David Carlson: For the love of the game

Perhaps we all have a favorite sport to participate in or watch as spectators. For me, that sport is baseball, although my love happily includes softball.

Part of the joy of baseball for me is the beauty of the playing surface itself. I will never forget the first time my father took my brother and me to a professional game in Chicago — we were White Sox fans. The sheer size of Comiskey Park from the outside was impressive, but it was when I saw the beautifully manicured field that I gasped in wonder. For the first time, I understood how appropriate it is that a baseball field is called a “diamond.”

But it is the nature of the game itself that I find so pleasurable. Baseball is a sport of contrasts, a sport where a lot of standing around suddenly gives way to frenetic bursts of running, sliding, jumping, and throwing. Or take the contrast between a towering homer and a bunt, a hundred mile-an-hour fastball and a short underhand flip from the shortstop to the second baseman.

People from other cultures often find baseball hard to understand. And, from an outsider’s point of view, baseball can look weird. One player holding a round wooden stick tries to hit a small round ball thrown by another player. If the batter misses, no problem. The batter gets at least two more chances, maybe more if the batter hits the ball into the part of the field called foul territory. And think about that for a moment. What other sport considers committing a “foul” a good thing?

But it was Dale Murphy, a favorite player of mine decades ago with the Atlanta Braves, who pointed out one of baseball’s greatest surprises. In what other career, Murphy observed, can someone perform well only a third of the time (achieve a .333 batting average) and be considered an all-star?

I admit that I love baseball for many of the same reasons that others find the sport boring. A zero-zero score in the eighth or ninth inning might seem the height of boredom to some, but to those of us who appreciate good pitching and defense, we feel heightened tension, not boredom. Everyone, from the players on the field to those in the dugout to those in the stands or those watching on TV, knows that something has to break open.

Each pitch in such a game has great importance. Every single or walk represents the go-ahead run. Each routine grounder or fly-ball, if misplayed, could be the difference between winning and losing. Every decision by the manager — to leave a pitcher in or to signal for a runner to steal — could make the manager look like a genius or a fool.

I concede that every sport, from downhill skiing to Indy Car racing to golf to baseball, involves drama. If there were no drama — imagine Casey never striking out or your favorite pro golfer always scoring holes in one — would we bother watching any sport?

Perhaps I love baseball, and you love the sport you love, because we feel included in the particular drama that sport offers. The drama of baseball tends to be long. A baseball game lasts nine innings; a professional baseball season usually lasts 162 games, more with the playoffs. That means that in every baseball game and season, no matter how well a team performs, will include ups and downs, joys and disappointments, brilliant plays and bonehead errors.

Put another way, baseball reminds us that every decision we make can determine success or failure. But baseball also helps us accept the ups and downs, joys and disappointments, brilliant moments and embarrassing gaffes of our lives. And I love the wisdom of Dale Murphy, who reminds us that we can be at peace with ourselves even when we bat only .333 percent in the game of life.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]