was the coming of age for the generation some call the greatest. The 40s produced Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. Robinson, along with Branch Rickey helped the growing the Civil Rights Movement by breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947. The Negro Leagues existed prior to the Civil Rights era and ended a few years before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment. The 70s and 80s were the era of disco, parachute pants and big hair. The scene was equally bad in baseball with artificial turf, the DH and multi purpose stadiums.
A constant source of encouragement
As this season begins, I have been more discouraged about the American cultural landscape than I have been in a while. The American culture seems to be descending into moral chaos at warp speed. The tone of the current political rhetoric would be considered childish, petty and crass on a fifth grade playground. The modern cultural dialogue also resembles a rival sports team chat room where the goal is to vilify, castigate and humiliate one’s opponents without mercy or reason. Consequently , my soul needs the familiar sights and sounds of spring and Opening Day because, even in the midst of it all, baseball is still baseball. Pitch-by-pitch, out-by-out, inning-by-inning, game-by-game, baseball marches on for a wonderfully rhythmic 162-game season that is built into the very fabric of our lives until the chill of fall.
Though there are plenty of things I am not happy about in the game today—the DH, instant replay and that absurd single-game wildcard that mocks the integrity of the regular season—it is still baseball, and my family is ready for the journey of a new season. My love of the game cannot be separated from other cherished realities in my life: Baseball brings to mind memories of my Mom and Dad and Joe Marshall Field in Montgomery, Ala., where I grew up playing the game. I think of friends like Rusty Cone, who I played the game with from six-years-old through college, and Buddy Boyle, who took batting practice with me in the snow. More recently, I think of my wife Judi, who has grown to love the game, and of course, I think of my eight kids.
I think one of the reasons baseball means so much to me is because it is so rooted in my life; it helps me remember who I am. And I haven’t even paused to point out the way baseball serves as a metaphor for what is of ultimate importance to me, my Christian faith. Words like hope, delight, rhythm, community, passing on to the next generation, rootedness and history are also the language of my faith commitment. I understand the sentiment of theologian Stanley Hauerwas when he writes, “No matter how bad things get, I have always thought, at least we have baseball.” I am confident that some of you will identify with that sentiment as well. Play Ball!