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3:33 Sports Short #5 // Baseball and American Spiritual Life

by Diane Cameron

The first thing I learned about baseball is this: If you raise your hand a man will bring you food. I learned this at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and in my first year as a fan I spent most of the game facing the wrong way. Raise my hand, get ice cream, raise my hand, get popcorn, raise my hand, get peanuts. It was 1958.

Later, I understood it was a game.  On summer afternoons I’d beg my brothers to take me to the ball park. I was falling in love with baseball.

If baseball has taken hold of you too, you know it’s about more than your team winning.  Sport, like religion, offers consolations: A diversion from our daily routine, heroic examples to admire, and a sense of conflict in which nobody dies. 

John Gregory Dunne wrote that, “Baseball is the couch on which we examine our psyches”. George Will said, “Baseball is the universe”. And catcher Wes Westrum said, “Baseball is like church, many attend but few understand.”

We have these sayings because baseball is one of the greatest sources of metaphor in American life. And understanding metaphor is important because metaphor is what allows us to talk about intangibles like spiritual life.

The historian, E.H. Gombrich, wrote, “Every culture has its favored sources of metaphor which facilitate communication among its members. Any cultures religion is what provides the central area of metaphor.  The Olympus of any nation will offer language and symbols of power and compassion, of good and evil, of menace and of consolation”.

As Americans we live so far inside the institution of baseball that we can’t even see it.  Have you ever said: “She’s always in there pitching”. Or  “He’s out in left field.” Or “She was born with two strikes against her.” We are talking baseball all day long.

Baseball is one of the few sports that remain timeless. A game can be fast or slow. In this one area of our lives the clock isn’t driving; we surrender the clock to the event.  Bart Giamatti, former President of Yale and former Commissioner of Baseball said, “Baseball has no clock and indeed moves counterclockwise, so anxious is it to establish its own rhythms independent of clock time.”

But there is something else in baseball that asserts the primordial and the spiritual: In baseball we begin and end at home.  Home plate is not fourth base. The goal of the game is to get home and to be safe.

We all want that. Home implies safety, accessibility, freedom, comfort. Home is where we learn to be both with others and separate.  That’s what baseball players are: individual athletes with distinct areas of responsibility but always a team. We crave this when we are craving baseball. That is why even while we watch movies and sitcoms and we binge on a series, we also change the channel and cheer for our team. We are keeping the faith.

Diane Cameron is writer, teacher, spiritual director and author of "Never Leave Your Dead." She is a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.