I heard the words blare from the car radio and received them with that uneasy pang in the pit of your stomach that comes when you hear really bad news. The radio show host said it without hesitation as if nothing was at stake, “America’s new favorite pastime . . . football.” The worst part was, as he ran through his list of reasons for asserting that football is more popular in America than baseball, I knew he was right.
It is likely that you receive this news with a yawn, but not me. I enjoy football. I used to coach high school football, and there is certainly something special about Friday night lights. The pomp and circumstance of a college football Saturday is a sight to behold: marching bands, fight songs, cheers, grilling out and watching a game with 70,000 friends who all decided to wear the same color is its own unique pleasure. But while I enjoy football, I love baseball. My delight for the game is close to that of George Will when he asserted that “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”
Famed Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver when he was being interviewed by a reporter concerned he might need to leave the dugout so Weaver could give his pre-game pep talk replied, “This ain’t football. We do this every day.” There is a rhythm and pace to baseball that synchs up to the rhythm and pace of real life. Baseball rewards persistence in the face of managed failure. The rosters of the Major League All-Star game are filled with hitters who fail seventy percent of the time. There are no perfect seasons in baseball and that ought to be one of the treasures embraced by every fan that drives, walks, or rides a bike away from the park.
Baseball is not played in something as impersonal as a stadium with a playing surface possessing the exact, cookie cutter, dimensions of every other teams playing surface. Rather, baseball is played in a park, on a field which shares the beauty of its diamond with every other baseball field, but which possesses its own unique character as well. The pre-game ground rules are a declaration of the glorious individuality of every ball park whether it has a green monster, a short porch, or a hole in the chain link fence.
Even in the wake of baseball’s steroid era a glance at the players who compete at the highest level serves as a constant reminder that the key to success is not monstrous height or superhuman body mass. It was only a handful of years ago that the world watched as the World Series M.V.P. trophy was hoisted by 5′7″ David Eckstein who is listed as weighing 175 pounds, which, if true, must mean he was weighed wearing full uniform and spikes. At that moment I saw a gleam of hope in my sons eyes that they do not possess when a seven footer dunks or a 350 pound lineman sacks a quarterback while running faster than they could riding their bikes. Fat, chubby, tall, short, muscle-bound, skinny, fast, and painfully slow are all represented among our baseball heroes and even among the elite enshrined in Cooperstown. Just like its parks, baseball’s heroes possess an odd sort of everyday beauty.
But it is not my unapologetic belief in the inherent beauty and superiority of baseball as a game that was the primary reason for that uneasy pang in the pit on my stomach that day in the car. It was what I believe to be the primary reason for the present preference of football over baseball in American culture. I do not believe that football’s surge over baseball in national popularity can simply be explained by ESPN’s promotion of college football or the NFL’s amazing marketing. No, I fear it is a symptom of a seismic shift in American culture, particularly in the relationships between fathers and sons.
Now, there can be little doubt that football fits the mood of contemporary America in a way that baseball does not. But there can and should be a great deal of discussion about whether or not the change in national mood is for the better. Football games are huge events, they are parties. After all, a football team will only have five or six home games a year. I think it is safe to say that many people love the atmosphere of football more than the game of football. I was amazed to learn that it is not uncommon for football tailgaters to stay in the parking lot and watch the game on television even if they have tickets. I cannot imagine a baseball fan making such a choice. Baseball fans love the park, the sound, and the smells and most of all the game itself.
The game of baseball is not an easy one to understand. The learning curve for being able to enjoy football is much quicker than it is for baseball. I know that contemporary schemes like the spread option offense and the Tampa 2 defense are complex and an NFL playbook resembles a NASA training manual. Nevertheless, at its base, simplistic level one can become a football fan quickly. In fact, many people become passionate football fans in their adult years after having paid very little attention to the game in their youth.
Almost no-one ever develops a love for baseball as an adult. That is not the way the game works. Baseball is a game full of mystery, nuances, and mechanics that have to be passed on from generation to generation for the game to survive. The one who does not understand baseball will not appreciate the game. And that is just the point at which contemporary American culture is working against the nation’s pastime. Baseball is only really understood in the context of countless hours of catch, shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, and never ending hours of watching the game with attendant conversations about all of its delightfully complex nuances and quirks. In a game with infield fly rules, balks, and squeezes; where shortstops are not necessarily short and the players run counter clockwise, even grizzled veterans take pleasure in knowing that they have not mastered the game.
“Baseball is boring” is a cry that is often heard today. Perhaps, in the same way a classic novel is boring or long conversations into the night with your spouse are boring. But that is just it; we do not have time for those things either. A love for baseball cannot be passed on without fathers spending a lot of time with their sons. I fear many modern fathers want football style fathering, a few big events a year where it is easy to get up to speed quickly. A father that refuses to take the time to teach his son a game like baseball probably will not take the time for other complex, mysterious things either, more important things.
As a Christian father this is where that uneasy pang in the pit of my stomach intensifies. The good news of Jesus Christ is a simple, yet infinitely profound message. The Bible takes us through the most important story in the history of the cosmos. The story has all kinds of twists and turns, nuances, and mystery (Eph. 3:3-10; 5:32; Col. 1:26-27). It is the story that defines every one of our personal stories. Passing on “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to the next generation takes time, patience, and never ending conversations (Deut. 6:4-9; Psalm 78:1-8) about “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
I wonder if the changing mood of American culture has far greater implications than the fact football has vaulted over baseball as America’s favorite sport. We do not have time to read the long complex story of the Bible and have countless conversations with our sons about the good news so we simply drop them off and hope the professionals at the church can take care of the heavy stuff. We prefer the gospel tract approach to teaching the faith, just the facts, hopefully get them saved, and then move on to other things. But in a faith whose Savior commands His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-57) there is more to be said than can be put on a tri-fold and tucked in a jacket pocket.
In a baseball family, morning breakfast includes checking the box score of last night’s game and a discussion of the pitching match ups for the game that day. Those conversations are carried to school and continued with the other boys who participated in the same ritual in their homes that morning. The day is always better when time is carved out to play catch before dark or school is missed because first pitch is at noon. Every trip home from the store is received like Christmas morning when dad comes home with a fresh pack of baseball cards, complete with a sliver of cardboard gum. Little boys who grow up in this environment drift off to sleep thinking about their baseball heroes and invariably dreaming about becoming one. This is the way a passion for baseball, a love for the game, is passed on to the next generation.
Doesn’t this sound like Moses command to God’s people about their responsibility to pass on the faith and cultivate a love for God? “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7). Christian fathers have the responsibility to create an atmosphere in the home where talk of God and His Word is the norm and the gospel message overshadows all of everyday life because it is “on your heart” (Deut 6:6).
A dad who is passionate about baseball almost always extends his desire to teach and pass on a love for the game beyond his own sons. On a bright, sunny day in the middle of summer, a game of catch draws other neighborhood boys to the sound of leather popping with a magnetic attraction. My dad, and countless others before and after him, had a whole group of boys with absentee or disinterested fathers who attached to him as soon as the winter began to give way to the warmth of spring and a new baseball season was dawning. The last out of the season had to be especially difficult for these boys since more was at stake than a loss in the district tournament. Nevertheless, the investment my father made in these boys because of his desire to spread a passion for something he loved forged a bond that often transcended little league.
Likewise, every Christian father has, not only, the responsibility to teach his own sons to know and trust the Lord Jesus Christ but also the opportunity share his ultimate passion and love with “children who have not known it” that they “may hear and learn to fear the LORD” (Deut. 31:13). I remember those looks and whispers aimed at my father when he brought the fatherless kid with long, long hair and earrings to baseball sign-ups and later when he encouraged a couple of African-American kids from my school to play. He was no social crusader, by any means, but he thought every child ought to have an opportunity to learn and play a game that he loved and was passing on to his son. The glares and gossip did not bother him a bit. Far too many Christian fathers exhibit less passion and love for the gospel than my dad did for baseball. I wonder how many Christian dads are willing to scandalize others because every boy deserves an opportunity to hear and live the good news of Jesus Christ.
You may never develop my passion for baseball. You may always prefer other games like football, basketball, or even soccer, and I will accept that. I will not like it but I will accept it. If you give me the opportunity I will gladly discuss how baseball provides the best metaphors for life and the pursuit of godliness of any sport. If you keep the conversation going I am sure I will explain why the designated hitter in the American League strikes against the very character of the game. You may not even like sports. Your interest may be farming, construction, or perhaps even carpentry, like the father of a young Jewish boy named Jesus. But I will be content if baseball, whether you enjoy the game or not, helps every dad remember that teaching our sons to trust in Jesus and to serve His Kingdom takes time, effort, instruction, modeling, and countless conversations. If so, the cry “Play Ball!” could be some of the most important words you ever hear. Even if you, in defiance of all sound reason, are glad football is considered America’s new national pastime.