4 Important Lessons We Can Learn from Baseball
Summer is the season of baseball, perhaps by default. Football does not start until fall, basketball is in the middle of the offseason, and hockey remains a winter sport. Soccer seasons are in full pitch, but can only put in a small claim to be a summer sport this side of the pond. Baseball was the national pastime for generations of Americans. While nearly all Major League Baseball teams have departments that process statistics, the game encompasses so much more than that. Baseball is learning to play catch with your dad in the backyard, and then teaching your son a few decades later. It’s listening to stories about the great players from past generations—Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax—as well as sharing new stories. One of the great ones from my childhood was Kirk Gibson’s home run in game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
For all the ways that baseball has changed over the decades, there is still something timeless about it. Hearing the crack of the bat and jumping up to cheer as a baserunner rounds third to score. Collecting the cards of a favorite team as a kid. Baseball is a red rope, chocolate malt, and bag of peanuts at a nearby minor league stadium; taking in the game as the sunny afternoon gives way to the cool of the evening.
There’s a bit of the transcendent in baseball, even without the benefit of corn fields in Iowa. Here are some reflections on spiritual lessons we can learn from baseball.
#1 Saints & Heroes
Baseball has its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The loose allegory is to Catholic saints. For the greatest hitters and pitchers, look to those in Cooperstown. Young players can look to those enshrined in Cooperstown for inspiration to model: Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing, Mariano Rivera’s cutter, Pete Rose’s hustle, Ozzie Smith’s defense, Stan Musial’s five tools, and the clutch hitting of David Ortiz.
The author of Hebrews includes models of faith to live up to: Abraham, Moses, Abel, and a few others. The Catholic Church also has its own “hall of fame,” the list of canonized saints. For inspiration on turning away from a life of sin, the Church points to St. Augustine. For bravery and courage in standing up for the faith, we have martyrs from all continents and eras of the Church. For zeal in evangelization, we can look at St. Isaac Jogues and his companions. The catalog of preachers is long, with figures like St. Bernadine of Siena, St. Dominic, and St. Francis de Sales filling out the list.
#2 A Great Hitter Fails 7 out of 10 Times
Modern baseball has incorporated a wide variety of statistics to measure players. One of the more “old fashioned” statistics is batting average. That is, out of the number of at bats, the percentage of times a player gets a hit. The great hitters in Major League Baseball hit over .300—but that means that for every 10 at bats, they get 3 hits. Hitting a round ball with a round bat is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Still, it’s rather humbling to think that even the best hitters in MLB don’t hit safely in 70% of their at bats.
In Catholic theology, we have original sin, concupiscence, and basic human weakness that provide for our failures. However many successes we have, there are plenty of failures to fill our days. Progress in the spiritual life involves mistakes, frequent strikeouts, and tremendous effort. Nothing is possible without grace; but on our end, advancing in the spiritual life takes humility to get up every time after failure.
#3 At the Plate in Spiritual Combat
Professional pitchers mix their pitches to keep the batter off balance. Fastballs and changeups look the same coming in, but have a huge difference in speed. If a batter expects the former and gets the latter, he has no prayer in hitting the ball. All sorts of other pitches (curveball, slider, cutter, sinker, knuckleball) have some kind of movement in an attempt to miss bats. Seeing the break on some pitches gives rise to the question, how could anyone hit that?
We could take that image of a pitcher and batter as a sort of spiritual warfare. Satan is on the mound, never wanting us to get “home” to our heavenly Father. Only with grace can we get past his wicked array of pitches. If we get to 1st base, Satan and his whole team will try to throw us out at 2nd or 3rd base.
#4 Team sport
Baseball is a team sport, just like our community life. In any Christian community over the last 2,000 years, no one person has ever done it successfully on his or her own. Communities need each other for the diverse gifts of its members. St. Paul covered this more than once in his letters. Can arms and legs move on their own as to be separated from the rest of the body?
“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:4-8
The intimacy we have as part of the Body of Christ benefits us in receiving each other’s gifts, but we also suffer together. This is a great consolation and burden at the same time; yet it takes its form from Our Lord’s cross.
God has so adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 1 Corinthians 12:24-26
In our spiritual ball game, all nine choirs of angels and the saints fill the stands. They cheer us on, pray for us, and help us by the Lord’s will. As the summer comes into full swing, think on baseball and the many other things that can represent our spiritual life.