I remember the first time my family headed east on I-85 from Montgomery to Atlanta to watch our beloved Atlanta Braves at old Fulton County Stadium. Today, I am glad that old, stadium-style facility was put out of its misery in favor of an actual ballpark. But as a boy, turning off of the concourse toward the field and seeing that perfectly manicured diamond for the first time was one of the most breathtaking sights I had ever laid eyes on.
I still consider a perfectly manicured ballpark one of the most beautiful works of art to be found in our world. The late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti was fond of talking about the unusual symmetry and beauty of the game and its parks. When traveling, I always try to work in time to visit a ballpark or two -- and no game need be played at the time. The simple enjoyment of taking in the confident uniqueness and beauty of a well-worn and well-kept ballpark is enough to savor.
I have always appreciated the fact that baseball fans are not simply drawn to the atmosphere of the event like many football fans are (for many, tailgating is the main event and the game is anticlimactic). Generally, baseball fans love the game and all of its quirky nuances. This love for the game never begins in the abstract. There is always a particular time, a place and a person. Have you ever noticed when baseball players are asked about the origination of their love of the game, most often, their first words are, "my dad" and then at some point "there was this little park in my hometown." Catch with dad, countless conversations, and the soil of a particular baseball diamond.
When you arrive at the ballpark of your favorite team a couple of hours early (after all, infield and batting practice possess a beauty all their own) the other people you see are ethnically, socioeconomically and culturally diverse, but but most have essentially the same story; Dad, catch, and a little league diamond in their hometown. A time, a place, and a person, provides a wonderful rootedness in a transient rootless culture. It also explains why people who sit beside one another at baseball games almost always chat. They talk about the game they are watching and their general love of the game. No matter how different their background they often possess a common metanarrative as it relates to their love of the great game.
But as much as I appreciate the inherent beauty of an empty ballpark and its idiosyncratic design, it was built for a game to be played and the stands to be filled. No day in sports possesses the excitement and hopefulness of baseball opening day. A baseball season does not simply begin; it is celebrated, from tiny, dusty, rural diamonds to Yankee Stadium. Unlike any other sport, the beginning of a new baseball season births a newness and hopefulness that this just may be the year for your favorite team (perhaps with the exception of Cubs fans). There is a sense, as Thomas Boswell has written, that time begins on Opening Day.
This hopefulness is warranted because baseball depends as much on the intangibles as it does 40-yard dash times and bench press maxes. A baseball equivalent of the NFL combine would be essentially worthless. You can't measure what made Pete Rose a great player, and baseball team success depends a great deal on clubhouse chemistry. It has always struck me how ordinary baseball players often look out of uniform. I remember as a teenager in Montgomery, Ala., meeting Oscar Gamble (hometown baseball hero) and being amazed he hit 200 big league home runs when he was no bigger than I was. As you drive to the park or turn on the TV to watch your favorite team on opening day, you are right to be full of hope. This could be their year.
I also love the rhythm of baseball. One of the greatest features of baseball is the 162 game regular season. The uninitiated see the length of the season as a knock against baseball, but it is the very element that makes the game such a powerful metaphor for life. A sport where one loss ruins an entire season and perfection is an attainable goal is at odds with the managed failure of our actual lives. The 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals lost 72 games last season -- that's 45 percent of the regular season. Miguel Cabrera led the Majors with a .344 batting average, which means his failure average was .656. Managed failure in the pursuit, not of perfection, but greater consistency. Now that is something that resonates with my daily Christian life.
As much as I love and enjoy the game of baseball it pales when compared to my love and enjoyment of the gathered church. One of my favorite moments every week is walking in to the worship center and seeing the eternally hope-filled faces of people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Ordinary people involved in extraordinary work. A group of people who would never have gotten together if not for the fact they possess a common metanarrative as it relates to the saving love of Jesus Christ.
Their stories are all different and yet at their core they are all the same. They did not begin to follow Christ in the abstract. There was a time, a place and a person when they heard the Good News and believed. Now their lives are forever rooted in His grace. As they gather for a church service to celebrate the resurrected Christ, they have struggled all week and often failed, but their goal is not perfection (their Savior was a perfect substitute in their place) but simply greater consistency. The Lord's Day is a precious gift built into the rhythm of our lives. Every Sunday is full of newness and hope through faith in Jesus Christ no matter our failure.
Baseball is not heaven, and it is not church, which is a glorious taste and window of heaven on earth. But I do confess, baseball reminds me of church and for that I am glad and say with renewed gusto, "Play ball!"
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
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