In the film version of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (such a different story on screen – and such a silly movie), comeback hero Roy Hobbes says:
“I love baseball.”
It’s a simple, declarative sentence, and one that probably made lots of moviegoers yawn: Yeah, so? I love pizza. But for those of us who played the game as kids and have followed it ever since, that bit of dialog saved the movie. It’s a religious moment: Hobbes’s statement is like the preamble to a Creed.
You may suppose I’m thinking and writing about this now because we’re into the 2010 postseason, but that’s not it. When my old friend Joe Sobran died last week, I retrieved a bound volume of National Review (VOL. XLII), because in the issue of June 11, 1990 is Joe’s cover story, “The Republic of Baseball.” (Nice photo of Sobran wearing then Yankees manager Stump Merrill’s uniform – the only one Joe could fit into.) It’s a memorable article and very quotable. My favorite is his take on the game’s essential fairness:
The umpires don’t care who deserves to win on moral, progressive, or demographic grounds. Their role is modest but crucial, and would be corrupted if they brought any supposed Higher Purpose to their work. They care only about the rules. The Supreme Court could learn from them.
My view of baseball is more mystical, although I’m not among those who believe the Book of Genesis really begins: “In the Big Inning, God created . . .” and so on. I do believe, however, that baseball has the hallmarks of divine handiwork. Its true beginnings are a mystery, a “spontaneous order” that coalesced from an Irish game, rounders , the Brits’ cricket, and maybe the earlier French Catholic game known as la soule . In the event, it’s our species at its best: making up rules and playing games. Homo faber and homo ludens.
Baseball is the only game without a clock. Theoretically, a World Series Game 7 could go on forever. The longest-ever game was a mere 8-hour-6-minute, 25-inning epic between the White Sox and the Brewers in 1984, and the dimensions of the field, the skill of the players, and the fact that you’d run out of pitchers at least by the time you got to the 100th inning actually make moot notions of an endless game – in this world anyway.
Do they play baseball in heaven? I have no firm sense of what happens in heaven – to what extent we take any material thing from here to there (our bodies excepted) – although Heaven is surely infinite joy and eternal praise, and I doubt this includes bats and balls, dirt-and-grass diamonds, and meadows of outfield that, night or day, take away your breath when you exit the dark stadium tunnel and see the field in light.
Angels would certainly make wonderful umpires though.
I’m stumped too about that bodily resurrection, because I can’t imagine what I’ll do with a physical self that has taken such a battering yet had so much fun down here, but that’s the least of my worries.
I note, however, that the New York Times of August 8, 1910 – the year the Philadelphia Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs in the Fall Classic – reported that a Congregationalist minister sermonized that since heaven is but “an evolution of this world,” and since Christians may love the game, it’s “safe to prophesy that even . . . baseball will have its place in some spiritual form in Heaven.” I hadn’t thought of that: spiritual baseball.
But it wouldn’t be baseball without hard steals, collisions at home plate, and fastballs high-and-tight, and those sorts of things aren’t exactly spiritual. In the second game of that 1910 World Series, Jack Coombs, the Athletics’ right-hander (31-9 on the season), hit every single Cubs batter in the course of a 9-inning win, which has to have earned him time in purgatory.
I like boxing. Will heaven feature spiritual prize fights? Nope.
The Catholic Thing contributor Michael Novak has written that “sports are organized and dramatized in a religious way,” and it’s true: stadiums are cathedrals, Hall-of-Famers are patriarchs, and even the fans are referred to as “the faithful,” although, as one bishop of baseball (Leo Durocher) cautioned: “Baseball is like church. Many attend; few understand.”
I never tire of re-reading the great Jacques Barzun’s essay  (from God’s Country and Mine) in which he says: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball . . .” So much is always going on:
Opportunity swings from one side to the other because innings alternate quickly, keep up spirit in the players, interest in the beholders. So does the profusion of different acts to be performed – pitching, throwing, catching, batting, running, stealing, sliding, signaling. Blows are similarly varied. Flies, Texas Leaguers, grounders, baseline fouls – praise God the human neck is a universal joint!
Praise God indeed. Sad to say, Prof. Barzun may not be watching the upcoming World Series, because he believes the great game has gone wrong. “Other things,” he wrote a few years ago, “are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation’s spirit and tradition, it’s a disaster.”
Still there’ll come a moment later this month when Pitcher A will stare down Batter B and in half a second the old glory will return, hit or miss. So I’ll be watching. And praying: Lord, deliver us from instant replay.