The Spirituality of Baseball

I post this essay each year around Opening Day, one of the sacred days in baseball, I hope you enjoy it again if this is an annual reading for you!

I love baseball. I know, I know… players are paid way too much money, some of them cheat big time, the owners can be ruthless and the whole idea of sports could be seen as an opiate for the masses. Although all of this makes me sad, it doesn’t deter me from pulling out my 1987 and 1991 Twins’ World Series celebration videos each March in anticipation of Opening Day. But how can baseball be spiritual?

For Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), the co-star in Bull Durham, her religious journey has culminated in declaring her commitment to the church of baseball.
“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

While I don’t commit to baseball as a religion, I do see baseball as a spiritual experience. Of course, to be honest, I may feel that more strongly when my team wins, but not always. If they play well and there are a few great moments in the game but they still lose, I go home satisfied.

So what do I consider spiritual about baseball? First, the goal of the whole game is different from most other sports where there is a net, a hole or a hoop to put the ball in or through. In baseball the object is to hit the ball, but the goal is for the batter to come home, to get back to home plate. Somehow helping your teammates get back home holds more meaning for me, maybe because of my own longing to find my true home in my work, my faith and my relationships.

In baseball one of the major ways to help get your teammates back home, around the diamond to home plate, is to sacrifice for them. A sacrifice play means that you don’t get credit for it but it advances the runner. Walks, bunts and sacrifice flies (which are good hits but caught for an out, while advancing the runner) are all examples. So a key to this game is sacrifice. In my life, the most beloved people who I hold closest to my heart have sacrificed something for me or I for them. There is something about releasing your own need in order to help another, without martyrdom, that is deeply moving and life-giving for me.

Then there are the transcendent moments in baseball; the long ball that is headed over the fence for a home run until a player in the outfield leaps at the precise moment to connect with the ball and hold it majestically in his glove; the poetic double play in which the short stop tosses to the second baseman who then twists like a ballerina in mid-air throwing perfectly to first base; or the play at home plate when the runner slides ten feet–and a bit out of the baseline–while managing to brush the bag with his hand to avoid the catcher’s tag. All of these plays leave me smiling or gasping with appreciation and bring me back for more.

Baseball, for the most part, is a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) game, a reflective sport. It is not primarily a beer bash or a status symbol. It’s not fast enough for the fast crowd. It is a slow game usually lasting about three hours, although there is no clock, so it goes on until it’s over. Few major sports are like that. The clock is the competition. So baseball invites you to relax, reflect, chat with friends, and just wile away the evening.

Besides the game itself, baseball, for me, represents some of what is best about America, in ways that other parts of our culture do not. For instance, the tickets are still within the means of most people so the average person can attend a game. Last year you could get four tickets, four hot dogs, and four cokes for twenty-five bucks. I love seeing fathers with their sons or daughters, who are wearing their baseball gloves, eagerly awaiting a foul ball. As they say; Priceless. And baseball teams are now the most integrated in sports, made up of players who are Latino, Black, White, and Asian. Jackie Robinson, the first black player, hired by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, made this all possible. Reading his story is a lesson in courage and heroism.

Baseball is a business like most sports, but when you’ve lived in a small market city, as I have, baseball is more like a family. We grow our players in a terrific minor league system and they become part of our extended clan. We don’t have as many big stars, although we do have some, but our team plays well together because they are all needed. Last year several of our players had home run records between twenty-five and thirty. Our clubhouse is known for its camaraderie partly because most everyone feels needed but also because our management encourages a team effort.

I could write about all the rituals of baseball or the spiritual experience of keeping score at games in which Cal Ripkin hit his 3000th hit, or Johan Santana got a record number of strike-outs. When history is being made keeping score is a ritual all of its own. But I want to end this essay with a story that goes beyond anything I have ever seen in sport and a story that could only happen in baseball.

It happened in 2008 in a game between two women’s college teams, Western Oregon College and Central Washington University. Washington was up by two in the bottom of the ninth inning. Oregon had two on and two outs. The batter hit a home run to win the game but caught her foot on the first base bag and fell, unable to walk. According to the rules, neither her coach nor her teammates could help her run the bases so Oregon would have to forfeit the game. Until…two players from Western Washington went over to the player, lifted her to her feet and carried her around the bases, allowing her to touch each one and win the game. They had done for her what baseball is all about, carried her back home. It meant they lost the game. Now that’s a story of sacrifice if I’ve ever heard one. In my mind everyone won.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
If you would like to see a seven minute documentary of this baseball game, go to
http://www.responsibilityproject.com/films/player/the-home-run/

Reflections on this essay
Which sports do you find interesting and why?

What parts of that sport do you find inspiring or spiritual?

What does that tap into in your life?

When have you experienced a transcendent moment in sports?

When have you experienced a gamesmanship moment that stuck with you?

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