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Finding God-talk in baseball and movies about baseball

For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball.
--Annie, Bull Durham

This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
--Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

I believe in two things. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator of heaven and earth, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the one and only Source from which all life flows—and baseball.

Everything else is just sports and religion.

--Michael O’Connor, Sermon on the Mound: Finding God at the Heart of the Game

Much to the chagrin of many of my friends, I am not a sports fan. I usually have no clue as to what sport is in season and ESPN is just a channel I skip over to get to another one. I did grow up going to hockey games with my mom and dad (who actually played the sport when he was growing up in Canada), though I haven’t been to a game in 20 years or so. I remember watching Gordie Howe and Robbie Ftorek (I still have an autographed picture of the latter that I got as a kid in some box in the basement) on the ice, but I must confess that I couldn’t tell you the name of one hockey player currently playing. In all truth, sports are simply not one of the things on my radar.

Then, a few weeks ago, my six-year-old son began playing T-ball. As I sat down in my lawn chair behind the chain link separating us from the in-field, I caught the scent of the dust kicked up by 20 pairs of little feet and watched those little white balls with their tiny stitches crack into the air. And I remembered something. I remembered that I really like baseball. I remember loving the smell of my brother’s baseball mitt. I remembered learning how to keep stats for a few months as a favor to a friend one year in college. And while I’ve only been to a few “official” games—and all of those in the minor league—I remember them more vividly than any other sports game I’ve attended. The smells. The sounds. The magic.

Why is that? And, more importantly, how could I forget?

There is a mystique and spiritual tug associated with baseball—more so, I think, than with any other sport (save golf, though that’s an individual versus team sport). And that day watching my son learn to hold a bat and catch a ball had me itching to immerse myself again in the mystery and thrill of the game. So, we're going to a local minor league game in a couple of weeks. I also pulled off my bookshelf and started reading through a dusty copy of Michael O’Conor’s Sermon on the Mound, a great collection of reflections on God and baseball I somehow acquired some years ago. And last weekend, I caught a back-to-back showing of the Costner-laden Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, two films that play with this mysterious spiritual draw of baseball—and bring God-talk into open spaces.

Field of Dreams—the story of an Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) who hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field in his cornfield—has been long loved and quoted in the church crowd, more often for it’s “build it and they will come” phraseology than anything else. But the film also wonderfully explores the struggles associated with acting on faith, both in something bigger than ourselves as well as each other.

As I watched it again (for at least the fifth time), I was struck this time through with a minor character—Archibald "Moonlight" Graham (Burt Lancaster), who played one major league game in his youth and then quit the game to become a doctor who had a tremendous impact on his community as a whole as well as individual lives. At one point, Ray (somehow transported back to the year of Graham’s death, 1972) talks with Graham, trying to understand how Graham came to grips with losing his dream of playing baseball:

Ray looks at Moonlight Graham and stutters out with emotion—

Ray: Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within—you came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy.

Graham looks at Ray and smiles.

Graham: Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.

Later, near the end of the film, Ray and his traveling companion Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) had picked up a younger version of Graham and they’ve been watching him play on the field with the other players on Ray’s farm. When Ray’s daughter suddenly falls from the bleachers and stops breathing, Ray looks through the players to the young Graham, who runs to the edge of the field towards Ray and his daughter. As he steps over the baseline, his young baseball-uniformed legs become the elderly trousered legs of the Graham who Ray had encountered in 1972, with a doctor’s bag in his hand. This is an important moment, because when Graham crosses that line he can’t go back. He has a decision to make: continue playing the baseball of which he's always dreamed or help Ray’s daughter. While he hesitates a brief few seconds, for him, the decision is already made.

Graham’s choice saves Ray’s daughter, and reaffirms his earlier statement about the beauty of a life given to loving others. And this moment deepens and sets the context for Ray’s own personal crisis that comes a few scenes later. When Terrance is invited to see what’s in the cornfield, Ray balks: “I did it all,” he says. “I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask what's in it for me.” Then Shoeless Joe Jackson calls him on it, “What are you saying, Ray?” Ray stumbles around a bit and then says, “What's in it for me?”

Ultimately, however, Ray surrenders his own desires, trusts there is something larger at work and watches Terrance go into the cornfield—and then, in a scene that still brings tears to my eyes, he discovers his truest and deepest desire, one that heals his deepest regret and woundedness, is waiting for him. In laying down his own desires, he finds that which he actually truly and deeply needs is right there.

I love this whole part of the film, how we watch one man’s life experience played out in the life of a younger man. The foundational truth that when we sacrifice our own desires for something bigger than ourselves and others, we discover something deeper and more meaningful. What love looks like, both from above and with each other. And all this intertwined in a reverence for a game that is more about the team than the individual player—yet how each player is important and unique.

Well, if Field of Dreams shows a deep love and reverence for baseball and humanity, Bull Durham is much more irreverent and profane. In a list of Ten All-Time Greatest Baseball Movies at Christianity Today, Ron Reed says of the film (listed at number eight), “Lots of baseball movies are 'religious,' and this one—written and directed by former minor leaguer (and former evangelical) Ron Shelton—is the most religious of them all. One problem: it sure ain't my religion.” Heh. It is a great story and film, but be warned: there is bad language and sexual content—a lot of it. But, as Shelton says, “you want to play ball, you put up with a little cursin' and chewin'.”

Interestingly, this film has an actual self-professing Christian character (albeit a minor one), and though he’s presented as more than a little na├»ve and his faith simplistic, it is interesting that it’s his character that brings a new life and a redemption of sorts to one of the other minor characters.

But that’s not the character that drew me in this film. For all the film’s irreverence and misguided theology, the stumbling graciousness and generosity of aging ball player Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) truly moved me.

Here’s a man who, like Field of Dream’s Graham, loves this game and dreams of playing in the major leagues—which he did for a short while before being moved back to the minors. And Crash is good. He knows the game and he knows how to play. He’s coming up on the minor league homerun record—though he doesn’t want anyone to know, because, unlike some of the players around him, he’s learned to let his love for baseball be less about himself and more about the game itself.

Crash knows his playing days are coming to an end and, while he genuinely struggles with that, his love for the game manifests itself in a focus towards others rather than bitterness or regret on his own sense of loss. He helps a cocky, shallow young pitcher (Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins) improve his game and loves a woman (Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon) who’s been yearning for real love her whole life. He brings second chances, love and redemption to those around him.

In both of these films, I was drawn to characters that had learned that the game—and life itself—was less about glory and more about playing and enjoying it the very best they can. And that includes loving those around them. They’d learned that life is about showing love to the people around us—putting what’s in their best interest above our own desires, dreams and wants. And the love they love with is not a gushy, emotional feeling but the hard kind of love. The kind that makes the tough choices over and over. I especially see this in Crash, as he’s faced with an arrogant young ball player who barely, if at all, gets what the game is all about. But I also see this in Graham, whose made a lifetime of choices that makes his choice to help Ray’s daughter virtually inevitable, and Ray, who discovers the deep kind of healing that acts of trust and loving others can bring.

And their lives are the better because of it—maybe not in the way we would normally measure that. But their lives and love changes the lives of others. Their lives and love invite second chances, life, hope, redemption, relationship and transformation into the world around them. And, even in their losses, that makes their lives deeper and beautiful, as we can see Graham’s face as he leaves Ray and the other players at the end of Field of Dreams and in the dancing Crash and Annie at the end of Bull Durham.

I find all this has some beautiful echoes and images of what it means to live in God’s kingdom—they point in the direction of the truth that being loved by and loving the Father enables us to love and be loved by those around us. How trusting him brings the deepest healing to not only us but those around us. How that kind of synergy transforms the spaces and communities in which we live and breathe. And all this challenges me to consider just how much I am embracing that journey as I “play the game.”

For some reason, baseball gives us a wonderful context in which to explore how we walk life and love those around us. Perhaps, as Darrell Manson writes in a review at Hollywood Jesus, it has something to do with the team nature of the game:
But the games we play or watch often reflect the way we understand life. We may not give it as much thought as Annie Savoy has, but sports often do feed our souls. Perhaps Annie is right that, at least at times, metaphysics are preferable to theology. Baseball (and other sports as well) draws us into a certain union with team or event that allows us to experience joy and sorrow and not be alone. Perhaps that mystical union may not be as important as a union or communion with God and God’s children, but it is at least a good start.
Perhaps that is one way to look at Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, as a good beginning or baby steps at understanding what this kingdom-living together we are called to looks like. And I suppose we can look at baseball that way too.

Next up on my list? The Rookie (we actually own that one). Want to start your own viewing list? Then definitely check out Christianity Today’s 2004 list of baseball flicks.

(Images: Field of Dreams, Universal; Bull Durham, Orion Pictures Corporation)