Baseball: Beautiful Game or Steroided Mess?

Baseball: Beautiful Game or Steroided Mess? June 2, 2009

Baseball. America’s pastime. That elegant competition praised by coarse cheers, lyric poems, and motion picture films. Spring plunges into Summer and sports fans in the U.S. increasingly turn their eyes to the baseball diamond.

As the Boys of Summer kick into full gear, the lead story from the sport is full of controversy. Manny Ramirez, one of baseball’s best (and most eccentric) hitters, tested positive for hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), a female fertility drug and a substance banned from Major League Baseball. His suspension of 50 games is not an isolated event. It continues a long and painful period for America’s pastime. The late 1990s and early 2000s now stand as a black mark on the sport, with the integrity of players and the legitimacy of their records in doubt. Mark McGuire’s 70 in 1998; the numerous players pegged in the Mitchell Report; Barry Bonds, well, everything in the last eight years.

We now hear constant discussion of the steroids epidemic in Baseball. Enough is being said of these ugly issues. In light of the circumstances, we should take time to recall what is beautiful and what is useful about this game.

Baseball’s beauty is very American. It runs deep in our national consciousness. This truth is both historical and philosophical. Versions of the game stretch back to before the Civil War. The first all-professional team took the field in Cincinnati in 1869. Philosophically, baseball takes into account the tensions inherent in the American soul. Batting and fielding often involve individual feats (and hence individual glory). Home Runs and strike outs are largely one-on-one battles that garner much personal honor and gain, loss and shame.

Yet this individualism never succeeds apart from a sacrifice on the behalf of the whole. The game is, after all, a team game. Sacrifice bunts, taking an inside pitch on the upper arm, diving in the dirt to begin a double play-these are deeds done by individuals for the betterment of the team. The individual and the team seek a delicate harmony, one where both must ultimately thrive off each other to secure a win.

The game is often tagged today as slow and a sport lacking action – an accusation of ugliness. Yet such a complaint says more about the accuser than the accused. Instead, the game’s “slowness” is another beautiful and distinctly American part of the sport. Baseball’s deliberate pace and infrequent action show its reflective and contemplative nature. Baseball’s deliberative element is unique in sports the way America’s Founding was unique in the history of nations. In Federalist 1, Publius declares that while most nations have been founded upon chance and brute force, America has the chance to found itself through deliberation and choice. So it is with baseball, that unique struggle where more time may be spent contemplating and debating decisions than in actually accomplishing them.

Yet all of this deliberation is purposeful, done in the realization that the time will come when action must take center-stage, action that does not give time for thought. Thus the contemplation is not thought for its own sake; the Founders were not so Aristotelian as to elevate thought alone to the highest good. Instead, in both the sport and our Founding, deliberation is preparation to do.

Therefore in Baseball we find much as Americans to ponder and enjoy in a game whose daily stories often mirror many of our values and tendencies. Yet what about as followers of Christ? Baseball can also be beautiful to the Believer, serving as a particularly illustrative drama. In it we can find countless themes that run the gamut of life, especially one informed by Scripture.

First, the same tension between individual and community that so defines the American experience plays itself out in the Church as well. We are saved as individuals, each being called, justified, and glorified through the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Yet we are saved into a covenant community, one where we work for the furthering of God’s Church and the relief of spiritual and material suffering. We are individuals on a team, working for the greater good.

Redemption also plays itself out in countless ways. The game-losing error can come from the same player as the next game’s winning hit. So does sacrifice: players regularly sacrifice their own at bat for the sake of a teammate. Rick Ankiel, the pitcher who fell apart years ago only to rebuild himself from scratch as a power-hitting outfielder, shows the fruits of faithful perseverance in time of trial. Mike Piazza, one of baseball’s best hitting catchers, was drafted after the 60th round, showing how wrong we can be in our assessment of what is truly good and truly bound for failure.

In a post-Christian world, such examples are more relevant than they may at first appear. We must constantly look for images and stories that can lead to the Gospel. In Baseball, we find ample ground to reach people who might otherwise be deaf to the redemption, sacrifice, and perseverance found in Christ. We should continue to seek ways to take the rules and stories pouring from this game as ways to illustrate Christ and his Church.

Therefore, as summer begins and baseball takes center stage in the world of sports, let us remember what is both beautiful and useful about the game. As Americans, we can often see ourselves. As Christians, we can often find opportunities to speak the unchanging Gospel in the context of a changing world.

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