Religion & Philosophy

# Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: the baseball diamond sutra

I remember childhood afternoons at Tiger Stadium.  The smells, the sounds.  The Game.  And the old men who followed it through cryptic pencil notation in their programs.  Baseball was perhaps a pastime for a slower age.  Transistor radios captured the game in its glory years, but even those are unnecessary for the orthodox baseball fan.  A small box of numbers convey the entirety of the story; a page of boxes contains a whole day and the season to date.  Numbers.  It’s a game of mathematics, where situational percentages and probabilities determine strategy and describe results.  But on the field the game is far deeper.  On the field, baseball is the game of zen.

The age of television has been detrimental to baseball; it doesn’t translate to the media well at all.  Many complain that baseball is too slow, but this is illusion fostered by the pace of the game between play.  The great challenge for players is to stay wholly in the game when not directly involved.  When play commences, it happens so fast as to be instantaneous.  There is no time to think. As Yoda would say, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

A batter steps to the plate, armed with a stick of wood and his wits.  He’s matched by the pitcher standing 60 feet away, slightly elevated, with a ball.  Both have plans based on mathematical calculations run by the manager that vary according to the situation.  The constant scratching, staring down, knocking dirt out of cleats, digging footholds, etc. appear as wasted time between the action.  In fact, these are all a part of a sort of Jedi mindtrick duel.  Both men are attempting to force the other out of “the zone”, where mental activity is replaced by the action of no-thought.

Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, there is no time for thought.  A 90 mph fastball is traveling at (roughly) 133 feet/second.  Only 60 feet separates the two players.  So the batter has something less than half of one second to determine if A. the pitch is a ball or a strike, B. where the pitch will be in space when it crosses the plate, and C. bring the bat around to meet the pitch squarely.  Anything less than squarely generally results in an out.  You can tell when a batter tries to think.  The look of confusion generally follows the sound of the pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt, because it takes more than a half of one second to decide to think.

Similar situations play themselves out all over the field.  With every windup of the pitcher, every player stands up on his toes in ready concentration.  Even when “nothing” happens, every player on the field jumps, because when something does happen they had better be reacting to it almost before it actually happens.

Everything happens in seconds, or fractions of seconds.  Even the majestic home run, said to require a bat exit speed of at least 110 mph, only needs a few seconds to travel 300 feet.  A shot down the third base line requires near super-human reaction times on the part of the third baseman to reach it, stop it, and then throw the batter out before he can run 90 feet to first base.

Only a clear mind is capable of allowing the body to do what baseball requires of it.  Players of any sport will say that thinking too much hurts their performance.  But unlike other sports, where a rhythm can be found in play, baseball leaves players with far too much time to think…and then requires them not to.

The only path to baseball success is the meditative state, whether it is called that or not.  Clear mind and no thought lead to right action.  To wobble on the baseball diamond invariably leads to failure, and this is true from little league all the way up to The Show.

Yet failure is wholly accepted in baseball.  The greatest of all time reached the pinnacle by failing almost 7 out of 10 times.  Baseball is the game that most resembles life.  And whether played or watched, it holds a great many spiritual life lessons.

Thankfully spring training is here.  Soon it will be time to tune in the transistor radio and spend summer evenings puttering around the yard with a cold beer waiting for the crack of bat on ball.  Simplicity within complexity and complexity within simplicity.  Nearly every evening will remind me that we fail more than we succeed, but that failure only makes success sweeter.  And the transistor radio will have the psycho-spiritual power to return me to youth, when i didn’t try to understand but simply lived…either manning second base or sitting next to my grandparents, ensconced in the smell of turf and hot dogs.

The game will remain the most beautiful whether the Tigers win the World Series or have another under-performing season, because it really isn’t whether you win or lose…but how you play the game.

Categories: Religion & Philosophy, Sports

Tagged as: ,

### 9 replies »

1. Dennis Russell says:

Oh yes, you brought up great memories of my childhood also spent at Tiger Stadium. I can remember during the 68 season listening to many of those games on a transistor radio and the great voice of Ernie Harwell describing one of their 40 comeback wins, one of Denny McLain’s 31 wins or a grand slam by Jim Northrup. I can hear them to this day. It was still the greatest place in the world to watch baseball.

2. Dawn says:

Amen brother! Every game has that mystical potential…

3. jeff watson says:

Lex,

You write beautifully about baseball. Great essay.

Jeff

4. Russ Wellen says:

I agree that baseball players may not realize it, but they epitomize Zen as they’re at rest in a wakeful state, like a frog waiting for a fly.

On a related note, a person with a rich interior life may have trouble hitting. It’s tough to will your mind to turn off. I could never really hit until I learned to stop breathing while waiting for the ball.

You can’t think when you’re not breathing. (Try it.) My body then reacted automatically to the ball.

The less going on in your mind, the better you’ll hit. Maybe that’s why Manny Ramirez is such a good hitter. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.)

5. Lex says:

You’re, probably on to something regarding Manny, Russ!

And as fast as it all happens, when you’re there and it’s all right, that ball looks as big as a soccer ball and moving in slow motion.

6. Lex,
Add me to the list of lifelong Tigers faithful. Thanks for writing a piece that celebrates the first sure sign of spring: Pitchers and Catchers Report. It’s so refreshing not to read about steroids and just look forward to the game.
My fondest memories are sitting in the right field bleachers with my pop. We carved our names in the wooded row at the top. I always loved the view and was fascinated by the rafters there that with their peeling paint seemed to trap some ghosts of great plays and players past.
Those were great times. Reading this also reminds me of how friggin’ much I miss Ernie calling the games on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Cheers!

7. “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” – Annie Savoy

8. Lex says:

Awesome quote, Slammy, thanks!

Dennis and Shane, Tiger Stadium was a magical place…my grandparents used to organize “Polish Day” (and were movers and shakers in the Pollack community) and those connections once got me into the clubhouse before a game. I don’t remember the year, but it was pre ’84 but after the bulk of that team had been assembled.

I like Comerica, but it will never be The Corner. The memories are all at the old park. Here’s to hoping that the bullpen will solidify and perform decently. I’ve got high hopes for the season.

9. Once says:

When I can’t sleep, I tune into a baseball game, great sedative.