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Diamond Dads: Baseball, Fatherhood, and the Gospel, Part I

April 6, 2009


Today marks the opening day of Major League Baseball season. As fans of baseball (and spring!)  here at Gender Blog, we begin the week with a well-done two-part series by David Prince on baseball and biblical manhood. Part II will appear on Tuesday.

I heard the words blare from the car radio and received them with that uneasy pang in the pit of my stomach, the kind that comes when you hear really bad news. The radio show host said it without hesitation as if nothing was at stake, “America’s new favorite pastime . . . football.” The worst part was, as he ran through his list of reasons for asserting that football is more popular in America than baseball, I knew he was right.

It is likely that you receive this news with a yawn, but not me. I enjoy football. I used to coach high school football, and there is certainly something special about Friday night lights. The pomp and circumstance of a college football Saturday is a sight to behold: marching bands, fight songs, cheers, grilling out and watching a game with 70,000 friends who all decided to wear the same color is its own unique pleasure. But while I enjoy football, I love baseball. My delight for the game is close to that of George Will when he asserted that “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”

Famed Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver when he was being interviewed by a reporter concerned he might need to leave the dugout so Weaver could give his pre-game pep talk replied, “This ain't football. We do this every day.” There is a rhythm and pace to baseball that synchs up to the rhythm and pace of real life. Baseball rewards persistence in the face of managed failure. The rosters of the Major League All-Star game are filled with hitters who fail seventy percent of the time. There are no perfect seasons in baseball and that ought to be one of the treasures embraced by every fan that drives, walks, or rides a bike away from the park.

Baseball is not played in something as impersonal as a stadium with a playing surface possessing the exact, cookie cutter, dimensions of every other teams playing surface. Rather, baseball is played in a park, on a field which shares the beauty of its diamond with every other baseball field, but which possesses its own unique character as well. The pre-game ground rules are a declaration of the glorious individuality of every ball park whether it has a green monster, a short porch, or a hole in the chain link fence.

Even in the wake of baseball’s steroid era a glance at the players who compete at the highest level serves as a constant reminder that the key to success is not monstrous height or superhuman body mass. It was only a handful of years ago that the world watched as the World Series M.V.P. trophy was hoisted by 5’7” David Eckstein who is listed as weighing 175 pounds, which, if true, must mean he was weighed wearing full uniform and spikes. At that moment I saw a gleam of hope in my sons eyes that they do not possess when a seven footer dunks or a 350 pound lineman sacks a quarterback while running faster than they could travel while riding their bikes. Fat, chubby, tall, short, muscle-bound, skinny, fast, and painfully slow are all represented among our baseball heroes and even among the elite enshrined in Cooperstown. Just like its parks, baseball’s heroes possess an odd sort of everyday beauty.

But it is not my unapologetic belief in the inherent beauty and superiority of baseball as a game that was the primary reason for that uneasy pang in the pit on my stomach that day in the car. It was what I believe to be the primary reason for the present preference of football over baseball in American culture. I do not believe that football’s surge over baseball in national popularity can simply be explained by ESPN’s promotion of college football or the NFL’s amazing marketing. No, I fear it is a symptom of a seismic shift in American culture, particularly in the relationships between fathers and sons.

Now, there can be little doubt that football fits the mood of contemporary America in a way that baseball does not. But there can and should be a great deal of discussion about whether or not the change in national mood is for the better. Football games are huge events; they are parties. After all, a football team will only have five or six home games a year. I think it is safe to say that many people love the atmosphere of football more than the game of football. I was amazed to learn that it is not uncommon for football tailgaters to stay in the parking lot and watch the game on television even if they have tickets. I cannot imagine a baseball fan making such a choice. Baseball fans love the park, the sound, and the smells and most of all the game itself.

The game of baseball is not an easy one to understand. The learning curve for being able to enjoy football is much quicker than it is for baseball. I know that contemporary schemes like the spread option offense and the Tampa 2 defense are complex and an NFL playbook resembles a NASA training manual. Nevertheless, at its base, simplistic level one can become a football fan quickly. In fact, many people become passionate football fans in their adult years after having paid very little attention to the game in their youth.

Almost no one ever develops a love for baseball as an adult. That is not the way the game works. Baseball is a game full of mystery, nuances, and mechanics that has to be passed on from generation to generation for the game to survive. The one who does not understand baseball will not appreciate the game. And that is just the point at which contemporary American culture is working against the nation’s pastime. Baseball is only really understood in the context of countless hours of catch, shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, and never ending hours of watching the game with attendant conversations about all of its delightfully complex nuances and quirks. In a game with infield fly rules, balks, and squeezes; where shortstops are not necessarily short and the players run counter clockwise, even grizzled veterans take pleasure in knowing that they have not mastered the game.

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