It was in 1733 that Alexander Pope penned the famous verse, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Whence the line? Maybe it can be attributed to something in Pope’s Catholic upbringing. Or maybe it arose from his general, lifelong observations of man. Or maybe, just maybe, Pope, in a prescient moment, gleaned that line from his observations about something else going on in the 1730s in England: the old game of “stoolball” being referred to more and more as “baseball.” Indeed, it would be a mere decade later, in 1744, when the word “Base-ball” would for the first time appear in print.
Baseball teaches one many things, not the least of which is hope. It does not matter how badly one’s team finished the year before, the season opener in April provides reason to hope. T.S. Eliot could not have been a baseball fan, for no baseball fan would ever write, “April is the cruellest month.” And if we Christians believe that nothing happens outside the providence of God, then it is no accident that the beginning of the baseball season coincides every year with the liturgical season of Easter, the great season of hope.
To compare an unimportant and childish thing like baseball to the great mystery of Easter – blasphemy, you may say. And I’d say that you are quite right to say that baseball is unimportant and childish. But therein lies baseball’s true glory and meaning. Baseball matters so much precisely because it does not matter at all. And to us moderns (and maybe especially to us Americans), so accustomed to measuring every thing by its utility – ah, how refreshing is something as useless as baseball.
But back to this business about hope. In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day.” Maybe it’s just me, but I find it much easier to keep going day by day in the months from April to October when I can practice the morning ritual of placing my breakfast bowl alongside a newspaper opened to last night’s box scores. And while for a Milwaukee Brewers fan like myself, any hopes of winning the pennant have usually evaporated by the All-Star break, there is always the hope that you might win that day – and a somewhat realistic hope, seeing that even the worst teams in baseball usually win about 40% of the time. The form of the game itself is structured on hope: no one knows what will happen on any given day, in any given inning, on any given pitch. It could be something remarkable.
These little hopes, especially ones that are so meaningless, are essential in training us to recognize what Benedict XVI calls the “great hope,” which of course is God. And if Romano Guardini is right to interpret the liturgy as play, then we must learn to play in order to learn to pray. What better training ground in play is there than the baseball diamond?
Every spring I feel like I need baseball. But, as I sat in my room last week reading philosophy and listening to the distant sounds of a bat hitting a ball – so glorious on a sunny spring afternoon, even if the sound now is the “ping” of aluminum rather than the “crack” of white ash – it occurred to me that perhaps I (and maybe we?) need this new baseball season more this year than most, what with so much bad news in our nation and in our Church in the past weeks and months.
It’s not the best baseball movie ever made, nor even the best speech in any baseball movie. And I grant that it’s saccharine, even mawkish. But the speech of Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) at the end of Field of Dreams perhaps has something important to say to us as we begin a new baseball season at this moment in our nation’s history:
Ray, people will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you have a look around,” you’ll say. “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.