Life, Like Baseball, Demands Order

Throneberry Marvin 3365-68WTh_Act_NBL

Baseball, it should never be forgotten, is a game.  But it is not just a game.  Because of the way it employs life and death metaphors, its analogy with human drama is compelling if not totally convincing.  A runner may “die” on third, but not literally.  A batter may stay “alive” if he fouls off a two-strike pitch.  But a third strike would not result in his demise.  “Fair” and “foul” suggest a moral distinction, while “win” and “lose” separate off-the-field success and failure.

Because baseball is a game, the failures and foibles of its performers are not tragic.  In fact, if sufficiently offbeat, they can be comical.  Errors, mishaps, bloopers, and bonehead plays can have an enduring charm of their own, and they do not cry out for forgiveness.  The Dean brothers, Dizzy and Daffy owed a good portion of the immortality to their zaniness.

Mets_M_ThroneberryMarv Throneberry symbolized the futility of one of the most tragicomic teams in the history of baseball—the 1962 New York Mets—losers of a record 120 games.  “Having Marv Throneberry play for your team,” wrote columnist Jimmy Breslin, “is like having Willie Sutton work for your bank.”  His ineptness as a hitter, fielder (a record 17 errors in one year as a first baseman) and base-runner endeared him to members of his fan club who wore shirts sporting “VRAM” (Marv spelled backwards) and chanted, “Cranberry, Strawberry, we love Throneberry.”

In a game against the Chicago Cubs, Marvelous Marv, as he was ironically dubbed, steamed into third base with what he thought was a triple.  Ernie Banks took a relay throw and stepped on first base. The umpire declared Throneberry out because he did not touch first base.  When manager Casey Stengel came out to protest the call, the umpire pointed out that the reckless runner had also failed to touch second base.  Throneberry might as well have stayed home.

Baseball, like life, demands order.  First base–second base–third base is sequential.  The game does not abide disorder.  A runner cannot proceed from the batter’s box directly to third base.  In committing such an egregious violation of the rules, the runner is called “out” (and probably taken “off” the team).  Baseball cannot remain an intelligible game unless it staunchly prohibits such disordered base running.  Rules are its lifeblood.

Marv Throneberry’s adventurous base running reminds us of the critical importance of what I will call the “fixed order of one-two-three.”  A few examples should illustrate the principle.  The honest man learns a trade or profession, gets a job, and then earns money.  The thief, a la Willie Sutton, goes directly to where the money is.  When caught by the authorities, he is taken “out” of society.  The order that applies to baseball first applied to life.

A chaste person respects the order that links friendship to marriage and to children.  The lustful person may advance directly to siring children out of wedlock, by-passing both friendship and marriage.  A good student will attend class, study hard, and earn good grades.  The Ferris Bueller type will use the computer to elevate his grades, thereby avoiding school and all the petty annoyances that it represents to him.

The baseball diamond is designed as a tribute to the moral requirement of moving through life by steps and not by leaps.  A soldier is a private before he is a sergeant, a sergeant before he is a captain.  In human relationships attention prepares one for appreciation, while the latter paves the way for affection.  We make progress by degrees, each one preparing us for the next.  In the words of Shakespeare, “The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre observe degree, priority and place.”  But “when degree is shaked, which is the ladder to all high designs, then enterprise is sick!”  It is through “degree” that we come to “stand in authentic place” (Troilus and Cressida Act. 1, Sc. 3).

The “fixed order of one-two-three” is imprinted in our bones and leads by gradations to our “authentic place”.  The batter who bangs a double off Fenway’s “Green Monster” can stand proudly at second in his authentic place.  Julius Caesar famously declared, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).  But he missed third base.  “I came, I saw, I loved” is a far more humane maxim.  St. Thomas Aquinas said that it belongs to the wise man to order.  He could just as well have said that the wise man acknowledges, appreciates, and affirms the natural order inscribed in both nature and in the human heart.  The day advances from morning to afternoon to night-time.  Our lives evolve from youth to middle-age and then old age.  The farmer prepares the soil, plants the seeds, and then harvests the crops.

We are all in a hurry, so it seems, to reach third base.  But there are no short-cuts.  The imagined short-cut leads to nowhere.  “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? asked the lost pedestrian.  “Practice, practice, practice,” came the stern response.  Performance must be preceded by patient preparation and painstaking practice.

Life is a series of doors in which each door leads to a room which shows us the way to the next door that we must open.  We should not want to deprive ourselves of the joy and rewards that each room offers.  Third base for Willie Sutton turned out to be a penitentiary.

We invent a game—baseball—that is modeled on life and then forget the model.  But a wildly inept base runner who, in his haste to get to third base by-passed first and second, can revitalize our appreciation for the “fixed order of one-two-three” that is engraved in our very being.

Donald DeMarco

By

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International who writes for the St. Austin Review and the Truth and Charity Forum. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

  • tedseeber

    Lust without Love- the crime of the sexual libertine
    Profit without work- the crime of the fiscal libertine
    Cad or usuror, most of America succumbs to one of these philosophies,
    which is why we have the government we deserve.

  • NewEngland Observer

    So true, the evidence is right in front of us – the Clintons (Chelsea just bought an apartment for $10M), Kennedys, Obamas, Pelosis, Kerrys, Granholms, Dr. Gosnel, Planned Parenthood, etc. – all the years of hardwork and effort they put in. – sarcasm off!

  • John B.

    As a lifelong Catholic with a Theology degree and a lifelong baseball fan with a love for the Mets, this has my fullest endorsement. The relationship between Met fans at the Polo Grounds in the early ’60s and Marv Throneberry might also be described as the baseball equivalent of “hate the sin, love the sinner”!

  • HigherCalling

    D.B. Hart wrote a similarly terrific piece on the mystical moral metaphysics of baseball a few years ago. “Home plate is an open corner on the universe… .”

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/07/a-perfect-game

  • ColdStanding

    A sergeant is the culmination or highest of the enlisted ranks (private – corporal – sergeant). A captain is an officer. The commissioned officer track begins at lieutenant (lieutenant – captain – colonel) . I only bring it up because this article looks like it could be part of your stock repertory of speeches which you’ll likely use/give again, and the ex-servicemen like to see these distinctions handled properly.

  • Romulus

    Julius Caesar famously declared, “Veni, vidi, vinci”

    To Leonardo?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Esolen/1184164082 Tony Esolen

    The great thing about baseball is that all its many rules make perfect sense, but you’ll only see that if you know the game as a whole. Otherwise they will seem arbitrary. If you alter any of the rules, the thing breaks down. For example: the Infield Fly Rule protects the offense by preventing defenders from dropping a pop fly on purpose so as to get a double play. (That is why the Rule applies only when there are two baserunners forced to run, and when there’s less than two outs: so, first and second, or bases loaded, nobody out, or one out.) The balk rule prevents the pitcher from delaying the game or firing the ball past the batter after he’s pretended to throw elsewhere. The rule that you must return to your base after a fly ball is caught prevents runners from circling the bases on the cheap while the ball is in the air. The foul-strike rule penalizes the batter but not so badly that a foul will count as an out — unless he deliberately attempts to avoid really hitting the ball with two strikes (the foul bunt rule for the third strike). The force rule prevents runners from piling up on a base to play it safe. The tag rule prevents fielders from getting cheap outs…

    • Adam__Baum

      The great thing about baseball is that all its many rules make perfect
      sense, but you’ll only see that if you know the game as a whole.

      Indeed. There is a kind of education that comes from direct personal observation, that is invaluable but casually dismissed. Instead we believe wisdom comes from completing some course of study at an insular little echo-chambers, where every manner of social novelty is readily treated as valid, without the slightest thought as to it’s unintended effects.

  • musicacre

    I’n not a baseball fan but this makes perfect sense! Thank you Dr. DeMarco! I know a Catholic Philosophy prof out here on the West coast who would love to meet you someday! (He is also a musicican!)

  • JefZeph

    Devout Catholic, lifelong CT Mets fan and loved this essay. It’s packed with tremendous metaphors.

    I’m reluctant to Godzilla your Tokyo, but one of those metaphors falls flat. It is extremely rare, if ever, that a non-commissioned sergeant would become an officer and rise to the rank of captain. That would be tantamount to a career change.

    This is such a great post that I feel kind of petty for even pointing that out.

  • Pam Wolfe

    As a life long Red Sox fan and a mother of a soon to be priest I loved this article. How many times did I tell my kids that baseball was a major part of my life and baseball was to me a great expression of life!!! I thank God every spring for the chance of renewal for myself through His resurrection and for my Sox.

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  • hombre111

    I remember Marv Throneberry and the hapless Mets. I agree with DeMarco’s deploring lets skip everything and get to the sex part. But comparing life to a game that demands the strict order of rules has its limits. Sounds more Calvinist than Catholic. Golf, so i learned, was created by Calvinists, and reflects its roots. But Jesus had trouble with the strict rules keepers. For instance, the famous story of the woman caught in adultery. It was the rules keepers who went slinking away.

    On the pastoral level there is disagreement. I concluded that a lot of the argument had more to do with the personality than Christ-like behavior. Some pastors were simply rigid in their personalities. When they weighed the letter of the law against the needs and struggles of people, they came down on the side of the law, with no yielding from this either/or position. But I always used to believe that the Christlike way was to recognize pain and struggle and try to find some way to make an accomodation.

    We have the recent example of the long-time gymn teacher fired from her parrochial school position because of a vague statement in an obituary which nobody but a busy-body read and showed to the pastor. She will appeal. She has already lost. And the Church will have its victory and another bloody nose in the eyes of public opinion.

  • John Fisher

    We play cricket in my country.

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