Ode to basketball, baseball, and Easter grace unearned

Issue: "Clergy Sexual Abuse," March 30, 2002

This year brings a true harmonic convergence: Easter, the NCAA basketball championship game, and the opening of the major-league baseball season, all coming the last day of March or the first day of April. Let's discuss those three holidays in ascending order of significance.

The NCAA men's roundball tournament, aka March Madness (the women's tourney is not as famous or crazy), is often full of improbable upsets early on and apparent inevitability toward the end, as the Roman legions of Duke, Kansas, or another powerhouse grind down opponents. After the last game comes the television playing of basketball's signature tune, "One Shining Moment." We can muse on teams achieving transient glory, then disappearing, and one more year of life gone. "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field," Isaiah tells us in his 40th chapter.

Ah, but the beginning of the major-league baseball season beckons. I first met Boston's Fenway Park, an old urban ballpark with cement all around, when I was 10 years old, in 1960. Coming out of an entryway tunnel to overlook the field, I was dazzled by bright sunlight on an enormous patch of green. To continue in Isaiah, "The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it"-but it is beautiful while it lasts.

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Buddhists say we should not become attached to baseball fields, or anything, because the grass withers. To my University of Texas class on Journalism and Religion I recently brought a Buddhist monk who was both thoughtful and honest. Asked about Shakespeare's lapidary line, "Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all," he did not shrink from acknowledging that if Shakespeare had been a Buddhist, he would not have written it. In Buddhism the goal is not to be attached to anything that will one day vanish.

I am attached to impermanence. For 17 straight years now Susan and I have watched our children's Little League, Pony League, and high-school baseball games, and we may have eight more years of that to enjoy, God willing. The games have enormous ups and downs, and my favorite umpire has an inconsistent strike zone but wears the amused expression of someone who has seen it all yet still relishes twists and turns. But Isaiah notes, "surely the people are grass," and we know that about both the young players and the old watchers.

Is attachment folly? Fans in Montreal, Minneapolis, and other "small-market" cities waited during the winter to see whether their major-league teams would be eliminated by baseball owners choosing "contraction" rather than revenue-sharing. Because of court orders and union concerns those fans will have a one-year stay of execution; I suspect that the best alternative is not revenue-sharing but a team-sharing that would turn small markets into bigger markets.

For example, instead of eliminating either the Florida Marlins, who play in Miami, or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, combine them into one team, the Florida Marine Animals. Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Kansas City could become the Midwest Triplets. San Francisco and Oakland could be the Frisco Bay Athletic Giants, with no out-of-shape sluggers allowed. Maybe you think this column has suddenly zipped from seriousness to low humor because I've raised serious questions of impermanence for which I have no answer. Maybe I'm stalling for time. That's what happens most often in our society when we talk about life and death.

Actually, Christians don't need escapism because of the third of our converging holidays, one that really is a holy day. Easter commemorates what happened nearly 2,000 years ago, after a man who had said He was permanent was proven on a Friday not to be-proven, that is, to the satisfaction of a mob that jeered Him for His purported overreach.

Christians celebrate Easter because astounded eyewitnesses 2,000 years ago learned that this man, Jesus Christ, is permanent. Not only was He resurrected, but He is called the firstborn of many to be resurrected. If we follow Him we will permanently be able to enjoy "a green thought in a green shade," as Andrew Marvell put it.

George Will, in his baseball book Men at Work, noted that "greatness must be wrested by athletes from the fleeting days of their physical primes. What nature gives, nurture must refine, hone and tune. We speak of such people as 'driven.' It would be better to say they are pulled, because what moves them is in front of them. A great athlete has an image graven on his or her imagination, a picture of an approach to perfection."


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