Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Baseball & My Enduring Perfectionism

April 1 can't come soon enough
Those of you who know me know how much baseball means to me.  For myself and for many others, baseball is more than simply a game.  There is something truly transcendent about baseball.  It does something within me to turn on a game or (even more profoundly) to sit in the stands and soak in the experience.  Baseball moves me, and to be honest, I don't really know why (I've written about how baseball moves me here).

One of my projects over the next few years is to explore what it is about baseball that tugs at me, and more broadly, to explore what deeper significance and meaning this seemingly simple game might have theologically.  I've gradually been building up a library of novels, biographies, histories, and essays on the greatest game, and I hope to explore theological themes and ideas in baseball on this blog in future months and years.  My hope is that this will turn into a larger project, though I have other projects that require most of my time and energy these days.

The Sandlot
My boys and I have been talking about baseball a great deal lately as we wait for opening day (as an aside the 2013 season begins on Monday, and while it is purely coincidental that the season begins the day after we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and therefore the introduction of new life into the world, this seems to me to be entirely appropriate).  Ever since they watched The Sandlot (a wonderful film that gets at the heart of baseball's beauty) last December, they can't get enough of the sport.  Almost every waking minute appears to be consumed with baseball; they walk around with gloves on, they carry baseballs with them, and they've set up a little field in our backyard to practice pitching, hitting, and sliding.  Last night over supper I decided to take their knowledge of the game to a higher level, and so spoke to them about batting averages.  Aside from learning that I am absolutely rubbish at explaining anything having to do with numbers, I learned as well how difficult it is for a seven and a five-year-old to figure out what batting averages could possibly mean.

Ty Cobb
But I persevered, and spoke to them about Ty Cobb who was, by all accounts, one of the most unlikeable figures ever in the history of the game, but who was also one of the greatest hitters.  Cobb, I told them, has the highest career batting average of all time at .366.  What interested me was not my kids' reactions to this (they appropriated this information uncomprehendingly), but the reaction of Kim (my spouse).  She expressed incredulity that the highest career batting average of all time was only .366, for she interpreted this as meaning that he failed to get a hit over 60% of the time, which
she found to be a very high failure rate.

And as I thought about her reaction, I realized that she had hit upon something that was actually very important about the nature of the game - its tolerance of failure. It is a maxim that baseball is a sport in which one need only succeed 30% of the time to be great, and as I've thought about this, I've realized how valuable this idea truly is.

I am a perfectionist, and while there are aspects of my perfectionism that are beneficial, the negatives far outweigh the positives for me.  One of my personal weaknesses is that my spiritual and emotional well-being is frequently tied to an acute fear of failure that always lurks in the back of my thoughts.  There is, therefore, something tremendously comforting to me about a game in which the hitter is defined, not by how many times they fail, but by how many times they succeed.  Cobb is known for getting at hit 36.6% of the time he came to the plate, not by the fact that he failed to get a hit 63.4% of the time.

This is a remarkably generous interpretation of the facts.  I don't want to be all 'let's-take-a-life-lesson-from-baseball' here, for that can lead to some unfortunately banal platitudes that are helpful to no one.  But I can't help but view baseball's generous interpretation of 'success' as being very healthy.  And as a perfectionist trying to get over my perfectionism, baseball serves me very well.  Very well, indeed.

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