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This may be a Rabbit Room first, but this post is about sports. Yes, sports. In particular, baseball. The playoffs begin this week for this game many people find to be one of the dullest professional sports around. I, however, find baseball to be loaded with significance and parallels to a meaningful life. (That may have been an overstatement right there, but not by much.)
I grew up oblivious to baseball, except that I knew the Pittsburgh Pirates had the best caps in the league. It wasn’t until 1997, when my wife and I moved to St. Louis that I discovered baseball. It was the year the Cardinals signed Mark McGwire. Whatever you think of that home run race now, know this my friend- at the time, it was an intoxicating race toward history. I was in the ballpark in 1998 for around 15 of McGwire’s 70 home runs that season, and I can tell you there was nothing like being there for that. I saw grown men weep when he broke the single season home run record– men who weren’t even drunk.
Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of baseball. The last couple of years we lived in St. Louis I had a friend who played in the outfield for the Cards, and he would leave tickets for me any time I wanted to go– 25 rows behind the home team dugout. As I went and watched those games unfold, certain observations about baseball struck me that led me to believe this sport is a grand analogy of the human existence. As the playoffs begin, here are some of those observations.
Baseball teaches us life is good. It heightens the goodness of everything around you. Hotdogs taste better. You drop $5.75 on a souvenier cup of Coke, and you have no reservations that the cup was totally worth it, and the soda was a bonus. The grass looks the way grass is supposed to look, brilliant, green, tidy and soft. The staduim, if it was built right (meaning it has 360 degree seating) wraps you in it’s embrace. It will host you. The smells, sights and sounds come together like a symphony for the senses.
Like life, when you walk into a ballpark as the game is about to begin, you enter a world where everyone plays a part in the proceedings. The people in the stands rise to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Then they sit. The announcer introduces the players and coaches, and once we’ve gotten acquainted with each other, nine players from one team go to their repective positions, and one from the other team goes to his place at home plate. The pitcher pitches, the hitter swings. Sometimes he hits the ball, most of the time he misses. There is no clock. The game takes the time it takes.
As in life, no one, statistically, has ever been good at baseball. This year Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols were running neck and neck for the best batting average of the year. Chipper won. His average? He batted .364, which means for every 100 time he went up to bat, he only got a hit 36 times. Nearly two thirds of the time, the best hitter in the league failed to hit the ball.
As with life, you have to decide what you’re going to think about personal failure. Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “You can’t be afraid to make errors. You can’t be afraid to be naked before the crowd, because no one can ever master the game of baseball or conquer it. You can only challenge it.” And that’s the deal. Baseball is a game where you fail most of the time, but you keep challenging. Greatness is not found in avoiding failure. It comes by failing less than those around you, and less than you used to yourself. The catch, however, is that the better you become, the less forgiving people are when you do fail. But this too is a paradox, since, as Reggie Jackson said, “People don’t boo nobodies.” Being booed is a recognition of ability. To whom much is given…
Like life, the game is at the same time exceedingly simple and deceptively complex. You only do four things in this game– hit, throw, run and catch. That’s it. Pretty simple. But its the combinations of these four things that create the problem. You have to catch what someone else hits or throws. You have to run faster than the opposition’s combination of a throw and a catch. You have to hit what is thrown, and most of the time it’s coming at you fast– and sometimes at your head!
Like life, for most of the time you’re at the game, nothing much exciting going on. But then for about every 2 1/2 hours of not much happening, you get about 5 good minutes of exhilirating excitement. And to the baseball fan, we knew this coming in, and that five good minutes makes the other 2 1/2 hours well worth it.
Finally, like life, the regular season is a long haul of going to work everyday. The regular season consists of 162 games over the course of six months. During that time, players get a total of about four days per month off. That’s a lot of time to shine and to fail. When you’ve played eight straight games in four different cities and tomorrow is another game in another city, who among us wouldn’t wish we were someplace else doing something else? It is a grind. On any given day, any given player can emerge the hero just as any given player can single-handedly cost his team the game. Hitters can get red-hot, pitchers can melt-down. And you just never really know what you’re gonna get until the umpire yells, “Play ball.”
I believe life is good. But the goodness isn’t found in home runs alone. It’s found over the span of a long season, one that is filled with more failure than success, more routine than exhiliration, more anonymity than recognition. Sometimes we hit it out of the park, sometimes we strike out looking. Sometimes we make that impossible diving catch, other times we miss the routine grounder hit right to us. And as it goes for us, so it goes for everyone else.
Still, if we’d look around, we’d see it is beautiful.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).