In the Big Inning
The spiritual lessons of baseball.
BY: Randy Petersen
Father's Day, 1964. My dad was watching the flickering images on our black-and-white Zenith television. He called me into the room. I was 7 years old. It seemed that Jim Bunning, the ace pitcher for our hometown Phillies, was nearing the end of a "perfect game." I had no idea what this meant, but I watched as the final outs were recorded for posterity. And I was hooked. I've had a love affair with baseball ever since.
Every April, hope is reborn, and nearly every August it dies. Especially when you're a Phillies fan. We shift our attention at this point to the teams that have a chance to win it all. Will their late-season trades put them over the top? How will their hotshot rookies handle the pressure of a pennant race? Will their seasoned veterans grow weary in the heat of summer? What statistical records will be threatened this year?
But baseball is more than standings or stats. There's an inner beauty to this game that parallels the intricacies of human life. In my fourth decade of watching players round the bases, I'm coming around to some observations about the spiritual meaning of this game.
Baseball is situational.
To the novice, it might seem monotonous: Pitcher throws to batter 300 times a game. But every pitch has a different situation, with slightly different strategies and expectations. The game is a kaleidoscope, with minor pieces turning to create brilliant new designs. Outs, base runners, balls and strikes, inning, score, and place in the batting order--these mathematically create a quarter-million different situations--and that doesn't even include the strengths and weaknesses of the individual pitcher and hitter. It's a new game with every pitch.
Of course, life is situational, too. Every moment we face decisions that present us with a range of options. What should I do when the light turns yellow, when that guy wants to clean my windshield at a city intersection, when someone calls asking me to change my long-distance service?
Baseball has a "book" and a "spirit."
The "book" is the collected wisdom of a dozen decades of baseball experience. That's how most managers deal with the myriad situations of the game. Bring in the left-handed pinch hitter to face the right-handed relief pitcher--because percentages show that opposite hands favor the batter. If the leadoff batter gets on in a tie game, have the next batter bunt. Don't make the first or third out at third base.
Every so often, a brilliant manager like the Cardinals' Tony LaRussa tries to improve on the "book." A few years ago, he tried batting the pitcher (usually the weakest hitter) eighth instead of ninth. He was trying to put more men on base in front of the slugger Mark McGwire. Computer models show that his experiment should have worked, but it didn't. You cross the "book" at your own peril.