A Paean for Paradise: Baseball Season

Eliade's sacred time and America's favorite pastime

By Christian Sheppard|May 6, 2021

Writing about “Sacred Time,” the great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade observed that humans everywhere and always express “a nostalgia for eternity:” we “long for a concrete paradise ... here, on earth, and now, in the present moment.”[1] Jews, Christians, and Muslims look back to the Garden of Eden, just as the Babylonians before them did their jeweled garden of Gilgamesh. Classical Greeks and Romans fondly recalled their Parnassus and Arcadia. Baseball fans are usually free from such pangs because paradise is available spring, summer, and fall for the price of a ticket to the ballpark. But recently we can relate. Last season was truncated. Games were played before empty bleachers to canned cheers. Opening Day was a holy day that never occurred. Our paradise was lost.

Missing last season reminded us that most of us, most of the time, live in mundane, profane time, when we’re keenly aware of the seconds ticking away. We are caught in the cascade of our social media feeds. Our heads spin with the news cycle. When our attention is arrested, where does the time go? Lockdown only accentuated this cursed feeling of time’s relentless elapse. But now that the ballparks have begun to open their gates to fans—albeit in limited capacity with socially distanced seating and everybody masked up (between bites of hot dog and sips of beer)—now there is no need to indulge in nostalgia for eternity when we can directly experience sacred time again. 

At the ballgame, time flows freely. “The beautiful thing about our game,” three-time World Series champion pitcher Jon Lester says, “is there’s no time.” In other words, it is eternal: precisely the state of being the pagans and the pious all pine for. The first organized games were played in early summer 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey, at Elysian Fields, named for the mythic “Elysium” that Homer and Hesiod celebrated as the eternal enchanted land where the gods brought heroes after life. Since then, baseball has marked the flow of play with balls, strikes, outs, and innings. Even after eight and two-thirds innings, even with two strikes, the home team with only one out left can still hope to rally. Turn your cap inside out and put it on backwards. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. In fact, any at bat, any inning, any game can, in theory, go on indefinitely, eternally.

These past few winters, there’s been anxious arguing for speeding up the game. We’re told that the fan base is graying and kids’ attention spans are stunted; they can’t sit still for nine innings. But beware such clock-watching, penny-counting, sun-deprived winter thinking. Oh, let life go at the sacred pace of play! Lester says that “Every game has a flow, and that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry, I’m old school." Lester’s school is as old as Eden.

Play on the field determines time’s flow. Between cheers and boos, we may measure time in breaths, in inhalations and exhalations. In that first summer of 1846, a young reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, Walt Whitman, wrote: “Through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball. We wish such sights were more common among us. . . . [T]he young men of nearly all our American cities are very deficient . . . shut up from early morning till nine or ten o’clock at night . . . . Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms . . . the game of ball is glorious.”[2] Decades later, Whitman, now “The Good Gray Poet,” reaffirmed his original opinion of the game: “Baseball . . . will take people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a large physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”[3] Baseball season upon us, we look forward to breathing easy outdoors at the ballpark, cheering, rooting, booing, heckling, sounding our barbaric yawps. Our glorious game will let us exercise our lungs and revive our spirits after a lost year locked down.

Returning to the ballpark this spring, memory and hope, past and future, mingle. As new grass sprouts, every team’s record starts clean. All can hope to go to the World Series. All still have a chance. I have tickets to take my daughter to see the Cubs. She says she can’t believe how fast winter has flown by. I say I can’t believe she is in college. It seems only yesterday I pushed her in her stroller to Wrigley Field. I can still see her, head-height beside me standing on her seat, cheering for her favorite player. I recall my father taking me as a boy to Fenway Park. After Ted Williams, his favorite player was fellow lefty Lester. Lester overcame cancer early in his career to come back and win the World Series for the Red Sox. Later, when my father was undergoing chemotherapy, we reminisced about when Lester threw his no-hitter. My father had called me in Chicago with his television turned up full volume to let me listen along. I had to lift the phone from my ear when Lester got the final out, my father’s howl for joy was so loud. 

At my ballpark paradise, I imagine my daughter is still little and my dad is still alive. The players take the field to play a game, pitching in the pinch, hitting in the clutch, turning two, sliding into home, acting out their heroic roles. Fans watch from the stands like deities on Olympus, judging, admiring. We breathe in deeply and cheer loudly. The game reveals itself as the ritual that it is, the re-enactment of a myth about virtue and victory, fortune and happiness. Now, here, again is paradise. Look, Lester is still pitching, not for the Red Sox or the Cubs, but for the Nationals. Play ball! Elysian Fields forever!

[1] Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Meridian, 1963), 408.

[2] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 July 1846. 

[3] Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York: M. Kennerley, 1914), v.4, 508.

Image: A still from the animated short film Destino, a collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí featuring baseball as a metaphor for life. (Disney)

Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


Christian Sheppard

Author, Christian Sheppard (PhD '02), teaches Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His essays on religion, sports, art, music, and movies have appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press), just finished an historical fantasy novel about chariot-racing and witchcraft set in 6th century Constantinople titled Byzantium Burning, and is editing a book of popular philosophy called Heroes, Gods & Baseball: A Mythic Guide to Life