2016-06-30
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.

You've already figured out the spiritual lesson, no doubt. Most of the world's great religions have a "book" that offers the wisdom of the ages. As a Christian, I study the Bible for guidance in life's varied situations. LaRussa-like, I occasionally try to tinker with its teachings, but it usually doesn't work.

And yet baseball has a spirit, too, which flows through the game beyond the constraints of the book. Sometimes baseball defies explanation, the coincidences are so great. Players talk about the whims of "the baseball gods," and there's something to that. Hardcore atheists become believers as they watch the quirks, streaks, and high drama of this game. The Phillies were clearly cursed in 1964, my inaugural season, losing 10 in a row to blow the pennant. Conversely, the "Amazin' Mets" were charmed in 1969, as an unlikely lineup forged past supposedly better teams to win the Series. Talk about curses! Many Red Sox fans are convinced that their team still suffers from trading away Babe Ruth in 1919, and they'll point to the grounder that trickled through Bill Buckner's legs to lose the 1986 Series.

Occasionally, there's a manager who senses the spirit of the game, like the Giants' Dusty Baker, who has an uncanny knack for finding the hot hitter or the charmed pitcher. Amid all the mathematics, there's a lot of luck, and the best teams seem to roll with this mysterious spirit of the game.

I've found a similar aspect in my spiritual life. Yes, I need to follow the wisdom of the Book, but that wisdom is energized and applied as I keep in step with the Spirit of God. The Book by itself leads me to a stale legalism, but the Spirit helps me roll with the ups and downs of life.

Baseball is a team sport of individual matchups. Teamwork is as valuable in baseball as in any other sport, but each pitch pits one pitcher against one batter. At any given moment, the spotlight is on one player--catching, throwing, hitting, running. In that moment, your teammates can't help you. It's up to you.

And yet baseball requires many different skills and few have them all. You have sluggers and slap hitters, starting pitchers and closers, pinch hitters and defensive replacements. Yankees' manager Joe Torre built one of the game's greatest teams ever by using their different gifts. To be sure, the Yankees have some great players, but they're not a team of superstars. Their glory is in the way each player plays his part.

Life, too, is a team sport, but the pressure is still on individuals to do their best at any given moment. I am part of a church, but I can't expect the church to do my religion for me. I need to be seeking God in my own life and fitting my own gifts with the gifts of others. None of us can make a dent in the world's problems single-handedly, but as a team we can pull together to play a pretty good game.

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