Faith and Baseball

San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum pitches in relief against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 22, 2014

San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum pitches in relief against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 22, 2014

A I sat through a baseball game that lasted 5 hours and 46 minutes last night I began to experience a moment of occlusion regarding the relationship between faith and baseball.  I had a glimpse into the meaning of faith, at least from the point of view of my little baseball-centered fandom.

When you are a baseball fan, especially an overly emotional one as I am, you learn fast about the essence of disappointment. Baseball will provide you with bliss one day and misery the next. In fact, it will bring optimism and joy along with fear and agony often in the same game!

To worship a team, to invest emotionally in its players over the course of days and years, is almost always an exercise in futility. I write this from first-hand experience as someone who started out in 1969 as a Montreal Expos fan. The Expos were a team that played for more than 40 years without even going to the World Series. I also feel guilty because soonafter I lived in San Francisco I became a Giants fan, the very same year Barry Bonds single-handedly saved the franchise from moving to Tampa in 1993. I say I feel a bit guilty because the Giants won the World Series in both 2010 and 2012. To assuage my guilt I tell myself my first love, The Expos, made me suffer enough so I feel like I earned these championships later in life.

But back to faith! I had lost so much faith and conviction as a baseball lover through the years, decades of utter mediocrity and disappointment of the Expos that I had internalized a pessimistic and fatalistic sense of doom whenever I cared enough to root for the Giants. In short: I was one of those people whose prior relationships had left emotional scars, a certain sporting baggage that was no less prominent than those who have suffered from bad relationships with their former lovers…

But last night’s game helped me see the error of my ways.

Because the game is so unpredictable and the season so long, aseball teaches both athletic and moral insights about the daily victories and defeats of life itself. Baseball teaches you how to embrace life’s shortfalls and life’s joys very swiftly. It teaches you how to live in the moment with an understanding of the marathon of living well. Each and every game is its own little epic in a long 162 game season.

First, let me begin with the facts about an extraordinary game between the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies, a game won by the Giants in 14 innings where the last outs were recorded by Tim Lincecum, a starting pitcher called on for an emergency relief appearance because the Giants had depleted their entire corps of relievers over the course of a game that had was effervescent with drama, mystery and anxiety, enough to thrill you and to make you question your existence at the same time.

Buster Posey hits a game-tying home run in the 9th inning against Jonathan Papelbon

Buster Posey hits a game-tying home run in the 9th inning against Jonathan Papelbon

Giants catcher Buster Posey tied the game dramatically with one out in the 9th inning by hitting a home run off the Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. It was a powerful, shocking homer off one of the best relief pitchers in the game. It was a stunner, a blow that defied game’s destiny…

While watching this drama unfold I realized I was experiencing phenomenon that was sublime, something that transcended the banality of simple sports. That moment was a lesson, an illustration of how great things happen at the strangest times. Of course, for a passive, overly sedentary fan like me sitting on my couch the home run by Posey appeared to be some sort of gift from the Baseball Gods. But, in fact, the event was a fascinating study in causality and experience. Athletes like Posey train long and hard for their game. They put in countless hours of running, weight-training and skilled practices to get where they are and to achieve these glorious moments. The event in itself was not a gift. It did not come from nowhere. It was an occurrence, a result of a world-class athlete’s dedication and commitment to his profession.

Faith is a funny thing. Like being a dedicated sports fan, it requires the absence of critical thinking, the absence of intellect, the absence of factual concerns – the very things that make one enlightened and informed in life. Most of all, faith and the love, be they for a baseball team, a religion or another person,  begins with passion. With passion you risk both joy and anxiety. True passion and true faith are fearless spiritual states of mind that are strong enough to face any threat or adversity.  Cheap fandom, on the other hand, the kind most associated with bandwagoners and negative nellies who detest everything about their team after a loss, are cynical and lazy. They do not experience true faith and they are symptomatic of a society that lacks discipline, patience, and an awareness of the bigger picture..

There is a beauty in believing even with the risk of disappointment. Disappointment is a phenomenon based on expectation based largely on empirical evidence. Faith supersedes such concerns with the rational. It is a beautiful thing to believe when facts should tell you otherwise. Faith is the human spirit’s answer to reason, perhaps its complement…

Reason will tell you it is a silly endeavor to love a sports team or a player. It is even sillier sill to devote precious time and energy to following your team. Bu is it really?  Perhaps faith in a sports team is a metaphor for the importance of believing in something non-rational. One may argue it is this spiritual capacity in humanity that its downfall/saving grace… That depends on your religious or philosophical world-view ultimately.

I argue that faith, true inspired faith that transcends doubt, helps us reach the sublime. I believe it helps humans yearn and achieve. Passion is a powerful component of faith. It is the driver that can take many forms: The inspiration of an artist, the obsessive inquisitiveness of a scientists; the devotion of a pious follower…

Faith it its own reward. Whether your team wins or loses, it does not really matter. The effort of believing, against rational thought, against facts that say you should get ready for a loss, is in itself a beautiful experience. Faith is the resistance of pessimism and an embrace of rapture. The very act of faith is an affirmative stance in and of itself that requires optimism in the belief in the balance between agency and fate, or between believing you have the power to play a part in your future and believing you are simply a product of higher workings…

Because baseball has no clock, the duration of its games vary greatly. In this way time is irrelevant…

Faith in and support for a sports team, particularly a baseball team is essentially a tribal commitment where a logo and colors represent your tribal affiliation. Sports are such a huge business and powerful cultural force in the world not solely because they entertain, but because team sports are vibrant metaphors of the primal war struggle inherent in humanity’s relationship to others and to the natural world. Sports are a displacement of the battle between life and death. Winning and losing are akin to living and dying and the appeal of a game like football, with its militaristic and territorial paradigm illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

To have faith is to believe in the possibility of victory a metaphor for life in a sporting contest where outcomes are never pre-determined.This is why as an artist I am so entranced with baseball. It is a mysterious game, a game that transcends causality because it is so hard to predict, easily the most difficult game to bet on.

While cultural output, be it fine art, music, theater or film, is all predicated on a pre-determined finite notion of a beginning and end,  baseball is truly infinite in its possibilities… Baseball games can last 2 hours or 6 hours. They can last 9 innings or 27 innings… (The only comparable experience in team sports is playoff hockey with its potential for long over time games that end in sudden death goals but these are all still regulated by clocks and are are exceptionally rare in most seasons).

It is a beautiful and exhilarating feeling when your baseball team wins an epic come from behind extra inning game that appeared to be lost on many occasions. The experience is exhilarating because of how it challenges your faith and your proclivity towards the avoidance of disappointment out of weakness. Embracing and expecting defeat are cowardly acts born out of the fear of disappointment and un-met expectations.

The Giants-Phillies game made me feel ashamed of my doubt and pessimism. It made me feel ashamed of my tendency towards rationalizing defeat and predicting it before it happened (when things looked so utterly hopeless) so I could more readily accept a loss emotionally once it occurred. In short, the game taught me the virtues of faith and the courage it requires. Valuable life lessons indeed.