What does baseball have to do with spirituality?
A number of years ago, during the 50th anniversary of the founding of the New York Mets franchise, I attempted to answer this question at a conference presentation on the campus of Hofstra University.
As we journey into the “dog days of summer” of another baseball season, I revisited this question as I look to connect two important aspects of my own life.
Allow me to offer four attempts at an answer, specifically related to my team, the Mets, but remaining true for all fans.
In 1973, Mets closer Tug McGraw coined the phrase, “Ya Gotta Believe,” as that average team went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. This mantra, also adopted by the Philadelphia Phillies after McGraw joined the team in 1975, is used often by both clubs. Most of the time, the believing leads to disappointment, but in those rare occasions, believing leads to championships.
In our own lives, we believe in better days. We hope to find answers to our most important of questions. We trust that what we feel in the depth of our heart and soul will one day come to be.
Like a baseball season, there are ups and downs, winning and losing streaks. There are setbacks, challenges, injuries, and frustrations. There are also the good days, the times when it is easier, and when the breaks go your way. The ball lands fair, the borderline pitch is called our way, and the wind blows the Rawlings in our favor.
Over the long season of life, like the long baseball season, there is a fundamental hope, a belief, that in the end, we will be at true peace.
Choose Your Lane:
In baseball, as in all sports, when an athlete no longer tries to be someone else, and instead plays to their strengths, they are often successful.
It often takes pitchers years to learn how to pitch on the highest of levels, and part of that involves simply being themselves. As Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said, “choose your lane and excel there, do not try to be someone else.”
In life, we may look at the success of others. We may see their gifts and talents and hope to do the same. We too need to stay in our lane. We need to play to our strengths. If we can do this, by being true to the call of our soul, we will not only be successful, we will feel true joy.
I love going to baseball games. The smells and the sounds provide a safe haven for generations of fans.
Like the community amongst the players, the fans experience the same as they clap in unison, cheer and hug, and even at times do the wave (which I am not a fan when the game is experiencing a crucial moment).
At old Shea Stadium, before the first pitch, there was a daily stream of orange and blue flowing from the 7 line train into the park. It was a beautiful site that spoke to the sense of belonging that the teammates in the stands appreciated.
We are not meant to be alone, it is one of the truths from the Genesis story of creation. We were created to share in life together, and it is the call of the spiritual life.
When Thomas Merton emerged from his life of seclusion, he felt a great sense of connection to the busy crowds in a 1959 Kentucky street corner. We are meant to be neighbors, feeling the same connection to our earthy siblings.
I marvel at games in how 40,000-plus strangers can be in complete harmony while their rooting causes are the same. Imagine if we didn’t have to lose this when we exited the turnstiles and returned to that other real world.
Connection to the Past:
Baseball, more than any other sport in America, honors and cherishes its past. There is a mystique when we speak of the players from yesteryear. We look back at the statistics with admiration, and we recall memories of games that we either saw in person or on film.
In the same way, we honor our loyalty from generation to generation. I feel a deep pride that my love for the Mets goes back to my father to his father who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers until they left for Los Angeles. His loyalty shifted to the Mets after 5 years of no National League baseball in New York.
I trace this love for the blue and orange to other uncles and aunts, family members and friends. It flows down through time like the stitches on a baseball, guiding us from the past and into the future.
In the spiritual life, we connect with that divinn some traditions, we build statues, draw icons, paint images, and craft cards to recall the lives of our spiritual ancestors who speak to us through the same Spirit that flowed through them centuries, decades, and years ago.
There is also this sense in some traditions of a spiritual community. Catholics and Orthodox Christian faiths would call it the community of saints. Not a community of has beens but of those souls still fully living, this community connects all of us, living and deceased. We are invited to connect to this living spiritual community that traces us back to our living Source and Creator.
I write this as the Mets are creeping themselves back into baseball relevancy. Once left for dead, and now helped by a 7-game winning streak, fans anxiously await each game to see if this will be one of those special seasons that we remember forever, or if it is a season in which we are way to familiar, where we are hoping and waiting for next year.
The hope is to feel as they once did 50 years ago when the Mets pulled off a miracle in coming out of nowhere to win the title.
To feel what it was like when McGraw invited a city to believe that a disjointed team could go all the way to the last game of the postseason.
To feel what Shea Stadium felt like when the ball dribbled underneath Buckner, and when Orosco threw his glove into the heavens in exultation.
Sure, we will keep believing, hoping the players stay in their lanes and that it is good enough. We hope to have meaningful games in Flushing as the leaves start to fall, where the buzz returns to the rafters, and where we will look to generations of the past for inspiration today.
Yet no matter what happens as we begin another baseball month in August, we can enjoy the distraction of a game that teaches us a few things about ourselves and of life.
Let us be reminded to believe in ourselves, and to stay faithful to who God made us to be.
Let us embrace our neighbor, despite their loyalties and camps, and let us remember those who went before as they have much to teach us today.
The game of baseball teaches us many things, so as we journey together toward October, keep believing in your team and keep believing in yourself.
And when our time on this earth comes to an end, may we be blessed enough to say that we sipped the champagne of a championship at least once, and that we lived a life faithful to our true self and connected to our Source and to one another.
Let’s Go Mets!