Oh my, did I need Opening Day this year. Opening Day, of course, is the first day of the baseball season. For baseball fans, it is a time when hope comes alive again, after a long winter of waiting.
On Opening Day, every team starts with a clean slate, all the win/loss records are 0-0 , and, as they say, “hope springs eternal.” There is talk in every baseball town and among all baseball fans of how we really could win this year if only this or that goes right, if our players could live up to their real potential, if we could finally “gel” as a team, and if all the things we can’t control could go well for us and not so well for the other teams. “Have you seen that new rookie?” And “that trade we just made could make all the difference now!” Everybody is a believer on opening day.
The Boston Red Sox need to throw off the long-lasting “curse” of the Bambino, which still lurks around Fenway Park despite their recent successes. The hated New York Yankees still stand in the way of another World Series ring. The Cubs fans in Chicago, with a record that would cause mere mortals to despair, have actually learned to nurse an almost eschatological hope of victory that might require the second coming of Christ to fulfill — but nonetheless, you hear chatter all over the north side of the Windy City about how it could happen “this year.” Just think of what finally going all the way “this year” could mean to my suffering hometown of Detroit, which we could do if Miguel Cabrera stays healthy. And, just so you know, the starting pitching rotations of both the Washington Nationals (the adopted team of everyone who lives in D.C.) and the Tigers are simply the best in baseball. But, I may be a bit biased.
As columnist E.J. Dionne also points out, Opening Day always comes, and I believe not accidentally, during the end of the holy season of Lent (marked by waiting in disciplined reflection, sacrifice, and even suffering), and always close to Easter and Passover — when hope comes alive again.
During these opening weeks, I’d recommend the book Baseball as a Road to God. The author, John Sexton, president of New York University, writes that science, as important as it is, does not capture all there is to know in the world; and baseball, like religion, takes us into the spiritual world of knowing what is “ineffable.” The nine book chapters, based on baseball’s nine innings, each take up one of the games key elements like faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners, community, and so on.
I can attest to Sexton’s description of participating in “sacred space and sacred time” when I am coaching my sons’ Little League baseball teams or with them in the “green cathedrals” of baseball stadiums. And I love the “seventh inning stretch” at Major League games when we pause, stretch, and sing anthems like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” — another spiritual lesson for life which baseball is so full of.
The key emotion of my baseball experience is hope over despair, which is also the most important meaning of Easter for us as Christians. No matter what happens, or what seems to be in control, or how politically hopeless things seem to be, or how oppressive the state of the world is, how endless the suffering of the most vulnerable in the world seems to be — or despite how the painful realities in our own lives, families, or health occupy our hearts and minds — Christians will affirm on Easter morning, “He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.” And then we go on living in that hope, which is the only thing that ever changes our lives or the world.
The harsh winter and spring weather in Washington, D.C., makes Opening Day even more needed for us this year. The Little League team I coach had its first two games snowed out! The frozen state of the Washington’s politics makes everything seem even worse — an utterly broken political system seemingly unable to fix and repair a broken immigration system hurting the lives and separating the families of 11 million people, as just one painful example. Our church controversies, which seem to always trump the heart of the Gospel and biblical teaching that calls us to unite around serving and seeking justice for the poorest and most vulnerable, also weighs on my heart this spring. And the health issues and even death of close friends and colleagues makes us all feel vulnerable.
These heavy feelings were on my mind when I went to my son Luke’s first game on his high school varsity baseball team. When my unsuspecting sophomore was sent out to start in left field, I could feel my heart lift; and when Luke got the first hit that scored the first run of the team’s big 5-run rally, the utter joy caused his dad to literally leap in the stands cheering with my hands up in the air. I almost fell over! Joy and hope even in the midst of despair is what my faith is all about, and baseball reminds me of that every season.
I will never forget a game with my younger son Jack’s team: The weakest player on our team got the completely unexpected hit that drove in our first two runs in a rally that turned a 5-0 score against us into an 11-5 win that turned our season around. In our lessons for life talk, which we have after every game, my 10-year-old players had these three things to say. First, “Sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.” Second, “We were all needed for our win today.” And finally, “This teaches us to never give up on hope.” They reminded me of the faith community’s vocation: to offer unexpected hope.
The wicked White Witch held the curse of endless winter over the kingdom of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. But the lion hero Aslan, the clear Christ figure in the children’s books, finally brought spring to the kingdom, literally through his death and resurrection. I have been e-mailing my Little League players’ parents saying I believe that Aslan is on the move again.
The beauty and simplicity of baseball reminds us that at the heart of our lives is a need for joy and hope. Easter reveals its source.
Amen. Play Ball!
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners . His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.