an homage to baseball (and bigger things)
The day my parents brought home the Chevy Corsica was a big day. We were living in a small town in southwestern Michigan, right by Lake Michigan, and I was 5 or 6 years old. A new car for the Millers felt pretty good (especially because it was a stick, which seemed cool).
My dad and I would ride around in that car as he listened to AM sports radio that we picked up from across the lake in Chicago. There was usually a sort of droning hum in the sound, like an electric buzz, probably because of the distance the signal had to travel. Sometimes I would notice my dad humming, too. Not a melody, though. He would just match the drone of the radio, every time he exhaled. I guess he was really into sports radio (still is).
Whether it was in the Corsica or our big white station wagon, I loved road trips as a kid. Thank God my generation wasn't cursed with those built in DVD players with flip down screens like every 3rd row of economy on an airplane. I'd let my mind get lost staring out the window as landscapes passed by. I remember doing a lot of daydreaming then. There was something about a road trip that felt freeing, like we were getting away with something. Whatever your normal schedule is, it has no claim on your life during a road trip. And your usual surroundings are replaced by bigger, more interesting scenes, like fields and highways and cities. I still love a good road trip.
I need experiences that help me pay attention to the things that seem insignificant and ignore the things that feel urgent sometimes. I want moments in which I disregard the clock and instead sense time moving through some other metric. I want to feel connected to other people by something other than email. Road trips with friends are good for all of that. But in the last few years of my life, I've found other ways of checking out on the urgent and checking into the transcendent, too. Like watching baseball.
I wasn't always a fan. I've never been huge into watching any sport, although I'm at least well-adjusted enough to know that ND football is very important for anyone wanting to live a meaningful life. Basketball was a big deal at my college, and the guys in my dorm would talk about it for hours. (Ours is the state that brought you Hoosiers, after all.)
One late night a few of us were hanging out in the front lounge of the dorm when the conversation turned to basketball, and I started to check out. Our resident director was there with us, and I think he could tell the music kid was losing interest. His name was Dave Slater, and he was an eclectic guy. Tough enough to keep 100 freshmen fellas under control. Short and overweight and uninterested in impressing anyone. He moonlighted as a sports writer for the local newspaper. And he was arguably as smart and well-read as any professor on campus. With a combination of frank toughness and almost clairvoyant sensitivity to what was going on in guys' lives, Dave became an unexpected sage and mentor for many of us during our freshman year. He interrupted the conversation that night and called out my disinterest.
"Jason, you're not a big sports fan, are you?"
"No," I admitted.
"Well, some might say that basketball is jazz. You know, improvisational, fast, unexpected. But baseball," at this, he lowered his voice and spoke more slowly, with real gravity in his words, "baseball is Beethoven." We weren't talking about baseball, but I think he sensed something that told him it would be the game for me. It stuck with me, and it turns out his intuition was right.
Later, during my junior year, I ended up rooming with one of the guys on the baseball team. I decided to travel to their first away game of the season to show some support. It turned out that I was the only person there for our team, at that game and the next. It was a little awkward in the stands, but it earned me a spot on the bus once the coaches realized I was committed. My buddies on the team convinced me to stay in the dugout during the games. And then one of the coaches said I should at least make myself useful by keeping the book. If baseball is Beethoven, then this was a tone-deaf man being quizzed on the finer nuances of music theory. I was in over my head. And I loved it.
I'd sit next to the old coach who suckered me into keeping the book and ask him what was happening in the game. He would explain the counts and the plays and how to notate them on the oversized chart I had on my clipboard. I think the other guys on the team got a kick out seeing the chapel band piano player earn his stripes in the dugout. It didn't take long for me to become a lifelong fan of the sport.
I suppose it's unfashionable to gush over baseball. Basketball and football get all the attention these days. Even Nascar seems more respectable (not to me, mind you, but to the ever-growing redneck constituency that seems to be invading every stratum of society). To me, those other sports are magazine articles and baseball is a novel. The others are a 4 day weekend and baseball is a sabbatical. They're fast food and baseball is a feast. There is a savor in the way a game unfolds on the diamond that I can't find anywhere else.
When I watch football or basketball, there's a clock right there on my TV screen, reinforcing the frenetic pace to which every other part of my life is already enslaved. What kind of pastime is that? Baseball steps out of that pace and takes us with it, into a dimension where time is marked by the movements on the field and the way an afternoon game gives way to lights and a deep, dark sky if the hitters are outplaying the pitchers that day.
Big plays in other sports give the fans a sense of connection to each other, but nothing draws tens of thousands of people into a single moment like a pitcher taking his time with a full count, bases loaded, late in a close game. The crowds at Notre Dame Stadium lean in when the quarterback has to make something impossible happen late in the 4th quarter, but their attention is divided between all the players on the field and the clock at either end of the stadium. I've been at Wrigley for moments when you'd think the guy on the mound would be crushed under the weight of that crowd's singular focus on him. And somehow those moments connect you to everyone else in the ballpark, not because you've turned to one another, but because you're all so connected to the thing happening on the mound.
Dave, the resident director whose musically savvy rhetoric invited me into a love of the game, died the summer after my freshman year. Someone found him in his apartment in the dorm. He was 40 years old. It was a hard loss for all of us who knew him. But Dave always came across as a man who wasn't trapped in this world. He was tuned into something different all along. We trust that there's another world waiting for us, but it's easier to believe when we encounter people like him who seem to be extra-senstive to the next life in the midst of this one. And the greatest gifts they give us may be the disciplines we follow them into that help us live that life, too.
Dave is one of the people who helped me learn to follow Jesus as I was entering adulthood. We had a lot of late night spiritual conversations that year. But the spiritual stuff in his life wasn't limited to Bible studies and chapel services; it was a thread that ran through every part of who he was. A man who is tuned into the eternal can make most things sacred, I believe.
So, from now till fall, I'll get in my car in the evenings to leave work and flip the radio mode over to AM as I head home. With any luck, WGN will be broadcasting a Cubs game with the familiar hum that my dad used to echo in the Corsica. I'll get caught up on the game during the drive, saunter into the house to replace my shoes and socks with my worn out Sperry's, open the window in the living room so the summer air can come in, turn the tv to the game, and let baseball remind me that not all that's urgent is important, and that my soul was made for some important things that will never impose on me unless I tune into them.