This post is the eighth in a nine-part series from Joshua Murray on his reflections on baseball, on his grandfather, and on finding God in every blade of grass. For Part Seven, click here.
I see God in the skill of great hitters and great pitchers, in the lefty specialist and the base stealer. Home runs mean very little to me. They are exciting when they come at key moments but overall they do little for me. It seems strange, I know, not to include home runs when I say things like “I see God in…” since 95% of all players who hit a home run will cross themselves, kiss their fingers, and point up to God. Either in thanks, or “that’s for you”—I’m not sure what it is—but it’s annoying.
Yes, if I talk about God being in every blade of grass, then sure enough in that sense he’d have to be with the home run. But I don’t think it is as obvious as kissing a knuckle and pointing to heaven. Because was God not with the pitcher too? Of course I have no answers, I am just a baseball fan—that’s all I have to my credit. And I don’t like home runs. Home runs mean no more to me than a pitcher that can reach triple digits, but can’t hit the same spot twice. Wild as a springhare.
I watch videos of Pete Rose and how he never ever stopped. Ball 4, and he still ran to first base. Charlie Hustle. Has anyone had a more passionate slide than he did? Any player who gives all he’s got throughout each play—I see a holiness in that. I guess holiness might be wrong word to use. I don’t mean it in a “How Great Thou Art” sing-songy type way. I am not even sure if I mean it in a religious way. But maybe when I see a universal Truth, or a life lesson—when I watch something I am not sure I grasp, but I know something important is happening—all I can say is there seems to be a holiness in it. I see that holiness in a hitter who knows that glory lies in the long ball, but victory and what is best for the team is just to get the hit.
Ichiro Suzuki is asked all the time why he doesn’t use the power he has at the plate. In batting practice they will see him hit 10 balls out of the stadium, but in the game he slaps down singles and doubles. “If I’m allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [home runs], but nobody wants that,” he said. He is a lead off guy. His job to get on base. To take extra bases. He needs to do his job. Not every player is like that—just like the sacrifice bunt, this lesson on pride and humility is something that is seldom able to be taught anywhere else, except on the baseball diamond.
Ty Cobb. I would never normally use his name and the word “holiness” in the same sentence—he was a notorious racist and bigot and just horrible man—but even in him there was a humility that only existed on the field. Using a grip on the bat that sacrificed power just so he could make contact. And he’s the greatest hitter the game has ever seen.
Ted Williams was Poppy’s favorite player. I never understood it fully the more I studied him. He didn’t seem like that great of a guy—very arrogant, almost spiteful, even to the fans. Poppy was the most humble man I’ve ever known probably, why Ted Williams? I know he loved that Ted served his country because Poppy did too. But he loved that he hit over .400. He loved that. And maybe without saying it as verbosely and rambling as I am, maybe Poppy saw that same…holiness in the skill of that feat. Because sacrifice and restraint and practice are the only ways a man can be that good. To be so arrogant in life, so rude—but given a bat and a team you are patient, sacrificial, humble. Where else is this found?
There is this wonderful flip-flopping of the heroes tale. There is David vs. Goliath all throughout the game and it flips back and forth. A team can be the favorite, the dominant team. They can be winning late into the game as predicted, Goliath. Then the underdog gets a string of hits. The game is almost tied up now, bases loaded and only one out. And there are two back-to-back lefties in the lineup. So the dominant team is now on the ropes, still Goliath in all aspects—call in the Lefty Specialist. He enters the game. The whole game is put on his shoulders, his only job for the team is to get an out or two when needed—he’s called on to be perfect whenever he’s called up. So now when he enters the game looking down at the left-handed batter, bases loaded, another one on deck waiting his turn…the tables, for those two outs, have turned and Goliath is standing on the plate and David is on the mound, baseballs his stones and his arm his sling. Once the inning is over, if the man has done his job correctly, they swap him out for another pitcher and the team goes back to being Goliath and the underdog back to being David.
And let us please not forget about the base stealer. One writer once said a great base stealer must have speed, and larceny in his heart. Stealing, something commanded of us to not do—but in baseball I see…that thrill of the grass in it. A thrill that can only be described as holy. A man on first, looking at second. If he takes it he breaks up the double play. He turns his single into a double and he saved his team an extra out to be taken by a batter rather than throwing out two people on a grounder to short. A man with a thrill in him for stealing the bag, but who also does so out of a desire to keep the inning alive, which in turn is done for the team.
A player needs a green light to steal. They can be told not to. So there is less selfishness in a stolen base than meets the eye. It’s the manager saying, “If you can take it, it’s yours because we need it as much as you do.” Or the pitch runner who is brought in at the end of the game for his speed, who then has to steal a base when the whole stadium knows he’s going to do it. The pitcher and the fielders know he was brought in for that one job. They are ready—and he has to do it successfully with all of this going on. The team needs the runner; a slower person got onto the base and now they need speed, so the manager looks around for a person who is up to the task of stealing that bag. Is this much different than Isaiah saying: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Or David saying: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
There is a great stillness to the game of baseball. It turns people off a lot. Football is more fun, clashing of titans. Soccer is pure running and nonstop movement. Rugby a combination of the two. But baseball’s greatness comes in the stillness of it. The quietness of it. The man at first with a dangerous lead and the crowd watches, waiting for the pitcher to start his movement. Holding their breath. And if the man goes, those ninety feet seems like an eternity. The man is running so fast but time is going so slow. The team you love is winning, but a great batter came up to the plate—each pitch your team throws is an agony of anticipation. Waiting to see what pitch the catcher calls for.
And the moments from when the ball is released from the pitchers hand, to when it finds the catchers glove or the players bat…everything stops. It’s my theory that this too is universal. Even people who hate baseball because it’s boring—when they watch football and there is a long pass for an important play, the quarterback releases the ball, everyone sits up and moves to the end of the couch, leaning over closer to the TV, and time stops. They live for those moments, they rejoice or cry. High five. Throw things. Those time-stopping passes happen in baseball, about 120 times a game.
We just call them pitches.
There are home runs, great diving catches, amazing throws, slide plays, stolen bases…all of these things are exciting. But all of them are preceded by a great stillness. The prophet Elijah saw an earthquake but the earthquake was just an earthquake. He saw a lightening storm, but that was just a storm. And the great wind was just a great wind. He only found God in the stillness after the storm. When the world was quiet, he knew he was with God.
Next on Every Blade of Grass: Bottom of the Ninth.