Religion and Sports
Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence
I started a game one night on the Fourth of July in Manchester, New Hampshire. While warming up, I thought I was ready. Seldom did I have as much stuff as I did that night on the sideline. The fastball moved, the curve broke, and I was hitting spots where the catcher held his glove. When I took the mound in the ﬁrst, I threw eight straight balls and walked two batters. I threw my ﬁrst strike to the third hitter, just one before I walked him. When I got three balls on the fourth batter, their cleanup hitter, I said to myself, "I must not, I will not walk him, no matter what." I threw the ball waist high right down the middle of the plate. The last time I saw that ball it was headed over the light tower in right center ﬁeld. Anything that goes that high and that far ought to be in the NASA program. Somehow I got out of the ﬁrst inning with the score "only" 4 to 0. In the second inning when they scored two more runs and I walked the bases loaded without getting anybody out, they pulled me from the game.
I experience such moments as being gutted. It feels as though there's nothing below your rib cage and your testicles seem to be creaming into a vacuous nothing. You are afraid to breathe deep, feeling as though your breath will become urine only to display your loss of control and to disclose your cowardice and impotence. It is the most demeaning and emasculating thing I have ever known. When you are afraid in a game, when you do question your ability, when you are exhausted, such things become a secondary response to more primary emotions, but they take on a powerful "reality." That is, if fear, hurt, and sadness, for example, are primary emotions, and anger is a secondary way to cover these emotions and deny them, then baseball can be constructed around anger. Motivation is then based in your fundamental being and you play the game in rage. It does not take a genius to see the ways that competition and baseball, masculinity and sexuality, and baseballs, bats, and genitals constitute forms of life with extensive cultural and psychic consequences. Let me say, too, that it is not necessary to reduce baseball to these dynamics alone to make the case that these things are a signiﬁcant and major dimension of the way the game is played in America.
The plain fact of the matter is that I never had the talent to play baseball at a professional or even at a top collegiate level, but somehow my limitations never came into play in the equations with which I thought about my relations to the game. For me it was a failure of being, a failure to be a man. Once I lost a game 3 to 0 in which I had pitched twelve innings. I pitched well that day. We just never got any runs. It's hard to win a game if you don't score. Yet, I blamed no one but myself for that loss. I should have hit a home run in the ninth inning. I should never have given up three runs in the twelfth inning. I also made two errors in the game in part because I was exhausted but unwilling to tell the coach he should take me out. I could not be satisﬁed that I had pitched eleven innings of shutout ball. All I knew was that we had lost, and it was my fault. I just didn't have what it took. On days like that, baseball becomes not something one plays but a ﬁeld where you attempt to prove your capacity as a man. It is not a game but a nut cutting. I left the ﬁeld that day with that gutted, empty, impotent feeling. I could not enjoy the eleven innings I pitched well. All I could do was rehearse over and over again the series of events that led to their three runs. Seeing reports in the newspaper the next day was not so much like reading my obituary but rather like reading some inappropriate account of my castration. Some days dying seemed better.