Snow recently covered a good portion of the country but I have not felt as warm and vibrant in some time. Pitchers and catchers reported to Major League Baseball Spring Training in mid-February and for some inexplicable reason that does something good for my soul.
Like George Will, “baseball has been the background music of my life” and I have never tired of the tune. A new season of the national pastime is full of hope and glorious possibilities for every club and its fans.
Since 1846, when Alexander Cartwright took the Knickerbockers to play the New York Nine in the first game of organized baseball on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., the game has possessed an irresistible and rhythmic hold on our nation. Generations of Americans are linked because of what happened on that green field in New Jersey and has been happening on subsequent diamond-stamped green fields ever since. Those fields have not simply preserved an enduring form of recreation but have helped promote vital traits which are fundamental to our health as a people.
“Without fathers, there is no baseball, only football and basketball” (Diana Schaub, “America at Bat,” National Affairs).
It was one of those lines that paralyzes you when you read it. As a former high school coach I began reflecting on just how true that sentence was in my experience. In football it was common for a young man with superior brawn or athletic ability to begin playing the game successfully at an older age with no background or former tutelage in the sport. Height alone can equate to some measure of basketball success at younger ages and skills can be honed in isolation with nothing more than a ball and a hoop. None of this is true with baseball. In most cases, the way a love of baseball is transmitted is through dads.
No boy will love and pass down the game of baseball simply because someone bought him a glove, ball and bat. He cannot play catch with himself, hit himself ground balls, or throw himself batting practice. Much less will he ever figure out on his own what in the world a squeeze, sacrifice, infield fly rule, frozen rope, Texas leaguer or balk means. The mechanics, mystery, nuance and jargon of baseball demand that one has to be discipled in its craft and patiently taught its excellencies. Very little in baseball is seeker-friendly or self-evident and few people pick up the game on their own.
Baseball is a sport of fathers and sons. When Willie Mays speaks of his dad teaching him how to walk when he was six months old by enticing him with a rolling baseball, he is telling the story of baseball. It is not uncommon for friends to ask me how I can continue to love the game in light of exorbitant salaries and the shame of the steroids era. My passion and love for the game did not begin in multi-million dollar parks with 40,000 seats and it cannot be taken away by what happens there. It began with my dad rolling a baseball to me at six months of age and grew with countless times of catch, ground balls, and batting practice with my father.
The soil of little Joe Marshall Field in Montgomery, Ala., will always be more sacred to me than Fenway or any other big league park. As we picked up balls after another round of hitting, those conversations between father and son helped usher me from boyhood to manhood. My dad taught me important lessons like the vileness of the DH (designated hitter) in baseball and many things far more important. I cannot separate those lessons from the game that provided a glorious context to learn them, nor would I want to. There is nothing free agency, steroids, or Major League scandals can do to take that away from me. Similar stories could be told by almost every true baseball fan. There is a reason grown men often cry when “Field of Dreams” ends with Ray playing catch with his dad.
I am excited about the start of another Major League Baseball season as our family follows the fortunes of our beloved Atlanta Braves each day. But the start of the Major League season signals something far greater for me; Little League baseball games that will take play in every nook and cranny across the nation where someone can stick a baseball diamond. Those games will represent countless games of catch in the backyard between fathers and sons. It takes time, effort, diligence and never-ending conversations to pass the game of baseball from one generation to the next.
I fear that the diminishing popularity of baseball in recent years has less to do with the sport and more to do with the diminishing popularity of intentional fatherhood in our culture.
As a Christian father I try to remember to pray every time I drive past a little league baseball park. I thank God for fathers who are intentionally investing time in their sons and I pray that the game of baseball would remind Christian fathers that calling the next generation to hope in God (Psalm 78:5-7) works in a similar way. It takes time, effort, diligence and never-ending conversations about God and His grace (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
My three sons have already developed a love for the game of baseball and can tell you why the DH is a perversion of the great game. But I pray one day my sons will say they learned far more important lessons about the mystery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while we picked up balls, played catch, and watched every baseball game we could find. In fact, I hope they will say, “I cannot separate those eternally important lessons from the game that provided a glorious context to learn them, nor would I want to.”
Perhaps it is not so inexplicable why knowing pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training does something good for my soul.