Baseball As A Spiritual Practice

The obligations of religious tolerance and pluralism require all who care not a bit about baseball to accept that Opening Day is more than the beginning of a sports season. It is a great religious festival.
It can’t be an accident that baseball starts around the time of both Easter and Passover and, thus, elicits a sense of renewal. For the faithful, it means that the long dark nights of winter are over and the slate is clean. All teams, the exalted and the lowly alike, are tied at zero wins and zero losses. This, in turn, means that the fervent cry “Wait’ll next year” becomes prologue, replaced by hope.    – E.J. Dionne, Jr.

True, true, and true. Spring is in the air, and as I write this Opening Day is only a week away. I have my partial season tickets in hand, have already ordered some additional tickets, have started to read the scouting reports, continue complaining about some of the trades that were made, and have dug out my Orioles t-shirts. It is a new season and a new journey. How shall it unfold?

As many of you know I am an Orioles fan; but even more so, a baseball fan. The O’s captured my attention even as a kid living in Red Sox Nation. There was something compelling about the finesse of Earl Weaver coaching and five Baltimore pitchers each winning 20 games; it trumped the lumbering and ball-smacking Red Sox who played a different kind of game, to the everlasting agony of Sox fans. Win or lose, it became clear to me that what mattered was indeed how you played the game. I don’t mean losing with style, but playing with style. I don’t meaning losing with grace, but playing with grace.

There is something special about baseball. As famed knuckle-ball hurler Tim Wakefield recently reminded us: it is the only major sport that doesn’t play by the clock. Like cricket, the game in theory can just go on, and on, and on…. There are no periods, no half time, no second clock, no specified number of time-outs, and, perhaps most notably, no cheerleaders. There are just two teams taking equal opportunities at bat and in the field. So time is suspended. What better way to spend the delightful days of spring and summer than having an excuse for sitting placidly in the sun (I also enjoy fishing!).

I know, I know; I’ve heard the critics complain about it being slow and boring. But is it really? Depends on what you know, what you watch, and what you see. Each pitch is a singular moment in time. The batter steps in, crouches, cocks his (or increasingly her) arms, focuses all his (or her) attention. The fielders rise as one onto their toes as the pitcher unwinds, ready to break left or right, forward or back with the swing of the bat. And yes, nothing might happen. The umpire may call ‘Ball’ or ‘Strike;’ and the home crowd may boo and hiss and share their favorite epithets. But then it starts all over again; and again, and again, and again; a continuing sequence of singular moments. Each and every pitch is pregnant with possibilities. Each moment is potentially ‘the moment’ when something grand will happen: a hit or home run, a fielding gem, a perfect game, an unbelievable slider. Win or lose, it is those moments that make baseball great.

So ultimately for me baseball is a spiritual practice. Each of those moments invites my total attention. Each of those moments are like all the moments in my life: anything can happen. Every moment in my life too is pregnant with possibility. Every moment in my life can be ‘the moment;’ but not if I’m distracted, not paying attention, wishing I were someplace else, or bored. Baseball helps me to be patient, to wait, to anticipate but not to expect (how very Buddhist is that?), and to appreciate. It really doesn’t matter so much which color uniform the player is wearing who makes a diving catch, hits a grand slam, strikes out a batter with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning (except if its Yankee pinstripes!). It’s the style and grace and being in the moment that I cherish; it’s the discipline and rewards of paying attention that charm me. Win or lose, it’s a great game; just like my life.

After all as John Sexton writes in his book Baseball as a Road to God: baseball is calling us to live slow and notice. Anything that can induce me to live slow and notice is a good thing. What helps or invites you to live slow and notice?

Enjoy  –  Greg

PS – Since I do have an account with the Orioles I can get preferred seating and discounted tickets. So let me know if you’re interested in joining me at the ballpark sometime. It might be just the religious experience you need.