Message 23, Baseball Spirituality, 6-13-10

download program: Service Program, 6-13-10

© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, All rights reserved

Ernie Harwell, the author of the book on baseball entitled The Game for all America said, “Baseball?  It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat.  Yet, it is as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It’s a sport, a business – and sometimes even a religion.” And another baseball commentator once said, “A baseball park is the one place where a man’s wife doesn’t mind him getting excited over somebody else’s curves!

Such quotes capture what it is about baseball that is so enduring and why it is that we love the game.  Continuing this month’s theme of Summer Fun, our look today at the game of baseball is a way to remind ourselves that ballparks are also symbolic churches in that they showcase many spiritual qualities we all profess and admire.  Baseball might begin in the spring and end in the fall but it is most identified with summer.  Indeed, I don’t believe we can fully experience summer if we have not, at least once during the season, spent a hot summer afternoon or evening playing softball or sitting at the ballpark.  We might watch it on TV, but that is not what I have in mind.  I hope we can each experience – either as a participant or as a spectator – a sweltering summer day at a baseball diamond, the flies buzzing, the dusty heat all around, a pitcher winding up to throw a fastball and hear the quick thump as the ball smacks the catcher’s glove or, perhaps, a solid thwack as the batter connects and launches a ball over the shortstop’s head.  This is summer fun in all its glory – the heat, the fans pressed close, beer, peanuts, a rundown field with a chain link backstop or a gleaming ballpark with red, white and blue pennants – all spent on a long, lazy afternoon.

Just as we considered last week our goal to spend time in the great outdoors and worship in nature’s church this summer, we can also worship the great institution of baseball.  It is not a perfect game nor is it necessarily the best.  But it symbolizes summer.  It evokes qualities and ideals that have universal and spiritual significance.  By examining something that has meaning for us as a culture, I believe we learn things about ourselves and what truths are important to us.  Baseball is an enduring cultural summer pastime for us because of its basic simplicity, its relative non-violence, its slow pace and its continuing message of hope and getting another chance.

To start us off, I want to invite up front with me – and I hope I don’t put him on the spot – one of our congregation’s experts on baseball – Elijah Miller-Cox. To all of you who don’t know this, Elijah is our church youth group!               INTERVIEW ELIJAH…..

Baseball, in my mind, has spirituality and the Divine written all over it.  For me it is the most optimistic of sports and pastimes.   There seems to be, in the game, always one more pitch, one more out, one more inning, one more game and one more season.  Even in losing, with baseball there is always the next day or “wait until next year!” We can see that this is a spiritual ideal that resonates in our lives.  There is always a second chance for redemption, for correction and for turning over a new leaf.  This is a value we embrace here at the Gathering – we continue to seek each Sunday greater insight and a better understanding of what is Truth.  We do not claim to have certain knowledge of the Divine or of life itself.  We are ever growing, ever learning, ever being resurrected and ever going up to bat and seeking the elusive keys to life that will teach us how to throw the perfect curveball, hit the slider or avoid an error.  We may often strike out but there is always the next Book Club or the next Sunday to come together and reflect and grow anew.  In us – as in baseball – is the stuff of forgiveness and redemption.

Baseball also tells us that there is a rhythm and a dance to our lives.  Seasons begin in hope and end in hope.  Games begin and end without any set time frame.  An inning may be over quickly or one may drag out indefinitely.  As much as we are a culture that is fast paced and frenetic, baseball calls us to slow down, to think and pursue a goal no matter the clock.  Our lives have no set time limit – just like baseball – but we ever stride up to bat, ever seek a hit and ever seek that elusive way home.  It is interesting that in baseball, a batter begins his quest at home while seeking to end it there too.  How much of life is about a cycle of running the bases, getting hits, often striking out but always learning new strategies and new ways to hit the ball?  And all of that is done while pursuing the goal of returning home again.  As T.S. Elliot once wrote, In my beginning is my end…home is where one starts from…In my end is my beginning.” I don’t believe it is stretch to assert that in the rhythm of baseball are the elements of why we love it and why it has meaning for us.  We see in it the game of our lives – a journey for meaning and purpose and value so that when we do make it home we realize we are just beginning – one more pitch to throw, one more time at bat, one more season to play – one more chance to get it right.

And a baseball game is also one of the great celebrations we can experience.  From the opening singing of the National Anthem, to cheers at every hit, to the seventh inning stretch, to the final out and the fireworks that often follow, a game is not so much a contest or a battle as it is a time to celebrate.  As fans, we celebrate the unifying aspects of being in a cheering crowd.  As players, we celebrate the possibilities of the game – of testing one’s skills and one’s wits against another.  As an event, baseball celebrates fun – relaxing and talking with others in the crowd, being outdoors on a sunny day or balmy night, drinking a beer – or several beers, enjoying a picnic like meal – hot dogs, mustard, popcorn.  As a game, we celebrate players earning what they achieve – hits, strike outs, double plays, runs batted in.  All of these echo the magic moments of life – the expectation, the striving, the coming together as one to share food, to play, to be outside, to yell, to gaze at fireworks and to cheer great effort or achievement.

Baseball thus calls its players to do their best.  Runs are earned and are rarely given.  Even with a bad pitch, the batter must still hit the ball to the right place and successfully run the bases.  David Ogilvy, a retired player, said once in advice to young players – “Don’t bunt.  Aim out of the ballpark!” And that is an ethos we all try to follow in life – to do our best, to work, to strive and to succeed not for the sake of the prize but for the satisfaction of great effort.  The love of the game motivates players to strive for success.  Leo Durocher, a famous team manager, once said, “What do we play ball for except to win?  If I were to play against my mother, I’d trip her.  I’d help her up, brush her off, and tell her I’m sorry.  But, darn it mom, you aren’t going to make it to third base!” Such an attitude is said in jest and it evokes a certain streak of unwholesome competiveness.  But, I believe Durocher spoke to the fun streak inherent in baseball and in life.  We seek, we strive, we work.  In the process, we are thrilled to be in the game, thrilled to be playing, thrilled at our efforts and our work – and all of that combines fun, personal satisfaction and a strong work ethic.  Playing baseball – just like living life – is fun work.

Finally, I believe baseball historically has reflected much of what is good in the human spirit.  As I have said many times – almost like a broken record – humanity is influenced by the supernatural force of moral imagination.  The story of human culture is marked by tragedy, warfare, brutality and injustice.  But history’s clear and consistent pattern is one of slow but steady progress towards justice and towards mutual respect and cooperation.  This is for our own survival as a species.  We see that conflict and inequality are zero sum games.  Nobody wins.  If the story of life is the survival of the fittest, then at the end, only one species or one person still stands.  And what kind of victory is that?  The winner finds that, instead, he or she has lost.  This unconscious ethic is a supernatural force at work deep within us and it is perfectly reflected in the game of baseball as individual players act out the moral imagination of cooperation instead of personal interest.

Players understand that what might be good for themselves individually may not necessarily be good for the team.  It takes a joint effort to win – nine persons all working in tandem to score runs and prevent the other team from scoring.  As with many team sports, collective efforts win the game.  Even more so with baseball, however, players often sacrifice themselves and their individual interests for the sake of the team.  Bunts and suicide squeezes are executed in order to move a base runner into scoring position.  Sacrifice flies are hit to allow a runner to score from third.  Pitchers and base runners allow themselves to be replaced by another – in the interest of the team.  And, players will often sacrifice their bodies by sliding into second base in order to prevent a double play throw to first or a successful throw to home plate.  I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far but such acts are common in baseball.  They reflect the ideal that we must cooperate and, indeed, even sacrifice our self interest for the sake of the whole.  Without an inherent moral imagination to work for the common good, a baseball team will rarely be successful.

And this ethic to work for what is best competitively has also historically been at work in the game.  Despite the stain of segregation in baseball that gave rise to the Negro league of the early twentieth century, baseball soon moved to the cultural forefront through integration.  At a time when African-Americans still rode at the back of buses, ate at separate lunch counters and went to separate and unequal schools, Jackie Robinson in 1947 became a hero to many by showing quiet grace and skill as he integrated major league baseball.  He was better than most white players – winning rookie of the year, most valuable player and joining the All-Star team numerous times – all while maintaining a quiet dignity and basic spirit of humility.

By signing Robinson, the Dodgers and baseball showed the nation that decency, equality and full celebration of all people based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, can move humanity forward.  Twenty years before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream speech”, baseball and Jackie Robinson lived out the dream by making America and baseball better in the process.

While the African-American comedian Dick Gregory can still say, only half in jest, that “Baseball has been very good to my people.  It figures.  It’s the only way we can shake a big stick at a white man without starting a riot”, the words of Lou Gehrig ring just as true when he said, “There is no room in baseball for discrimination.  It is our national pastime and a game for all.”

And Gehrig himself, like Jackie Robinson, stands still today as a hero for the ages.  Suffering from a terminal illness which today bears his name, Lou Gehrig upon his retirement spoke with the grace and moral imagination that is so often a hallmark of baseball.   On June 21, 1939, Gehrig poignantly retired from baseball instead of dragging down his beloved Yankees as he progressively became paralyzed.  Having played in over 2100 consecutive games and having a .341 career batting average – higher than his teammate Babe Ruth – Gehrig tearfully called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” as he retired and replaced himself midseason – a sacrifice for the game and for the fans.

I spoke last week of finding the time this season – as a part of fun experiences this summer – to venture into the great outdoors to worship in nature’s church.  In those places of supernatural beauty with mountains, forests, lakes and animals, we can see the Divine creative hand at work.

Echoing my appeal from last week, I commend us to the game of baseball this summer.   I can think of only a few other pastimes that so fully represent this season to us.  And, in so many ways, ballparks across the country are churches too.  They evoke the timeless aspects of life – of finding meaning in the hope, patience and perseverance of the game.  Of sacrifice and fun, of earning your success in life to the quiet dignity of cooperation, baseball is, as Walt Whitman said, the people’s game.  In this vision of mine, at a ballpark later this afternoon when Elijah Miller will take to the field to play another of his games or when the Reds continue their winning season today, we are reminded of words from the Bible describing a great cloud of witnesses.  In this summer fun pastime of baseball, there is a cloud of witnesses finding companionship, sharing a meal, drinking a beer, cheering and watching a game that knows no time limits, champions cooperation, exalts the best of humanity and daily calls each of us – whether we are players or spectators – to live according to its Divine traditions and to simply, “Play Ball!”