Don’t tell me about the world. Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.
– Pete Hamill
I once knew a woman who, when preparing the first fruit salad of summer, would lop off the head of a fresh pineapple and plant the juicy peak in a flowerpot. She would place the pot in the sunlight and lavish care on her pineapple top for six to eight weeks, until the tiny fruit-bugs and gnats would become troublesome, then she would sigh regretfully as she tossed the thing into the trash. When the neighbors would teasingly ask her if she had finally managed to grow a pineapple, she would shake her head in rueful good humor. “I’m not a complete idiot,” she would say, “I wasn’t expecting to grow a real pineapple; I just thought I could get a nice, frond-y sort of houseplant from it.”
This woman was a deep reader with a gift for languages. She was no fool.
But alas, she was a Mets fan and so possessed a gift of childlike optimism that was completely out of proportion with what the world calls “realistic expectations.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and He responds by telling His apostles that they must develop a childlike faith, to “become as little children.”
Of all the seasons, it is perhaps easiest to put on the mind of a child in the summer, when the days are long and filled with sweet iced tea and fireflies, and even the oldest members of society go out in public wearing short pants and sandals. It is a season when flowers bud and tomato plants grow high, when you can stand on a shore, or before a roller coaster, and suddenly feel very small and full of wonder. Summer is a season of optimism, the virtuous by-product of childlike faith, and nowhere is that optimism more evident, and more innocent, than on a baseball field.
If you don’t believe it, ask any fan of the Chicago Cubs who has spent every April in gleeful anticipation, fervently believing that “this year” (it doesn’t matter which year, exactly) will be the one in which the Cubbies take it all, only to stand amid the falling leaves of October and gaze wistfully upon an empty field, thinking, “Next year… next year will be our year.”
It is a sweet melancholy that accompanies the fall, for even then fans of baseball look forward, clinging to the notion that in a mere six months they will again thrill to the sound of a 90-mile-an-hour ball cracking against a well-swung bat; they will sit in bleachers and eat salty hotdogs and gasp to see a man jump, spin, and throw another man out all in one graceful movement; and they will be filled, once again, with blameless wonder.
If Jesus wants us to become as children, then baseball reminds us that His charge is not an impossible one to keep, for baseball is a game of folly and deep faith. It disdains the cynic and reminds us of some of the most dramatic, awe-inspiring moments detailed in Scripture, as it demonstrates over and over again the virtues of fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice, and humility. Truthfully, when we’re watching baseball, we’re getting real lessons on how to live a real, and even godly, life.
When fans see a ball player choosing his bat and strolling up to the plate, they have before their eyes David, in obedience, selecting a few smooth stones from the ground and confidently hoisting the weight of them as he narrows his eyes and approaches Goliath. While baseball’s David might be a Japanese batter named Suzuki, and Goliath might be a pitcher called the Big Unit, the fans are nevertheless witnessing the drama and challenge of that biblical story, and they’re seeing an example of the cardinal virtue of fortitude, or courage.
Likewise, the notion of temperance, or self-control, is one promoted and reinforced on the ball field. When a pitcher allows his emotions to get the better of him so that he beans a batter, he isn’t so very far removed from St. Peter at Gethsemane, unsheathing his sword and slicing off a centurion’s ear. Could the look of admonishment Jesus gave Peter at that moment have differed markedly from the one Joe Torre once laid upon the hot-headed Roger Clemens, as he took the ball and sent his ace to the showers?
As much as some fans might find excitement in a dirt-kicking confrontation between an umpire and an angry player, or in a bench-clearing brawl, in the game of baseball a lack of restraint will put you on the bench — and perhaps keep you there for days or weeks — and so the virtue of temperance, even in the most crucial games, must necessarily rule the day.
A baseball manager will tell you that careful forethought, and an ability to size up a situation before it gets out of control, is the key to surviving a season. In Exodus, a sensible mother hid her child in the bulrushes at a time and place calculated to attract the attention of the pharaoh’s daughter, in hopes that her son would be rescued. In the same way, a good manager is the vanguard of the virtue of prudence, although it’s unlikely that Leo Durocher or Whitey Herzog would ever have used the word.
Seattle Mariners manager Darrell Johnson explained how the cautious skipper can ascertain when to change pitchers: “You just listen to the ball and bat come together. They make an awful noise.”
The legendary Casey Stengel had prudence in spades. “You never release a player from the team,” he counseled, “without first searching his room for a gun.”
Stengel’s cautionary wisdom aside, guns have never been much of an issue in the culture of the game. In baseball, the weapon of choice is statistics, which bludgeon players with the truth.
The great San Francisco Giant Al Gallagher once said, “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem — once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.”
Perhaps the order did get changed around, but in playing the game Gallagher was getting daily doses of justice and humility, so he wasn’t doing too badly. Just as Solomon was wisely able to expose the woman who sought custody of a child that was not hers, the daily statistics and box scores of the game permit no fraud. A baseball player finds his sins and foibles on the playing field tallied and published every day like an excruciating and public examination of conscience.
He also knows that none of his heroics, no matter how memorable, will save him from the wrath of the bleachers, where fickle fans will chant hosannas one day and blow raspberries the next. “Baseball keeps you humble,” Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter once mused. “It doesn’t matter if you hit a grand slam yesterday; if you go 0 for 4 today, the fans will tell you you’re a bum. That’s just the nature of the game.”
As Moses learned when he led his people out of Egypt (only to hear them complain that they missed eating melons and meat), it is the nature of humanity, as well.
But beyond merely offering up workable, living examples of heroic virtue, baseball — the quintessentially American game — has a peculiar gift (one might call it a charism) that it delivers to the nation. It reflects with great beauty the melting pot that is America. In few other sports will you find teammates who hail from the corn fields of Nebraska, the exotic tropics of Central America and the Caribbean, and from Asia, all come together to form a cohesive whole. They speak English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean, and their diversity is reflected in their names: Cobb. Hernandez. Gehrig. Matsui. Yastrzemski. Ortez. Cairo.
E Pluribus Unum. Baseball is not only a reflection of America’s motto. With no clock, no fouls, no penalties, and the game’s heart-stopping ability to confound the most restless fan (“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” said Yogi Berra), baseball is an expression of the nation’s cherished “can-do” spirit, its individualism, and its willingness to sometimes go it alone.
The essential dynamic of the game, after all, is that for nine innings, 18 men are engaged in a contest in which, ultimately, each and every player finds himself utterly alone — one man taking on a whole world that wants him to fail.
Perhaps nowhere was that dynamic, and the distinctly American character that embraces it, more perfectly demonstrated than at Yankee Stadium on two separate occasions during the 2001 World Championship games between the Bronx Bombers and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Only weeks earlier, New York had lost 3,000 of its citizens, police, and firefighters in the deadliest attack made on American soil. The rubble in Manhattan was still smoldering, and the nation was still on its knees — uncertain, unsure, and afraid.
People went to Yankee Stadium wondering if they were safe. They worried that the same group that had flown airplanes into two office buildings, in the hope of killing thousands, might be tempted by another target. And yet, for all of their fears, the fans came.
October 2001, Yankee Stadium. Security is tight. President George W. Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. Everyone wonders about that, and worries. What if there’s an assassin in the stands? The president might wear a bulletproof vest, but that won’t protect his head. What if?
As President Bush moves to the pitcher’s mound, the Yankee shortstop delays him, calling out, “Mr. President, are you going to throw from the mound or from in front of it?” Bush replies, “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Mr. President, this is New York,” Jeter says. “In New York, you throw from the mound!”
The American president walks out onto the field. Yankee Stadium is rocking and trembling with the emotional release of 55,000 people screaming in hope, and in pain, and in worried excitement. They’ve just begun to like this president. They liked what he said when he stood upon a pile of rubble and spoke through a bullhorn. They liked it when he addressed the joint houses of Congress, saying, “I will not forget this wound to our nation.” They want him to succeed.
Now, improbably, New York City, bluest of the blue communities, is rooting for George W. Bush, because there’s so much riding on this one pitch, so much symbolism, so much meaning. They want him to succeed, because it means that New York will succeed; America will succeed. It means they’ll get through this new and terrible reality together, no matter what it takes. Optimism. Childlike faith.
Bush gains the mound and gives the crowd a thumbs up. They roar. He stands motionless for a moment. And then, with a quick look at the Yankee catcher, Jorge Posada, the president throws.
A perfect strike! Yankee Stadium erupts. People from every political and economic persuasion — Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rosie O’ Donnell — are jumping and screaming. The people in the stands are weeping, in sorrow and in hope.
It is only a strike, but it’s a perfect strike. And at that moment, it means everything.
Two nights later, in the same series, New Yorkers are attending the last hometown game of the 2001 season, and they’re losing. It is the ninth inning, and there’s a feeling of resignation in the stands. After this season, this particular championship team will be broken up and many will leave. It has been an astonishing few years for the team of Jeter, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill, but New York is going to lose this game, and the fans know it.
Adding to their gloom is the knowledge that O’Neill — their so-called warrior — has announced that this as his last season. New York loves him, but with all that has happened since September, there has been no opportunity to pay him homage. Until tonight. As O’Neill waits for work in right field, a murmur begins in the stands near him.
“Paul! Hey, Paul O’Neill! Paul O’Nei-ll!” And the murmur moves beyond right field — it becomes a chant and careens through the stadium until the entire crowd, even the Diamondback fans, are calling out to the warrior, in tribute and thanks.
And O’Neill, never one to put himself above his team, must finally acknowledge the crowd — even now, in the middle of the inning — for the game cannot continue until he does. He doffs his hat briefly, and then hangs his head to hide his tears. The crowd roars its appreciation and finally quiets down. The game continues.
Only baseball can do this. Only baseball repeatedly puts one man out into the field, against a whole team, or a whole stadium, or the whole world, and then cheers him, win or lose, for his courage and his humility — for the heroic virtues he has brought forth from himself and, it is hoped, inspired in the rest of us. Only baseball can combine drama and buoyancy and innocent awe into such a heady brew of human theater that you forget you are watching a mere sport.
I sometimes wonder how it will be for those two men, President Bush and Paul O’Neill, when they’re old and fading, when their lives have begun to echo back in their heads. In their last hours, will those teeming, vivacious baseball crowds — so generous, so big-hearted, so distinctly American — be the last thing they hear? The roar that followed the perfectly thrown strike? The sad goodbye of an appreciative crowd?
Add to all of baseball’s other virtues the qualities of charity and gratitude, which the game has historically brought out in its fans. They cheer on their old or sick or broken heroes with vigor and, yes, childlike hope. As the great Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw used to say, “You gotta believe!”
The late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once wrote: “[Baseball] breaks your heart; it is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
Perhaps. But when October goes, a true fan of baseball knows that implausible happenings and stirring, uplifting, miraculous events are only six months away; and they believe, in stubborn, trusting innocence and unfailing hope, that “next year will be our year,” even as they store away a flowerpot that never will grow a pineapple.
Baseball is so much more than a game.
This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.