In the Arena: An Excerpt – Baseball, Dads and Discipleship

Sports evoke our emotions in ways that we often do not fully understand. There are times when a certain magic takes over and creates poetic moments between the lines that leave us with wet eyes and full hearts. For instance, watch the video below about Cincinnati Reds pitcher Michael Lorenzen.

In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship talks about why sports evoke those emotions we feel watching a great moment like one Michael Lorenzen experienced. Below is an excerpt from In the Arena that begins to touch on why sports touch something deep within us in the most unexpected moments.

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Diana Schaub writes, “Without fathers, there is no baseball, only football and basketball” (“America at Bat,” National Affairs (Winter 2010), 115). It was one of those lines that paralyzed me when I 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. I love football and basketball, but neither of those avenues are 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 be personally discipled in its craft and patiently taught its excellencies. A baseball scorebook resembles mysterious hieroglyphics until the signs and symbols are enduringly given meaning by a learned tutor. Very little in baseball is seeker-friendly or self-evident, and few people pick up the game on their own.

Baseball is uniquely a sport that fathers pass on to their children. 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. Atlanta Braves first-baseman, Freddie Freeman, tells how his CPA father took a late lunch every single day so that he could throw him batting practice after school. After 16 years in the big leagues, Chipper Jones headed home and had his mom video record his swing so his dad could help him rebuild it. In historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir, Wait Till Next Year, she explains the formative role her father’s love of baseball had on her life and career pursuits, “By the time I had mastered the art of scorekeeping, a lasting bond had been forged among my father, baseball, and me…These nightly recountings of the Dodgers’ progress provided my first lessons in the narrative art” (Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 1-2).

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. The answer is simple: 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, Alabama, 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 how the DH (designated hitter) was a corruption of the game of baseball and many things far more important. I cannot separate those lessons from the game that provided a glorious context in which 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 testimonies could be shared by almost every true baseball fan.

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. Absentee fathers have led to the cultural decline of baseball as the national pastime in America, but it must be noted that there are varying kinds of absentee fathers. Some tragically do not live in the home with their children, but others who are in the home hire or farm out much of the parenting. Even in Christian families, providing entertainment and paying for opportunities is often counted as engaged parental involvement because we have lost a theology of personal presence. The central reality of our Christian faith is the awe-inspiring truth that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In John 20:21, Jesus, the eternal Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Our’s is a technologically-driven, cyber-saturated, smartphone age, where it is easy to confuse impersonal communication of information with the genuine communion of embodied presence.

The emergence of baseball academies, specialized paid instructors, and travel baseball teams is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. All of these opportunities can be helpful and have a place as a supplement to a player’s baseball development, but they too often become substitutes for what has made the game of baseball great and deeply entrenched in American culture. Absentee dads, whether physically absent or emotionally absent, will not hand down a love and passion for baseball. A father who lacks the kind of patience to teach a game like baseball will probably not take time for other complex and mysterious things either—far more important things.

By |August 29th, 2016|Categories: Blog|

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