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An ode to baseball’s opening day

By Melvin Arrington

The arrival of spring suggests different things to different folks. Farmers begin planting, praying their crops won’t be wiped out by a late cold snap. Some students start preparing for the final push leading up to exams; others, no longer able to concentrate on their studies, remain focused on the end of the school year, which seems like an eternity away.

But for many people, both the young and the young at heart, what can’t come soon enough is the start of the Major League Baseball season.

How appropriate that the season always begins in the spring, the time of new life and the rebirth of things thought dead. It’s the time when Christians celebrate the Resurrection. Hope is reborn. On opening day all teams start off with a clean slate. Last year’s woes are forgotten, and all things are new. Everybody thinks, “This could be the year for my team.”

A lot of fans in our region pin their hopes on the Atlanta Braves. Others, especially those of the older generation like me, still religiously follow the St. Louis Cardinals, which I explain to my younger friends by pointing out that when I was growing up down in Jackson the Cardinals were the closest major league team.

What is it about baseball that draws us to the game like iron to a magnet? Is it the sensory experiences, like the crack of the bat or the smell of the food? Is it the sight of grown men running around like little boys on their field of dreams, experiencing what W. P. Kinsella calls “the thrill of the grass”? Or is it something more profound, something ethereal? I think George Carlin’s classic comedy routine about the difference between baseball and football comes closest to explaining it.

While Carlin only hints at the importance of play, I maintain it’s a necessary part of life with close ties to spirituality.

This is especially true of sports. Athletes and spiritual seekers have to discipline themselves to achieve their goals, and occasionally this involves physical pain. It’s probably not a coincidence that spring training, the days set aside for workouts and exhibition games, begins around the same time as Lent, the forty-day period of spiritual discipline observed by most Christians. In the springtime, we all need to work ourselves into shape one way or another.

Baseball is clearly more than just a game. It’s somehow intimately intertwined with sacred time and sacred space, although Carlin doesn’t use those two terms. There’s something mythic and timeless about a game played in a garden-like park (the Spanish term for “outfielder” is jardinero, which means “gardener”), a game played without a clock (it could theoretically go on forever), where the playing field is a potentially infinite space delineated by two diverging, ever-widening foul lines, impeded only by the outfield walls. Is it Eden? Is it Heaven? No, it’s not, but if you’re on the field or in the stands there’s no other place on earth you’d rather be.

Let’s examine the playing field a little closer. The inner region consists of a diamond, the four sides of which evoke the four cardinal directions. Thus, in symbolic terms, the game encompasses the entire world. So if the batter hits a homer and he circles the bases, he is in essence leaving home, going around the world, and coming back home again.

As Carlin notes, the object of baseball is to score runs, to go home and be safe at home. Something in the human spirit responds when it comes into contact with the sacred. Baseball fans in particular have a sense of sympathy and harmony with the mythic aspects of their game.

Justice also has a role to play in this timeless ritual. The National League still operates according to traditional rules. If a pitcher is allowed to throw a 95 mph fastball at a batter’s ear, he should be made to stand in the box and let the opposing pitcher launch one at his ear. As long as the American League teams have the designated hitter rule, they’re not playing real baseball. There’s an inherent injustice in not requiring the pitcher to bat.

I don’t claim that the game is a metaphor for life, although it does lend itself to metaphor, symbol and allegory, and it can offer valuable insights into the spiritual life.

In baseball, as in life, some people abide by the rules and some don’t. Those in the latter group run the risk of getting thrown out of the game (cast out of heaven). On the other hand, if a player makes an error (commits a sin), he will probably have an opportunity later in the game to make up for it (redemption), either in the field or at the plate.

Although what counts is the team’s win/loss record, there’s still something to be said for the adage, “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” After all, one of baseball’s crucial components is the sacrifice, when the batter gives himself up in order to advance the runner. There’s a life lesson in that.

It’s also worth noting that the English language has been greatly enriched by baseball terminology. To fail is to strike out. A young man who wants to kiss the girl on the first date is trying to get to first base. Someone who is successful all the time is batting a thousand. When you move up to the highest level, you’re in the big leagues.

When a person gets rough with you, he’s playing hardball. The one who’s next in line is on deck. When a totally new situation develops, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Speaking of which, I think it’s about time to play ball. I can almost hear the entrance antiphon. “O say can you see . . .”

Melvin Arrington lives in Oxford, Miss.