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Baseball, Leisure, and the Liturgy

By Mark Michael

I went to a baseball game last Saturday, in the company of some of the people I love most. It was a beautiful evening, and I loved hearing the crack of the bat again. But I also felt like Rip Van Winkle, rubbing his eyes to survey a landscape he thought he knew and loved well, only to see it changed in unexpected ways. My mother and I turned to each other more than once to ask, “Is this really baseball?”

I grew up in a family where playing or watching “the ball game” meant only one sport. I played a little, without any distinction, but mostly I watched. I followed the balls, strikes, and runs at hundreds of Little League and high school games, in the tones of old-school AM radio play-by-play, on Channel 2 out of Baltimore on hot summer nights, when if you turned the antenna just right, you might see Steady Eddie Murray hit a double or Cal Ripken make another spectacular catch.

But I haven’t paid much attention to baseball since I was a teenager. This was certainly my first game since Major League Baseball introduced a series of rule changes to speed things up. There’s a pitch count now, like basketball’s shot clock, as well as restrictions on where infielders stand and the methods for picking off baserunners. The game seemed to stop for nothing, except for two lengthy pauses that my brother had to explain to me. One was for an appeal for an expert in New York to judge a stolen base call, the other was to call in a technician to fix the little speaker in the pitcher’s cap that gives him the coach’s signal, since signs from the catcher are now forbidden.

The whole game, all nine innings, lasted just over two hours and a quarter, which felt only slightly longer than it had taken me to find a parking space. My brother pointed out that it had been a pitcher’s match this time, with few hits or walks. I grumbled that it was hard to tell that because the scoreboard, crammed so full of videos and advertisements, seemed intent on hiding its real purpose. Where were those elegant lines of numbers that traced the meaning of the procedures? What about those old men with short pencils filling out their own scorecards?

The game I attended seemed less like a pastime than a curated spectacle, and a rushed one at that. I missed those little breaks for mental digestion, thinking through how the latest action fit into the game’s bigger picture. There was little space to glimpse the personalities of individual players to shine out. Each one seemed to be pushing on to fill his assigned slot, one eye always on the almighty clock. If there were high-fives and wide grins on the field, I never saw them.

What I was most missing, I think, was baseball’s leisurely spirit, its sense of a contest between free men, devoted together to fair play and good fun. It’s a tragic loss, because baseball is about the only survivor of the American common man’s great age of leisure. It became wildly popular in the Civil War’s encampments, the pursuit of young soldiers who found themselves without afternoon chores for the first time in their lives. Soon, it was Sunday afternoon entertainment across the nation, and its passion for statistics grew out of the boom in popular periodicals created by massive increases in literacy. Radio proved a thrilling theater for it in following decades.

Baseball was nearly free to play, dealing in skills that took only time to master. Played off the clock, it was limited only by the prowess of its players and the setting sun. Its epic scenes were always at the end — bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded. To leave early was unimaginable.

The game, of course, has been changing gradually for decades, with more and more money pumped in, even as audiences decline. Rules have sometimes been altered for good reasons — to make the game safer and prevent cheating. Because statistics are so important, the basic boundaries — the number of innings, distances between mound and plate — remain fixed.

But the spirit of the thing seems entirely up for grabs. Back in February when announcing the latest series of rules changes, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Our guiding star in thinking about changes to the game has always been our fans. ‘What do our fans want to see on the field?’”

They’d done the market research, Manfred continued, and it was clear fans wanted a faster pace and more base-stealing. The answer was a series of tweaks that would nudge the game toward greater predictability and control, a shorter spot in prime time — and, hopefully, a long-desired uptick in market share, and more cash for everyone involved.

I don’t know what kind of oath baseball commissioners take, but it’s hard to imagine it includes a solemn promise like “the customer is always right.” Fans might want faster games and more athleticism, because they have shorter attention spans and better things to do. But why should those charged with stewarding the game’s future feel obliged to give it to them? What if the commissioner instead had the courage to say, “We know what you want, but to give it to you, we would need to sacrifice the integrity of the thing”? You see, modern America, baseball isn’t the problem. We are the problem.

Like Rob Manfred (and many of you), I am charged with the stewardship of an old and beautiful thing that has become nearly impossible for many of our contemporaries to understand. I speak, of course, of the liturgy. It is much more ancient and infinitely more important than baseball. It proclaims the saving acts of God and shares out the treasures of his grace. In a fundamental sense, we are made for liturgy. The praise of God is our first and final vocation.

Decades ago, Josef Pieper taught us that leisure is the basis of all human culture. The same aversion to leisure, lack of historical consciousness, and slavery to consumerism that make baseball hard for us also push back against our ability to delight in the gift of the liturgy. People really find long Eucharistic prayers tedious. If your musical diet is mostly pop songs, plainsong isn’t easy to sing. No one else in our culture is training people to interpret complex symbols.

Perhaps we could just “do what the book says,” and let the chips fall where they may. But any of us who has been given both the custody of the liturgy and the cure of souls knows how difficult this inevitably becomes. Temptations always exist to dumb things down or to become overly obscure, to give way to political sloganeering, lax sentimentalism, or dull pedagogy.

And we cannot just say that real liturgy only exists at King’s College Cambridge or Washington National Cathedral, or that modern Americans have to pretend to be their great-grandparents to actively participate. A place at the Lamb’s high feast is the right and privilege of every baptized person, and many of us are charged to do all we can to equip people to exercise that privilege as fully as possibly.

We seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance because the stakes are so high, and trade-offs of one kind or another are inevitable. For me, at least, baseball’s failures are a salutary warning. Giving the fans just what they want may be the worst choice of all.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I see the appeal and effort made here, but I think it misses the mark. Baseball didn’t simply give people what they wanted — it was a reformation of sorts. Baseball lost its way regarding time; Yankees/Red Sox games were routinely 4.5 hours in the 2000s and 2010s, whereas games in the 1960s were often less than 2.5 hours. Certainly part of baseball’s appeal is its leisure regarding time, but the changes going into this year are almost universally lauded as good stewardship of the game.

    And, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to describe the laity or whomever as a people who find liturgy “nearly impossible” to understand. Is that really what’s happening right now? Anecdotally, I’ve witnessed the opposite of this claim, that people who are coming into the Episcopal Church or other liturgical traditions are coming not with great changes in mind or a desire to get what they want but rather to experience the depth and joy of what the liturgy cultivates: an opportunity to worship and meet the true and living God through sacramental encounter.

    • Mr. Reid,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with you that the growing length of the game was a problem, and needed a response. My concern is that introducing the clock brings other problems. The real problem was poor sportsmanship–too much preening, unneccessary interruptions of the flow by coaches, etc. A change of heart was needed, and maybe you can get that with a change of rules, but maybe not.
      I also think you are right that the people in Episcopal churches today generally like the liturgy and are trying to use it faithfully. But we are a small and shrinking segment of the population, and we fail to pass on this love and understanding to many of our own people. The cultural experiences that prepare the ground for an appreciation of liturgy: rites in scouts and civic organizations, public ceremonies, communal singing, are also getting rarer and rarer all the time. Church leaders who are earnest about sharing the faith try to grapple with the difficulty of liturgy, and they often have to make tough decisions not entirely unlike the ones that MLB officials have made. This parable is intended to help leaders think carefully about these choices.

  2. Mark, as a baseball fan and a servant of the liturgy, I find your remarks apposite. The forces that have led to all the rule changes in baseball spring from mostly the same fount from which we perceive an impetus to “dumb down” the liturgy in one way or another. What both baseball and the Eucharist demand is to be left alone to be what they are, and not be turned into a flatbed truck for any other agenda.

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