Jim Wallis and I were talking about baseball recently. He claimed that baseball is great because at the start of every season, 10 to 15 teams genuinely believe in their chances of advancing to the World Series. How does baseball do that? How does the league ensure strong competition and parity?
For decades, people have milked metaphors of baseball and religion beyond what they are worth. It’s not illegal, though there should probably be a special place in hell for those who claim to see the Trinity in baseball’s rule that three outs end an inning, or that the ballpark is a “cathedral.”
The truth is, we can go deeper.
WE ARE A baseball family, with our two boys playing on many teams over the years with multiracial teammates, coaches, and leadership in the organizations shaping those programs. I have long been a Little League baseball coach, and my wife, Joy, has been commissioner at every level too.
In baseball, talent and teamwork are the metrics and measuring sticks, not the race of one’s teammates. For both of my boys, their teammates are their closest friends.
Being a Little League coach (for 11 years and 22 seasons!) has given me a place to reflect on our nation’s racial issues. Playing baseball brings you closer together. My son Luke often says his high school teammates are the best friends he’s ever had, and at every level of Little League, my players always testify in our final team meeting of the season how they have become such close friends. Being teammates really does help overcome racial bias and prejudice, because it is the issue of proximity that finally helps human beings understand one another and learn empathy. On Little League teams we are all cheering for one another, looking out for one another, picking one another up when we fall down or make a mistake, and learning to be positive as we work together for our common goals.
One of the best things to watch over the course of a season is how, across racial lines, the parents of players become friends as well. It is especially interesting to see how the conversation topics develop over time, moving from “just baseball” to school and future, to work and family, to sharing of life experiences, and even to national events, which sometimes includes race. What becomes clear is that we all care more about our children and their future than anything else, and beginning to talk about our kids’ futures together can be a very powerful moment.
I am a big believer in shaking things up and approaching ideas through an unexpected perspective. Like the billboard I saw in Minnesota: It read, at the top, “Minnesota Cremation Society.” In the middle was a photo of a casket, and underneath, it read, “Think outside the box.”
AS THIS IS written, the U.S. and Cuba are in the final stages of the haggling that will likely lead to the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington, and peace, love, and understanding seem to be breaking out all over. Pope Francis, who helped broker the U.S.-Cuba thaw, will visit the island in September on his way to the U.S. After a recent meeting with the pope, Cuban President Raul Castro said, “if the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church.” And Major League Baseball is already working on bringing at least spring training games back to baseball-crazy Cuba.
In the U.S. media, discussion of the new détente with Cuba has focused almost entirely on the past 55 years of Cold War-inspired confrontation. However, the U.S. and Cuba had a close and troubled relationship for a full 60 years before Fidel Castro took power, and as hostilities wane and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba is eventually dropped, the patterns of this U.S.-Cuban “prehistory” may become important again.
That story begins in 1898, when the U.S. empire first extended beyond our North American shores as the U.S. took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico we still hold.
A bunch of us writers were in Florida covering spring training a few years ago. Our sports editor took us out to dinner. During the conversation, she asked if we ever found ourselves pulling for a favorite player to do well — say, in the ninth inning of a dramatic comeback.
The response was unequivocal and unanimous. No! Never! Not in the ninth inning!
By the bottom of the ninth, the story is written. Ready to be sent out as soon as the game ends. A lot of hard work has gone into those sentences. The home team had eight entire innings to take the lead. Sorry. They had their chances. Now they should just lose quietly. Don’t mess up my story!
For the most part, sports writers hate dramatic comebacks. You have to hit the “delete” key on a lot of hard work. And then you frantically rewrite on deadline, which is the toughest type of writing.
Some time later, though — and this may not come until you’re driving home at 3 a.m. — you let your brain throttle back from hyper drive and say: Wow, that was pretty cool. Even though it drove my typing fingers crazy.
One of the best things about sports is that there’s always a chance for something grand at the end. Something that can take your prose away — and your breath away — in one unexpected moment.
Maybe that’s why fans — OK, and yeah, even sports writers — revel in those incredible finishes. They remind us of the sweetly unpredictable nature of our lives. And how in each of our lives, as Anne Lamott puts it: “Grace bats last.”
I’ve seen that ninth-inning comeback play out many times.
How do you get your Little League team to get their hitting going? Get a surprise visit before your game from President Barack Obama! Our excited kids won 12-1.
I’m been a Little League baseball coach for 10 years and 20 seasons; first with my 15 year-old sophomore son Luke who has graduated way beyond his Dad coach to high school varsity baseball, and now with my 11 year old son Jack—who got to meet the President of the United States at his game on Monday night. The expressions on the kid’s faces when Obama walked on to their field were magical and priceless.
This Holy Week, I realized God's hope in a place other than church.
Proclaiming that the tomb is empty – that Jesus has risen from the grave – is the most powerful witness any Christian can offer. But if our Easter celebration stops at proclamation then we’ve shortchanged the world of the hope and joy it sorely needs. The resurrection must also be about embodiment. It should change the way we live and move and have our being. Easter should transform and strengthen us to participate in God’s reconciling work in the world.
That’s why I chose to spend this Easter worshipping in a very different way and in a very different place. There was no midnight watch service or large family dinner, but there were countless moments of hope and an abiding trust in the possibility of new life.
When I was growing up, I had three older cousins who were my models for being awesome. They were funny, smart, athletic, and they loved baseball.
And so I wanted to be all of those things, but the one thing I could do without any effort was love baseball.
But I had one major problem. I’m missing the athletic gene of the Ericksen family. While I could share in the love my cousins had for baseball, I couldn’t share in their athletic ability. I lack coordination, which creates problems in every aspect of baseball. I once tripped while running to first base. Embarrassed, I ran back to the dugout and insisted to my teammates that I didn’t trip – I dove. But by the fourth grade, every baseball player knows that you never dive into first base. You run through it.
In sixth grade I played third base. I fielded a grounder that took a bad hop – right to my forehead. I laid on the dirt, crying, and thinking that I never wanted to play again. I finished that game, but never replay organized baseball again.
So, my baseball career was a failure, but I still love the game. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, a diving catch – my total lack of athletic ability allows me to appreciate those who have honed their athleticism.
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.
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.
Most Americans don’t think God or the devil will be picking the NFL playoff winners this weekend or any other sports champions.
But some will pray nonetheless, and a few will “religiously” perform little game-day rituals just in case.
A survey by Public Religion Research Institute, released Thursday, probes the crossover between team spirit and spirituality.
Most Americans (60 percent) call themselves fans of a particular team. Among this group, several will do a little dance or say a little prayer to help the team along:
- 21 percent (including one in four football fans) will wear special clothes or do special rituals. Donning a team jersey leads the way (66 percent). But some admit they get a little funky with their underwear. One fan wears dirty undershorts on top of his jeans. (No word if these are boxers or briefs.)
- 25 percent (including 31 percent of football fans) have sometimes felt their team has been cursed. (No word on how many are Red Sox fans.)
- 26 percent (including one in three football fans) say they pray to God to help their team. White evangelicals are most likely to lean on the Lord on this: 38 percent will pray, more than any other religious group.
- Football fans are also more likely than other fans to admit praying for their team (33 percent to 21 percent), performing pre-game or game-time rituals (25 percent to 18 percent), or to believe that their team has been cursed (31 percent to 18 percent).
I have a long history of hating the-man-who-shall-not-be-named. In fact, my wife no longer lets me watch the Yankees. That’s because we have children and she doesn’t want them to hear me launch f-bombs at the television whenever my arch-nemesis stands at the plate.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to love him. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so the Seattle Mariners are my favorite team. He began his career with the Mariners, but after a few years of stardom, he let it get to his head and he joined the Texas Rangers. “It’s not about the money,” I remember him saying. But that was disingenuous. The Rangers crippled their team by providing him with the biggest salary in baseball history.
It was heartbreaking. I once heard that whenever hearts break, they either grow bigger or they become calloused. Well, my heart calloused. Along with other Mariner fans, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing that the Rangers, now led by the-man-who-shall-not-be-named, were horrible. In his three years in Texas, the Rangers were one of the worst teams in baseball and never ended a season above last place in their division.
And I loved it.