August 11, 2005
-- Christian Sheppard
Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis—World Champion and All-Star—is a fan of Achilles. He saw Troy four times in the theater, and before each game watches highlights of Brad Pitt's performance on a DVD player in his locker. "I like the action," he says, "the spears flying through the air. It calms me down" (Sports Illustrated, May 30, 2005). His teammates encourage his Homeric interests; Willis remains one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Troy lacks Olympian gods, but it does present the classical ideal of the hero. Achilles was first among the Achaeans and the greatest of Greek heroes. He was first because he was the most proficient killer. And he was the greatest hero because, as Aristotle notes, he embodied the first virtue, courage. Without courage, other virtues are moot—impotent sentiments that do no real good. Courage overcomes fear, including the natural fear of death, so one may do good. Achilles rejected a long life of safety and obscurity for a short life of enduring glory, and glory accrues for those who do great good. Achilles' glory, moreover, can encourage us today to do good despite our fears.
Both religion and baseball deal with fear. The Roman poet Lucretius claimed that "religion begins in fear." And from the Psalmist to Kierkegaard, we know to "worship the Lord in fear and trembling." Giambattista Vico discerns religion's beginnings in early humans' response to natural disaster, "acts of God": To stay His fearful lightning, we pray to God—what else to do but pray? And Christ calms and encourages, saying "be not afraid."
In baseball, a hard, fist-sized object is hurled toward the batter at nearly 100 mph, and is driven back toward the pitcher even faster. If the ball hits you, your body is bruised or your bones broken. If it hits you in the head, you might be killed. For this reason, Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball describes fear as "the fundamental factor in hitting," and thus in the game. Normal, healthy, reasonable human beings reflexively get out of the way of an object traveling at such speeds. The ballplayer must overcome his natural reflexes and stand in there, keeping his eye on the ball. Linger behind any chain-linked backstop in America and you will hear the same advice repeated: "Don't be afraid of the ball." One must have the "nerve," the courage required to play.
But baseball, in contrast to many religious practices, allows for a clear and open measure of both the first virtue of courage (i.e., number of at bats or games pitched) as well as of general baseball virtuosity, of how well you are playing (i.e., the count, the score). Whatever your intention (showing a bunt or calling a homerun like Babe Ruth), whatever your inspiration (watching Hollywood sand-and-sandals films or thanking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit between innings), you and everyone else knows in the end whether you have won or lost.
Baseball thus vindicates pagans and practicing pragmatists. As Cicero argues, it simply does not make sense to pray to a deity who does not answer. So for William James, faith is what we live by, and we judge our beliefs by our lives—not by faithful "roots," but by living "fruits." Baseball answers to this pagan pragmatist paradigm: excellence, virtue, is its own reward because virtue is doing what is good and your reward is seeing such good done. It's all about how you play the game because you play to win.
Baseball also offers the satisfaction of measuring more than wins and losses. Publishing statistics allows us to savor the details of how the game was played, of what went into every win and loss. In life, we cannot weigh our lapses of faith or courage; we cannot so easily tell if we are winning or losing. Alas, in life, the score, the count, even the rules are not so clear.
Perhaps Saint Peter is keeping his book as scrupulously as Bill James keeps stats for his Historical Baseball Abstract. But in this world, we have baseball to console and encourage us. We have Dontrelle Willis's wild wind-up, his fearful fastball flying through the air, to calm us down. Ave Achilles. Take me out to the ballgame.
Christian Sheppard, Lecturer in the University of Chicago's Basic Program and co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia, is presently writing a book on baseball and religion.