This could be the year.
Many of us have been waiting for baseball’s Opening Day — and now it has finally arrived.. After months of practice, spring training, and endless exhibition games — the MLB season has finally begun. My hometown Detroit Tigers and my current town Washington Nationals have started playing and have my full attention!
Also, as every parent of a Little League or school-age baseball player knows, our season has also just begun. Our young player’s schedules and all that it takes to personally support those schedules is upon us and we are full of delight and logistical pre-occupations and complications each week. As a sign outside the front door of our home says, “WE INTERRUPT THIS FAMILY FOR THE BASEBALL SEASON.”
And along with it: Hope comes alive again. For many in America, hope feels sorely needed right now in the face of political realities that make us cringe and despair almost every day. So no more about Trump; this column is about baseball.
The loyal and fervent fans of at least half (and likely more) of the MLB’s 30 teams believe that “this could be the year.” After all, hope springs eternal. These fans believe: If this or that player can do this or that, if our players are at their best, nothing might stop us! And while that could all be true, baseball season will soon show us how our best is often so elusive.
Because in baseball, failure is the name of the game. That is what makes it so much like life and faith — and so full of the intense expectations that lead us to hope. Think about it: Even the very best baseball players get a hit less than a third of the time — most players much less than that. Even when a player does get a hit, it is usually because of a pitcher’s failure to keep the ball away from the sweet spots. And a bad bounce or missed wind gust, or where and when the ball ultimately comes down, can always cause the most dreaded thing in sports — an error. Yes, failure is the name of the game of baseball; but hope against that failure is the energy of the game.
Author John Updike perhaps said it best when he spoke of the “indefensible hope” of baseball: “There will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope …” Sounds like life, and faith, to me.
Isn’t hope always indefensible in the end? Isn’t it always a matter of faith — the faith that makes life possible, which is always so full of human failure? That’s why baseball is always so much more than just the facts and the stats; it’s always the moment, the momentum, the amazing catch, the blazing pitch, or the clutch hit that can determine the outcome of the game in the end. Then there is always the extra innings.
In his book, What I Know about Baseball is What I Know about Life, Peter G. Doumit puts it this way:
Baseball is such a game of hope. Anything can happen — and often does — usually in the most tension-filled times. Maybe your team is up by a run or two with only three outs to get. Why does it seem that those three outs are always the toughest three to get? Or maybe you are on the other side of the ledger with your team being down a run or two with three outs to go. Doesn't hope spring eternal if you get a base runner or two on?
In my 22 seasons of coaching Little League baseball with my two sons I saw over and over that this is a game with a beginning and an end and what you do in between is what counts. There is a team and a purpose; it’s not just about you. How well you treat your teammates and how well your team gels goes a long way to determine its success and your ultimate satisfaction with your experience of baseball. There are rules, innings, balls and strikes, and you are safe or out: things you cannot yourself determine but a framework you need to live and work with. Practice makes perfect, or as close to it as you will get; the repetition of doing the same things over and over is what makes you good at doing them going forward. Finally, a commitment — the decision to learn and love the game — will most determine the outcomes. And if you’re not having fun while you are working so hard, you won’t be able to stick with the game.
There were three rules I always gave to my Little League players.
- Have fun. That’s why we do this, and if we’re not having fun, something is wrong.
- Respect and love your teammates. Never any negative talk against teammates — from players, coaches, or parents. Not if, but when we make mistakes, always pick each other up say next time.
- Learn and love the game of baseball. I never said we had to win, but following those rules always made for winning teams.
Of course, you can’t talk about love of the game and hope springing eternal without mentioning the Chicago Cubs. My dear friend and longtime Sojourners board member, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, and his son, and Sojourners staff member, J.K. Granberg-Michaelson, are both lifelong, utterly faithful, hoping-against-hopelessness, year-in-and-year-out, Cubs fans. Wes used to say that the Cubs might not win the World Series before the second coming of Christ, but he would remain loyal because this could be the year.
In talking about this article, here is what J.K., who wore his Cubs hat every day in the office during last year’s playoffs, said to me:
“When a team hasn’t won a championship in 108 years, that means no one (or virtually no one) alive today was alive to see the 1908 Cubs win. That means for anyone alive to believe the Cubs could or would win the World Series someday was to believe in something that had been told to you second or third hand or via the historical record, which (on a shorter timeline) is a lot like what it’s like to believe in the truth of Scripture, or for that matter when we learn about when the Gospels were written relative to when Jesus lived.
“Anyway, your paraphrase about faith [He is referring to my oft-quoted statement that, “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change”] is particularly apt for a Cubs fan, because we all had to believe in spite of the evidence, and then, on an early November night last year, we finally saw the evidence change, irrevocably and forever for Cubs fans …
“To have so many improbable comebacks happen in one playoffs for a team that was famous for more than a century of futility felt like proof that indeed, if you believe in something long enough, despite the evidence, the evidence just might change. There are no more ghosts or curses or long pieces by writers each spring about whether this could FINALLY be ‘the year.’ As a fanbase, we can just exist now like the other 29 fanbases (or 28 depending on how you feel about the Cleveland Indians’ woes). And so this year to be a Cubs fan, among other things, is to see if they can be the first team since the Yankees to win the World Series in back-to-back years, because the evidence now tells us, hey, why not?”
Whew! That’s baseball. That’s a fan. And that’s hope.