Like Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon in her best role) in the movie Bull Durham, I believe in the church of baseball.
My belief was passed down to me according to the patriarchal order, from father to son. We were fans of the old Salt Lake Bees, and whenever I went driving with Dad on a summer evening, the radio was tuned to the ball game. When I was 14, I got my first paying job, hawking game programs at Bees’ games. “Programs! Get your programs here! Souvenir programs, one dollar!” The best part of the job was that, by the second inning, everybody who was going to buy a program had already handed over their money, so I could go sit down and watch the game. Dad drove twenty minutes to drop me off before the game, then he drove home. Three hours later, he made the same round-trip. At the time, I thought all the driving was a demonstration of his great love for me, but now, living with teenage boys, I can understand how that love was probably leavened with an earnest desire for an adolescent boy to have a job.
In case you are wondering what baseball has to do with the church, I will point out that our latest movie about Joesph Smith, Jr. Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration, depicts a game of baseball being played on the green spaces of Nauvoo. The tall guy with the big smile and the big schnoz who answers to the name of Smith bats right-handed and has good power to dead centerfield. The organization of our church in Fayette, New York in 1830 signalled the beginning of the restoration of all good things. A mere 9 years later and 140 miles away, Abner Doubleday laid out a baseball diamond in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, on the shores of a lake James Fenimore Cooper called Lake Glimmerglass. Coincidence? I think not.
Baseball is a great game because it engages both the mind and the body. A. Bartlett Giamatti was a professor of romance languages who ascended to the presidency of Yale University. After a few years he got tired of punching the clock at that sweatshop, so he finally applied for and got the job he had always wanted: commissioner of major league baseball. He wrote highbrow essays on how the beginning of baseball season signifies rebirth and renewal, and how a ball park is reminiscent of the primal garden.
There is so much to like about a game that produces fun and interesting characters. Watch this video of Ozzie Smith perform his somersault and flip as he takes the field and ask yourself if any man has ever approached his daily occupation with a greater sense of exuberant joy. Willie “Pops” Stargell played first base for the Pirates well into his forties, and he played every game with the enthusiasm of a rookie. When he was asked what made the game so fun, he replied: “When the man starts the game, he doesn’t say ‘Work Ball!’ He says ‘Play Ball!’” And Roy Campanella, the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers team that included Jackie Robinson, said “You’ve got to be a man to play this game, but you’ve got to have a lot of little boy in you, too.” I guarantee that sometime this season, a TV camera will discover guys in the dugout wearing their caps backwards and having bubblegum bubble-blowing contests.
I can think of at least two areas where baseball is better than church, hands down: congregational singing and humor. You can sing along with Harry Caray during a Cubs game, locking arms with complete strangers and swaying left and right in the warm sunshine, or you can mumble through a draggy version of Though Deep’ning Trials. Which do you think is more conducive to fellowship and good feeling? Be honest. And in the humor department, baseball has produced Comedy Central’s funniest comedy routine of the twentieth century, Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First? In contrast, we, who are warned in our scriptures about the danger of excessive laughter, can offer only GA kneeslappers and missionary knock knock jokes. It’s embarrassing.
But there is a serious side to the game, too. Roger Angell, the fiction editor of New Yorker, observed that “Baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life.” And David Noyce has written a great essay about the game, and certain parts of it seem to be meant especially for the Mormon soul. For instance:
Batting .300 is a mark of success. Put another way: Even the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time. Take Henry Aaron. The game’s greatest slugger struck out 1,383 times along the way to his record 755 dingers. He walloped homers in 6 percent of his official at-bats and whiffed in 11 percent. But no one would call Hammerin’ Hank a failure. So what does this teach us? It’s simple. Failing doesn’t make you a failure.
Too often, fear of failure keeps us from succeeding. Imagine Aaron or Ruth or Mays afraid to step up to the plate because he stands a better chance of making an out than ripping a hit… In the movie “Apollo 13,” flight director Gene Kranz says, “Failure is not an option.” It’s a memorable line but a monumental lie. Failure is indeed an option. It has to be; otherwise, we will never succeed.
. . .Once stat geeks get past the RBIs and the ERAs, the strikeouts and the shutouts, the batting averages and the slugging percentages, baseball is really about one thing: scoring runs by touching home plate. It’s the heart of the game and parallels with life . . . Every day of every week of every month of every year of every lifetime – our main goal is to get home safely. It’s an objective that is profoundly simple yet simply profound: getting home safely.
. . .There you have it. Baseball is motivating and liberating. It shows us how to work, how to play and how to rest. It teaches responsibility and resilience. It showcases the beauty of diversity and the necessity of adversity. It is inspired and inspiring.
Not bad – for something that’s just a game.
This weekend will be a memorable and spiritual occasion for us all, I’m sure. No, Silly, I’m not talking about general conference. I’m talking about the opening day of baseball season.