Spiritual Lessons from Baseball: “Play Ball”

October 25, 2022

The World Series is about to start, and it should be a grand climax to an exciting year in baseball.

As a Yankees fan, it’s been interesting watching Aaron Judge going for the home run title and baseball’s so-called “triple crown” (i.e., the highest total of home runs, batting average, and runs batted in). But what I admire most about Aaron Judge is his leadership, team and community spirit, sportsmanship, and humility. As they say in the Bronx: “All rise. Here comes the judge!”

Baseball is my favorite sport. A lot of it has to do with childhood memories of being a pretty good left-handed first baseman – and a decent hitter, if I say so myself. I remember my Little League days with fondness.

I watched the Washington Nationals play the Yankees a few years ago. Earlier that day, The Washington Post had run a big article about an “enforcer” in the National Hockey League who had died because of brain injuries. In hockey, the “enforcer” is the big guy whose “job” is to get into fights and protect his teammates. There also had been articles about brain injuries in professional football.

So I was sitting at the Nationals-Yankees game thinking: “Baseball is such a civilized sport compared to these other games.” But just as I finished thinking that thought, the pitcher wound up and intentionally threw a fastball directly at the batter’s head. Fortunately, the batter was able to duck and avoided getting clobbered by a 98-mile-an-hour hardball.

“Well, maybe baseball isn’t as civilized as I thought,” I said to myself. Then there was also Ty Cobb, who would slide into second base with his metal spikes intentionally aimed at the second baseman‘s legs.

Some people say the following about baseball, “It is like watching paint dry”; or “watching baseball is a cure for insomnia.” My response to people who say such things is, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are saying.”

There is so much strategy behind the decisions about what type of pitch should be thrown, how to position the fielders, and whether a batter should bunt, swing away, or take the pitch. Also, should the runners hold up, or should this be a hit-and-run?

In a society that always wants instant gratification, baseball is often the equivalent of a slow build-up: There are two outs, and finally, bases are loaded, and then there is the call to the bullpen. It is a dual between a pitcher and a batter, and finally, it is a full count. The next pitch could decide the game. The pitcher winds up and throws a curveball, which the batter fouls away. So the pitcher-batter duel continues.

One more pitch is thrown, and it is a game of inches. The pitcher meant to throw an inside fastball; instead, the ball comes in over the plate. There is a swing and the crack of a bat. The ball starts to fly up and out over the park. Will it go foul, or will it be fair? … By a few inches, the ball sails out of the park inside of the foul ball pole … Ball game over; it was a walk-off home run!

I have found that it doesn’t have to be Major League Baseball to capture one’s interest. Many smaller towns – like Salem, Virginia – have wonderful Minor League Baseball parks, which get you very close to the action on the field. In Tulsa, my little daughter Therese was picked to say “Play ball” into the stadium microphone at the start of the game. There is a real community spirit in those Minor League Baseball parks. And often there is a good fireworks show at the end of the game.

But the key reason for bringing all of this up is that we can learn some important spiritual lessons from baseball. These lessons include the following:

~ In life, we will often fail: Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox was probably the greatest hitter of all time. During his best year, Williams had an incredibly high batting average of 400 (out of a possible 1,000).

This means that Williams got on base roughly 40 percent of the time. But this also means he failed to get on base roughly 60 percent of the time. In other words, even the great Ted Williams – in his best year – failed more than he succeeded. We will often fail to accomplish what we hoped to achieve in life. But that does not mean that we are a failure!

Many biblical scholars would say that Jesus’ primary goal was to work with and train 12 apostles to carry on the job when he was gone. However, he was not successful with all 12 of the apostles. Even Jesus did not have a batting average of 1,000.

~ If you dream big dreams, the chances are that your rate of failure will increase: Babe Ruth was called the “king of swats.” For many years “the Babe” had the home run record. But people also fail to remember that Ruth often held the strikeout record.

Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company were highly successful. At one point, Ford had over 50 percent of the car market. But what people often forget is that the first car company created by Ford went bankrupt. If you have a big dream and “swing for the fences,” your strikeout total will probably increase. But as a Yankee fan, I am so glad that Ruth often was “swinging for the fences.”
~ Life, like baseball, is a team sport: All baseball teams want superstars like Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter, etc. But if all you have is one – or even two superstars, you will not have a winning team.

It really does take a village! Or, as the Beatles put it so well, “We get by with a little help from our friends.” It may seem like America is the land of rugged individualism. But ironically, our so-called “national pastime“emphasizes that life is a team sport!

~ The love of the game is so important: Yogi Berra was that great Hall of Fame catcher and “philosopher.” My all-time favorite Yogi saying is: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

There came a time in Yogi’s career when he stopped loving the game of baseball. For him, it became a business and started to get boring. Needless to say, his batting average and fielding ability declined. Fortunately, he was able to renew his love of the game, and there was a “second wind” in his career. When Yogi retired as a player, he was able to go on and become a great manager for both the Yankees and the New York Mets. As in Yogi’s case, your love of your “game” really does matter!

When I was a kid, the World Series happened in September, not in October, as it does now. I remember our group of kids would huddle around these newfangled things called transistor radios and listen to Mel Allen or Red Barber call the game.

I will be delighted to see the World Series on my widescreen TV or smartphone. But I will remember that baseball has some important lessons for life.

Recently, after my team lost a game, my seven-year-old daughter, Therese, looked at me and said, “Come on, Dad. Remember, it is just a game!”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

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