It’s spring and opening week is here and that makes me very happy. Baseball helps me live. It’s perhaps the best American manifestation of the kind of daily ritual that enables us to achieve a small portion of the balance and harmony we need to provide ballast against the chaos of the world. Whether it’s playing the game or simply contemplating it, baseball provides one with precisely the kind of focused yet purposeless activity that can take you out to the ballgame and into the heart of the moment.
It’s the stillness at the heart of the game that I love, the empty space out of which motion and grace emerge–the pregnant nothing that gives birth to the artful something. And baseball, like art, is gorgeously useless and inefficiently slow.
Perhaps that slowness is why baseball has given ground to the more brutal, time-driven, managerially efficient game of football. We go from the Taylorized, competitive realm of the corporate world to a gladiatorial weekend on the gridiron that celebrates many of the same values.
We move too fast and are too distracted for the grand old game, but that’s precisely why we need it. What people find boring about baseball is what’s missing in their lives—unstructured time dictated by their actions rather than the tyranny of measured time.
But if we can let go of our anxiety and unnatural hurry long enough to settle in, there is much to be gained from a day at the ballpark. As Andrew Schelling puts it in “Is it Baseball or is it Zen?”:
[I]s there any American piece of turf that shares a closer kinship with the meditation hall than the baseball park? Is there a mind in which the two diamonds—that of Buddhist enlightenment and that of the ballfield—are identical?
I think of this a lot as I help coach my son’s little league team and talk to him about finding the mental zone between too much caution and too much heedlessness in the batter’s box and on the mound. Indeed, watching kids learn to play ball holds many lessons. Schelling again notes that:
Children approach baseball as a practitioner approaches meditation—I mean, it is not preparation for anything, it is not practice. They pursue the endless perfectibility of form. Just as in Zen you sit to be a sitting buddha, children when they play baseball aren’t on their way somewhere. They play ball to be ballplayers.
And that’s what I tell my kid before he goes up to bat. Take a deep breath; lock in. See the ball; hit the ball.
When he’s pitching–just step and throw. Hit the glove. Breathe, relax, and focus on the thing itself.
As Thoreau would say, the secret is “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
Sure, it’s true that in both baseball and life we’ll fail most of the time, but if we keep at it, even the most amateur among us will achieve those rare moments of perfect grace when it all comes together and we just do it right.
In the big picture, as we march toward death, that’s all we have—the gift of the chance to play and, once in a while, do it beautifully.