Baseball has suffered a lot of indignities over the years – the designated hitter, commercials that add over an hour to playing time, the designated hitter, unions, pitching specialization and, of course, the designated hitter – but it’s still a great game. I probably should’ve listed the elongated post-season too – another affront to orthodoxy, and one which lessens the importance of the regular season games. But the truth is: I dig it. Here on the west coast, it’s just about the only time I get to see my Yankees play.
They’re playing now, as usual come October, and I watch every game I can. And I find myself stirred by the number of players pointing to the sky after a successful at bat. The gesture was, I believe, popularized by asterisked home run king Barry Bonds, who used to do it every time one of his steroids hit the long ball. But you see it pretty frequently now. And though I know Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher does it as a tribute to his late grandmother, I assume most players intend it directly for God. In any case, the sentiment is the same: gratitude and the baseball version of a non nobis – “Not to us, Lord, but to your name give glory.”
Media wise men – by which I mean fools – frequently attack religious worship on the ballfield. I’ve run across any number of columns in which sportswriters and others take a snarky, condescending approach to athletes who pray. Do they think God cares who wins? Do they lose their faith when they strike out? What do they do when an atheist outperforms them? And so on.
Interesting questions, all of which miss the point. I’ve played some kind of sport most of my life: street baseball and backyard football as a kid, karate for a long time, mostly tennis now. And on the playing field, as in every other aspect of my life, I find prayer illuminating, uplifting and conducive to excellence.
Do I pray to win? No, I pray for the other guy to die! Of course I pray to win! If I didn’t, God would know I was pretending to be a much more selfless and high-minded person than I am. But I understand that God is not concerned with who wins and, after I finish pleading and begging and promising to be God’s best friend if he’ll just let me smash my opponent this one time, I pray for excellence and a good heart and mind throughout the match.
What’s more, I pray about the games I play. Did I choke? Did I lose my temper with myself and abuse myself? Did I make a call when I wasn’t 100 percent sure? If you bury that stuff, it lives inside you as self-lacerating shame. Bring it to God, and he’ll take it off your hands and teach you to stop doing it after a while. “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” That sort of thing.
A sport played well – played with joy, effort and sportsmanship – spreads its good lessons to the rest of life: play hard but fair, make your emotions serve you not the other way around, love the game whether you win or lose, never stop striving to be better. Prayer can interweave those lessons with the fabric of your soul and make them part of you.
All of which are good reasons to point to the sky in gratitude when you feel you’ve reached your best level, even if only for a moment. It’s really not a question of who God is rooting for at all. Although, let’s face it, he’s rooting for the Yankees.