Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Baseball and Spiritual Virtue

“Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.”

(from Baseball and Football by George Carlin)

During the Brewers’ last regular season game I was a bundle of nervous energy. I needed to keep my hands occupied. I brought the kitchen “junk drawer” into the den and sorted it in front of the television. I took the radio into the back yard (tuned to the Milwaukee station; for some strange reason the local station was broadcasting a football game) and spliced wires that the squirrels had chewed through. Occasionally I would run to my computer to check on the score of the critical Mets’ game. Oh, and very occasionally I would switch channels to see how badly the Packers were losing to Tampa Bay. When the Brewers won (thanks to CC Sabathia and Ryan Braun) and the Mets lost, I was as exhausted as I would have been had I just run a marathon.

I am a Baseball Guy, which is an untreatable condition. I moved to Wisconsin in 1983, the year after the Brewers last appeared in the World Series. I have been waiting 26 years for my team to make it back to the post-season. Along the way there have been many heartaches and disappointments.

I was schooled in the ways of heartache and disappointment from a tender age. I grew up near Philadelphia. I was passionate about the Phillies and attended a fair number of games at Connie Mack Stadium. I once saw Richie Ashburn foul off 23 straight pitches. Another time I saw Wes Covington (“the kingfish”) hit for the circuit. The one thing I never got to see at Connie Mack Stadium was a winning game. I was just a kid: I assumed it was my fault.

Then came 1964. On September 20, the Phillies held a 6 ½ game lead in the National League with 12 games to play. They lost the next ten in a row, including several to the Cardinals, who snatched the pennant that was rightfully ours. I have no patience for the whining of Cubs’ fans: what do they know of pain and anguish?

A lifetime spent as a fan of losing teams provides profound schooling in the spiritual virtues. Among the many virtues that baseball has formed and shaped in me are:
1. Patience. Fans of faster-moving and more aggressive sports likely regard watching an entire baseball game as a torturous exercise, given that an hour or more can go by in which “nothing happens.” But within that nothingness resides the full range of human experience: exultation, disappointment, nail-biting anxiety, moments of grace and beauty – the universe in a grain of sand. Patience is living through the pre-season, 162 games, and – if the baseball deities smile upon you – the post-season with your team.
2. Fidelity and Loyalty. “Nobody loves a loser,” say the pundits. Nobody but a true baseball fan. Your team is your team, through good times and bad. A man who will not abandon his team during a protracted losing streak is likely a man who will not be unfaithful to his wife when the marriage is strained.
3. Compassion born of suffering. Only one who has known genuine suffering himself or herself can be fully present to the suffering of another: as Nouwen notes, we offer the gift of healing love out of our own woundedness. Devoted baseball fans are the most wounded people on the earth (except, of course, for Yankees fans: those arrogant bastards are finally getting what they so desperately need), and therefore the most compassionate.
4. Hope. Perhaps the greatest virtue of them all, and baseball fans have it in abundance. “If we can just get some consistency from our middle relievers we’ll be right back in the hunt.” “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” And, of course: “Wait ‘til next year!”

The Brewers just lost the first game of their series with the Phillies. We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.

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