Joy

The little ones of baseball can teach us what we desire

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

Several concerned readers have asked me about the dearth of baseball coverage so far this year. It's true: I haven't had time to meditate on the major leagues, and I'm certainly not the type of dad to drop in a mention of my youngest son Ben being the first player in his Little League to slam an over-the-fence home run.

Still, I was reminded of baseball's beauty last month while reading two just-published books by America's best writer on baseball, Roger Angell. His biography of veteran hurler David Cone, A Pitcher's Story (Warner Books, 2001), is disappointing, as Mr. Cone was during 1999 and 2000. But a collection of three decades of Angellic essays, Once More Around the Park (Ivan Dee, 2001), brings back many fond recollections of God's tender mercy in giving us baseball.

Mr. Angell clearly worships the pastoral sport and reveres its bishops. One of his finest articles, "Agincourt and After," shows the fervor of 1975 when Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox hit his 12th-inning, World Series game-winning, barely fair home run. (If you've watched baseball over the past quarter-century, you've seen the video of it many a time.) Mr. Angell reports that John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." He then conveys a vision of how worshippers all over New England took in the good news:

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"I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway ... even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy-alight with it."

The scene is like that of Samuel's second book in the Old Testament, when King David and others bring the ark of God to Jerusalem: "David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord." David, we are told, "danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets." Don't many of us yearn for the truly great, good news of the gospel to be received that way in 21st-century America?

Wait on the Lord, and perhaps we will. In the meantime, Christians should avoid two mistakes regarding baseball or other sports: either worshipping them and those who excel within them, or disdaining them because sports can so readily become a substitute form of worship. When David's wife Michal saw David "leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart." We should not despise baseball fans who leap and dance. We should show them that their object of devotion is nothing compared to what is truly worthy of honor.

Baseball, like many other good gifts from God, can give us a temporary happiness that points us toward the happiness that lasts. One fine day in 1975, as I was coming out of the seven lean years of my life, I walked the 12 miles from my parents' home (where I was visiting) to the Atlantic Ocean and stared out at it. Then I looped back to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had an evening game against the dreaded Yankees.

I sat in the right-field bleachers as pitcher Luis Tiant twisted indescribably on the mound. (If you have ever watched his idiosyncratic wind-up, you can picture it in your mind's eye right now.) He pitched brilliantly, the Red Sox had some timely hits, and they led 5-2 after eight innings. That's when I did something exceedingly rare in my life: I left a game early.

The reason was neither rush nor boredom; for some inexplicable reason (because the facts of my life did not warrant joy) I was filled with happiness. I didn't want to lose that moment, so I walked out into the night before anything could go wrong. I walked out thinking, "It doesn't get any better than this."

But of course, through God's grace, it did, because a fine baseball game is just a shadow of what God has in store for us. I met Susan two months after that game. I publicly recognized God's claims on me a year after that. Over the ensuing years I became the father of God's gifts that keep on giving, four terrific children. And God has given me quiet joy year after year, along with some occasional dancing and leaping.

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