Religion and Sports
Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence
We lost. While I gave up a scratch single in the four or ﬁve innings I pitched and shut them out, their three-run lead, which I inherited, held up, as I remember. But that day the losing was irrelevant. I could have cared less. In the face of such ecstatic experience I did not give a damn. I know now that even failure on a canvas of such excess is part of a larger thing of beauty.
I have a half-dozen memories like that in forty-six seasons of playing ball. I know those moments "in the zone" don't last, and I don't for a minute think that all of sport can be like that, at least not for more than a ﬂeeting time. What I do believe is that at other times I could have played ball on an entirely different basis than I did. I do not mean that I would have somehow overcome my limited skills, not that I could not improve, but that it would never be enough. Still, my skills were sufﬁcient to play the game. I missed so much because I thought I had to dominate it in order to prove something ﬁnally external to baseball itself. I wish I had played out of my desire, aesthetically formed, rather than out of my will and determination shaped so thoroughly by commitments extrinsic to the game.
Comments like these have signiﬁcance far beyond my personal experience alone. I am not the only person who played ball in these extrinsic ways or found such frustrations. As I grew older I had occasion to get to know and play with people who were professional baseball players, and a few big leaguers. I found experiences quite close to my own. One time a former major-league pitcher heard me give a lecture in which I talked of my frustrations with baseball. He said, "Tex, you need to understand that we all top out." He said that he played ﬁve years in the "Bigs" and that he felt very much the way I did. He said, "I just topped out a little later than you." The comment did not help, but it did remind me of something I have known a long time. Talk with deep honesty to a man who played ball in this country and he will tell you ﬁnally of his own sense of failure. There are those who boast of their talent and blame loss on teammates or circumstances, but in all my experience, if you get them into the closet of their athletic lives, you ﬁnd self-blame. Even ol' Joe DiMaggio required as a condition of his appearance at an event that he be introduced as "baseball's greatest living player." If he really thought so, then why did he need it said? Somewhere in all that talent is the gutted, emasculated emptiness of what is arguably baseball's most graceful player.
Perhaps I want too much. Perhaps I have baseball and art confused. I do know that competition is basic to baseball. I would hate to play against someone who did not want to win. I can't stand it when someone lets me win. That, too, is demeaning. Yet, baseball is not war; it is not a struggle over dignity; it is not the ultimate stage upon which the reason for life is lived out. More than that, the best part of baseball is playing it. I occasionally hear big leaguers say before an important game that they just have to "get out there and have fun." It is a far wiser thing to say than to be preoccupied with kicking ass. The focus on domination is distractive. Turning baseball into a life-and-death struggle destroys it as a game, and it is the love of the game that makes it so right. Too much intentionality takes you out of the ﬂow. The fun is not in domination; it is in making the plays and working with a team.