Sunday, October 30, 2011


Biblical scholar and blogger, Ben Witherington, shares my love of baseball.  His most recent post captures that love and its spiritual significance.- Steve

Let’s be honest.  The most popular game in America these days is brutal. I’m talking about the incessantly broadcast game of professional football, a game, as they say ‘won in the trenches’, a term borrowed from WWI and the Maginot line. Today instead it is the offensive or defensive line. Yes, there are thrilling plays in football— elegantly arched passes to diving receivers, runners weaving their way through traffic heading for the endzone. But most of the actual play on the football field is not beautiful. It involves holding, pushing, shoving, tackling, hitting— especially hitting these days. The game’s name should be changed from tackle football to hit football. Launching one’s body at another human being, outside the football field is called assault. It is not beautiful. It is ugly.

Football, if it is possible, has become even more of a bloodsport today, than it was when padding was not nearly so good. It does a good job of feeding our lust for the dramatic, for a thrill a moment, and our voyeuristic joy in watching someone else crash and burn. Baseball, except for the occasional collision on the base paths or at home plate is not about players smashing up other players. It’s about beauty, and it’s about life and what is good in human striving.

If you have not been under a rock, and have watched this truly memorable World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers, you will see lots of amazing individual and team achievements. Say, Albert Pujols’ three monster home runs in Arlington which conjured up images of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. Or say the hometown boy David Freese made good, almost single-handedly staving off elimination in Game Six when the Cardinals were down to their last strike, twice. Or watching a guy built like a lineman, a catcher named Napoli, time and again lift his team with his bat or throws as the crowd chanted Napoli, Napoli, Napoli.

The problem with football, especially college football, is that with one loss even at the beginning of the season, you can be out of the championship hunt. That, frankly, is not merely a buzzkill, its cruel. Contrast that to baseball.

The St. Louis Cardinals, for a great deal of the season were not very good. Indeed, on Sept. 1, they were so far behind in the wildcard race, they weren’t even in anybody’s rear view mirror. And even after 161 games, the issue was not settled as to who would be the wild card team. It turned out to be….wait for it….. the Wild Cards.

Baseball was and is about redemption after losses, even devastating losses. It’s the game that is most like life. It is a game of children played by adults. In what other sport can you get a hit only one try out of three, failing two thirds of the time, and end up in a Hall of Fame? None. None that I know of. Thank goodness life is more like baseball than football. In what other sport can you fail magnificently, completely, repeatedly, in double digits, and still go on to win a world championship?
In an age of individualism, and rampant narcissism, baseball remains a team sport. There are some baseball players, even today, who have exactly one specialized skill. They don’t look like athletes, they can’t run like athletes, they would never make even a semi-pro team in other sports. But there they are, playing professional baseball. I’m talking about players like Darren Oliver. A big man who has played in the majors twenty years. What does he do? He is a relief pitcher who comes in, usually to get exactly one or two hitters out. That’s it. Or take one of my favorites– Eric Hinske. He can’t run worth a darn. His fielding is no better than mine. But put him in as a pinch hitter when the chips are down— and watch him hit yet another miracle home run in the clutch. That’s beautiful.

Most of us cannot identify with transcendent athletes like a Michael Jordan or a Deion Sanders, or an Albert Pujols. They are way beyond our reach or pay grade. But if you love baseball, you can dream of being little Ryan Theriot, a good fielder. Or an Eric Hinske. The thing about baseball is it really does confirm to you that even the ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances can do the extraordinary, can transcend the mundane and shine for a moment.

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