May 12, 2016 / Theology
In this essay, John B. White explores how (not) to exercise.
April 4, 2016
Nothing is happening.
The players join New York Mets pitcher Jonathan Niese at the mound. Niese, cap on the back half of his head, the bill pointed skyward, his hands rubbing the ball furiously and using the Rosin bag like a rosary, has just given up a bloop single after watching Eric Campbell, a call-up from the minors, boot yet another routine grounder into the outfield. With the single, the first-base runner has now come around to score. Niese feels the pressure from all around him: he’s not winning; there are trade rumors; and the young fireballer Steve Matz is shutting down explosive lineups in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, threatening to take his spot in the pitching rotation. Needless to say, Niese cannot afford the ill-timed brain cramp by Campbell.
And Campbell wouldn’t even be a worry if not for the injury bug that has decimated the Mets. Captain and All-Star third baseman David Wright is possibly out for the year with spinal stenosis. Daniel Murphy, who would ordinarily slide over from second to third, his natural position, is injured, too, with a habitually cranky quadriceps. This leaves Campbell. To his left, at shortstop, is the fresh-faced all-bat/no-glove Wilmer Flores, a Mets lifer who was signed out of Venezuela at age sixteen and is also playing out of position. Flores’s nervous countenance suggests a realization that the best way to avoid Niese’s wrath is to hope that the ball is never hit in his general direction.
The pitching coach trots out to the mound. This pause, this moment when nothing is happening, is everything.
The injuries, the increasing creativity in losing, the miscast players in crucial positions, the professions at stake—it all evokes glances upward to the management’s suite, where fans hope to catch the reassuring sight of general manager Sandy Alderson working his cell phone, conjuring up some magical deal to ensure that four-A players will no longer be allowed to masquerade as Mets major leaguers. Before the Mets will make their improbable run to the World Series in October, there is April, when everyone at Citi Field witnesses the sorry subplot encapsulated by this pause.
Everything is happening.
To the casual baseball fan, these pauses may appear tedious. Upon the headstone of the once great game, journalists routinely chisel the predictable epitaph that baseball is boring. While attendance, revenue, youth participation, and all the other metrics suggest that the game is healthy, many critics still seem to argue that baseball needs a shot in the rear with something other than BALCO and Biogenesis cocktails.1
The immediate metaphorical steroid suggested by new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is the institution of the so-called “pace of play” rules. Given our increasingly fast-paced lives and the decreasing attention spans of young fans, Manfred and his colleagues crafted these rules to accelerate the rate of gameplay, particularly now that the game’s average time has surpassed three hours for the first time in its history. Most of the new rules have been met with little consternation, save one: enforcing Rule 8.04 by adding a pitcher’s clock. That rule states, “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.”2
Somewhere, Abner Doubleday, the purported inventor of baseball, is preparing to charge the mound. And yet the possibility of a clock, while an abomination to some, isn’t the biggest issue for baseball; it is the perceived monotony that truly threatens to spoil things. Consider the opinion of one fifteen-year-old athlete featured in the Washington Post:
Most of the time, I was in center field, wondering, “When is the ball going to get to me?” he says. “Baseball players are thinking ahead all the time, always thinking of the possibilities—‘If I can’t get it to second, do I throw to first?’ Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.”3
The alleged tedium—the pauses, resetting, and conferencing—is crucial to the game, one being played at a higher level than ever before. Adam Sobsey explains that baseball is “harder than ever—largely because, although it looks emptier, it’s actually fuller. Every pitch, every play now bursts with far more than anyone can perceive: namely, data.” The data pumps through baseball as its lifeblood: elaborate defensive shifts are backed by charts of hitting tendencies. Multiple pitching changes are implemented for just the right matchup. Even the longstanding complexity of the well-orchestrated double switch is routine for baseball. Sobsey continues: “The game is speeding up on everyone, and it’s our instinct to try to slow it down. We’re not wasting time; we’re trying to catch up with it. Baseball has gotten slower because it’s moving faster.”4
So, yes, baseball is for thinking. And while it would be unfair to judge an entire generation based on the jock patter of one particular fifteen-year-old, the boy’s statement seems to reflect our culture’s pervasive preoccupation with movement, aggression, and urgency. We are a culture of dope-fueled lab rats, constantly clicking between three e-mail accounts, social media, and spreadsheets until we fall over dead from exhaustion. Our culture resembles college football’s spread offense, always speeding forward toward the next end zone, in both our work and our play.
Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University, offers a counter to the adolescent urgency narrative:
Rituals, religious and otherwise, are designed to change the pace and interrupt the rhythms of our daily lives. This is what makes them special and, when effective, allows participants to return to everyday life renewed. What critics of baseball often dismiss as a waste of time that slows the pace of the game are actually the rituals (and rituals within rituals) that make baseball so timely. . . . All these seemingly pointless rituals do have a purpose: They keep the frenetic pace of the everyday life outside the sacred precincts of the game.5
Baseball offers us a distraction, all the while habituating us to the work of play.
Baseball was my first exposure to liturgy, my first immersion in the timekeeping of heaven. C. S. Lewis writes, “If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object.”6 When you take the field, you warm up, check the wind, shade the sun with your glove. You perform these actions every inning. Once the pitcher begins his motion, you check the catcher’s position for hints of where the ball might be hit into play. You crouch, ready for the ball. You may signal to a teammate. You do this every pitch without thinking twice about it. Even observers get into the act—they stand and then sit; they stretch and sing and eat. Rhythm and ritual define the game for everyone.
In the evangelical church of my youth, the rhythm of worship was frenetic and fast-paced. There were few moments free from activity, and those rare moments were reserved for individual acts that I rarely conceived of as worship. As I transitioned into liturgical settings, I found that, just as in baseball, when it seems nothing is happening, everything is happening. Will writes that “our atomistic individualism and our yearning for community” are mirrored in baseball, “a team game in which the episodic action begins by repeated confrontations between two individuals standing alone, the pitcher and the batter.”7 But in the prayers of the people, in which disparate bodies and voices are pulled together into one body, I remember that I personally do not stand alone. In my silent prayers of confession, I receive forgiveness. In the stillness awaiting the bread and cup with outstretched hands, I am being welcomed into the body.
We all desire for our work to mean something. Dom Rembert Sorg, writing on the Benedictine theology of manual labor, says, “Work belongs to the pristine condition of human nature and there is an ontological desire in man for it. Hence it belongs to his perfection and is a condition of his peace and happiness.”8 However, when our work seems to drag on, it may detract from our peace and happiness; it can feel meaningless rather than meaningful. We do not like feeling as if we were dying on the vine, and in an era when so many people capture their successes with the failures filtered out, posting them on social media for all the world to see, even marking time can seem like a rapid death.
Maturity helps us understand that menial tasks and liminal spaces—the moment, for example, of standing in the outfield rehearsing what to do should the ball be hit your way—can serve as the gestation period for more substantial work. Until the action happens, these daily routines are filled with redemptive possibilities, or what Kathleen Norris calls “quotidian mysteries”:
It is precisely these thankless, boring, repetitive tasks that are hardest for the workaholic or utilitarian mind to appreciate, and God knows that being rendered temporarily mindless as we toil is what allows us to approach the temple of holy leisure.9
In perhaps the best insider’s look at baseball, George Will’s Men at Work examines the minutiae, the quotidian things, that make this game great. Will begins with Tony LaRussa, then the manager of the juggernaut Oakland Athletics teams of the late eighties and early nineties. LaRussa, perhaps the only baseball manager ever to hold a law degree, has always understood the importance of the tiny details. Will writes: “He constantly recurs to one intangible: intensity. One way to build it is to keep pushing for small achievements.”10 The little things matter. The things that seem meaningless matter. And Will’s chapter on LaRussa is a celebration of the modern era’s greatest manager, a man who embraced the thankless, boring, and repetitive tasks, knowing that such work might mean the difference in a game or even a season.
Even the skill of hitting has a kind of parallel to worship. Will writes of the great hitter Tony Gwynn’s “delicate mental equipoise”—for Gwynn, too much information became distraction. Will says that the San Diego Padres Hall-of-Famer “believes that his best chance of hitting the ball is when he sees it leave the pitcher’s hand and reacts. His ability to see it depends on work done . . . before he gets to the plate.”11 Likewise, the work of the people often works best when muscle memory takes over. Repetition serves us well, even when we do not want to worship or cannot worship well.
Unfortunately, muscle memory alone cannot ward off disappointing seasons of life; it can only sustain us through such seasons. Anyone who has played baseball knows that hitting a ball of yarn and horsehide traveling upwards of ninety-five miles an hour is fundamentally an exercise in dealing with failure. Hitters who fail in seventy percent of their at-bats are performing at an all-star level. “Baseball is,” as LaRussa says, “the all-time humbler.”12
This small death of realizing one’s mediocrity is not the ending of one’s love for the game. The time and effort is not in vain simply because one is not (or no longer) a professional athlete. No, sports, and the work we do to be excellent in sports, can shape us in far more profound ways than the achievement of personal glory; we can be prepared for heaven here on earth. As Sorg writes, “Manual labor is the song of Incarnation, because Christ is divine Love made flesh.” We might read this as an affirmation that work can be joy, but it is also an insistent proclamation that “the whole day becomes liturgy and it becomes even Christ Himself.”13 Work, even laborious work that is filled with the tiny details that exasperate us, is an opportunity to experience the communion broken in Eden, the communion that is still to be redeemed. And so Benedictine theology integrates work and worship in such a way that we are challenged to see our labor as a restoration of relationships with the Creator, creation, and one another.
Sports, too, have a role to play in this relational restoration. Norris highlights that work is implicit in nearly all things, especially our loves:
Paradoxically, human love is sanctified not in the height of attraction and enthusiasm but in the everyday struggles of living with another person. It is not in romance but in routine that possibilities for transformation are made manifest. And that requires commitment.14
If we agree with this proposition, that even love requires work, then the kind of leisure (or loves) we pursue away from work is deeply significant as well. We should choose our games wisely because in practicing them, we are being transformed into a people capable of taking our time to work at play. Lewis is helpful here again, noting that the beauty of music and books (and I would add sports) is not intrinsic to these things but instead reveals our “longing” for something deeper than the object itself.15 Longing is essentially the desire for more time to enjoy, to be pulled closer to, our loves.
This returns us to the matter of the abominable twelve-second pitching clock. Will opines: “The absence of a clock in baseball is a product of the preindustrial sensibility. Before time was chopped up into units (as production was chopped into units, each timed for industrial efficiency), life was governed by just two things, daylight and its absence.”16 And so it is with worship. I do not want a clock in baseball for the same reason I do not want alternating green, yellow, and then red lights from all sides of the nave, beckoning me to the Eucharist.
Worshipping through the liturgy, then, is a routinized way of being reminded that the world—yes, even my world—has changed and will one day be as it should without the hurry I have created. Indeed, Christians know that the work has already been done for them long before the hour of worship. For in the Eucharist, the uninitiated might look on and again mistakenly believe that nothing is happening. Yet in our small work within that space, we recognize in the nothingness that everything is happening.
In November, a long season from that April day with Niese on the mound and Campbell kicking balls into the outfield, the Mets walked off the field in Queens having lost the decisive game of the World Series to the Kansas City Royals.
Of the 178 games the Mets played in 2015, I suspect one will stand out: days before the trade deadline, a buzz passed through the Citi Field crowd that Wilmer Flores, the young shortstop who seemed wary of the batted ball, had been shipped to Milwaukee in exchange for Carlos Gomez, an All-Star outfielder. Fans revealed news of the trade to Flores as he came to bat. The next half-inning he manned his position at shortstop while openly crying, believing that the only employers he had ever known didn’t want him around any longer. Baseball is a business after all. The trade was never finalized, however, and Flores remained a Metropolitan.
Two nights later, playing the division-leading Washington Nationals, Flores came to the plate in the bottom of the twelfth inning. He homered to left-center to end the game and save his team’s season. He shouted as he rounded first, the ball now neatly deposited in the stands. Before he leaped into the middle of his overjoyed teammates encircling home plate, he tugged the embroidered Mets logo on the front of his jersey in and out from his chest, pulsating like a heart.
Nothing about the raucous image looked like a job or work. It looked like communion. It looked like a game.
Justin Randall Phillips
Justin Randall Phillips lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and holds a PhD in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary.