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The Poetry of Baseball: Finishing Well

[Editor’s note: This post is taken from Carrie Givens’ portion of the session “The Poetry of Baseball” from Hutchmoot 2015. The recording of this session and many others can be found in the Hutchmoot 2015 Audio Archive.]

It’s not a new idea that baseball is the sport that most echoes life. The long season, the ups and downs of the games, the rhythm of it all—the metaphor works on many levels. I was struck again by it earlier this year when I began reading Michael Chabon’s Summerland. At the beginning of the book one of the main characters, Ethan, an eleven-year-old boy, doesn’t want to be on the baseball team because they count his errors, and is complaining to his dad about it. He says, “They don’t even have errors in other sports. They have fouls. They have penalties. Those are things that players could get on purpose, you know. But in baseball they keep track of how many accidents you have.” He goes on, and eventually his father replies, “Errors…Well, they are part of life, Ethan…. Fouls and penalties, generally speaking, are not. That’s why baseball is more like life than other games. Sometimes I feel like that’s all I do in life, keep track of my errors.”

I’ve been thinking about the idea of the rhythms of the game and the rhythms of life for a while now, and one aspect has risen to the surface: the importance of finishing well.

You can’t be a fan of the Detroit Tigers in 2015 without understanding the importance of finishing well in the game of baseball. This is the team that for four years straight won their division, but couldn’t ever end the post season as the winners. It’s the team that has mastered the art of losing a lead after the seventh inning. It is a team that has been chock-filled with great hitters and great starting pitchers but can’t seem to figure out how to fill a bullpen with pitchers that won’t give up runs. This year, the wheels fell off earlier than usual and by halfway through the season the writing was on the wall: their inability to finish well was finally catching up to them. They finished at the bottom of their division.

There was a long-time Bible professor at my college, Dr. Cawood, who died a few years before I began there. I knew many people who had learned from him, and he was well-loved and well-respected by his students and his colleagues. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Master, had been his close friend. I don’t remember exactly what Dr. Cawood died of, but it was a fairly long, drawn-out, difficult illness. Dr. Master once told us that soon after his diagnosis, Dr. Cawood had pulled him aside to ask for a favor. “I know I’ve lived well,” Dr. Cawood began. He was a man full of faith and full of grace, an imitator of Christ, not perfect, but admirable. He went on, “But I hope you will help me with this one thing: I want to finish well. I know this illness will be long and will be painful. I will be tempted to give up on my faith, to give up on my Savior. Will you hold me accountable?” he asked Dr. Master. “Will you help me finish well?”

That story has stuck with me. What a thing to ask! Those words, “finish well,” have echoed through my life in the years since. I’ve spoken them again and again in encouragement or exhortation—to others and to myself.

But what does it really mean, to “finish well”? For you, for me, for the player on the ball field.

On the night of August 26, Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ pitching ace, nearly threw a no hitter. In 2012, the odds of throwing a no-hitter were calculated to be approximately 1 in 1,548. So, yeah, it’s a big deal.

Verlander walked two men, but no one hit the ball into play to get on base until the first batter of the final inning. Then, the Angels’ player, Ianetta, got his bat on the ball and it went flying—toward the third base line. Slowly, with an entire stadium holding its breath, with Verlander trying to will the ball out by the force of his mind, and with me, sitting in my darkened TV room on the edge of my couch, the ball arced down out of the air and landed, paint dust spraying up around it as it hit the white line. The ball was fair. Ianetta had a double, and Verlander’s no-hitter was gone.

The announcers only then began talking about what we’d been watching—baseball superstition keeping them from verbally saying a no-hitter was in progress until after it had broken up. As they began to debate what act was of equivalent value for another player in the game, my mind turned away from the diamond. A no-hitter, I thought, that’s like living a nearly perfect life.

Over the lunch table at work one day recently my coworkers began telling tales of being called to the principal’s office or getting detentions. They looked to me to join in. I was at a loss. I never got called to the principal’s office. I never got a detention. I never was grounded. I’ve only been pulled over for speeding twice. I’ve quite honestly never gotten in real trouble. And I’ve never really done anything to deserve getting into real trouble.

The same week Verlander lost his no hitter, a leader in my church’s denomination stepped down from his role due to moral failure. And it’s not always moral failure, is it? I’ve had friends who have simply said, “I’m done—with God, with my relationships, with my family. I’m done,” and they’ve walked away. We’ve all seen this story so many times, and it’s heartbreaking. A man or woman we think of as a spiritual guide—or a personal friend or mentor—falters, fails, falls. In the ninth inning, the ball falls just barely in play. The no-hitter is gone.

When the paint kicked up, Verlander leaned back with a grimace. And then the crowd began to applaud. And Verlander straightened up, squared his shoulders, and began his pre-pitch preparations. And one, two, three, he got the next three batters out and won the game—his first complete game in over three years.

I don’t think it was Verlander’s (almost) no-hitter that made that night special. It was the moment he turned back to face the next batter. Verlander’s moment of glory was gone, but there was still a game to win.

I’ve always been “good”— from an outsider’s perspective I probably look like I’m throwing a no-hitter when it comes to doing life right. But I know that a lot of my living, my thinking, my faith is off the mark—I’m not perfect; I throw a lot of balls when I “should” throw strikes. But I also know this truth: that even if I were to give up a hit—to fail so miserably in the eyes of everyone around—the One who made me is a God of grace, and I’m not out of the game because of my sin. And He still calls me to finish well.

I think about Moses. He lost the Promised Land when he lost his “no hitter.” At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God calls Moses to go up to the mountain to look over the land God promised “For you shall see the land before you but you shall not go there,” God said to him, “…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel…and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel.” But even this great loss was not the end for Moses. God takes him to Mount Nebo and shows him the land and then… “Moses, the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him in the valley.” Moses failed miserably—more than once: this is the guy who murdered an Egyptian in a misguided attempt to be a hero—but in the end, he is still called “the servant of the Lord” and God himself buried him.

It strikes me that finishing well isn’t really about the no hitters at all. It isn’t about the walk-off home run or the glory of the World Series ring. It is about daily running the base paths, playing the game day in and day out.

In Middlemarch, one of George Eliot’s characters, Dorothea, aspires to high-minded self-sacrifice. She desperately wants to do good and, in her efforts to do so, makes sad mistakes. But at the end of the book, Eliot’s final words of evaluation on Dorothea’s life are a commendation:

Her full nature…spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

G. K. Chesterton says, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”

Allen Levi, in his book The Last Sweet Mile (coming soon from Rabbit Room Press), echoes these ideas:

But most of us, or so it appears to me, are called to live lives that are hardly heroic in the traditional sense of the word. Instead of courage for a short season, we are given perseverance for a long one. Rather than white-hot passion, we are given devotion that burns with a slow, steady flame. In place of a moment’s enthusiasm about an urgent cause of the day, we are given a quietly per­sistent commitment to the comprehensive work of knowing Christ and making Him known. Increasingly, I am convinced that the King­dom of God moves forward most enduringly when ordinary people do small things kindly and well over a long period of time.

Some of my favorite players to watch in baseball are not the big stars of the teams—often, they’re the utility players, the guys who play more than one position and spend many of their days sitting on the bench. They tend to be the men who go out onto the diamond and do whatever is asked of them: they play the game as it is meant to be played.

In an episode of the show Girl Meets World, one of the characters, Farkle, learned about baseball, and like any good Girl Meets World character, he applied the lessons to life: “It’s a team sport,” he said to his friend Riley, “You just run the bases. The rest of the team will help you get home.”

The rest of the team will help you finish well.

Because that’s part of the rhythm of the game as well—it’s a game played by individuals who each have their plot of the field to tend, but who only can succeed when they play together. Early this season there was a moment in a Tigers game when Victor Martinez scored a run from second on a single. V-Mart has never been a fast runner, and age and injury have made him slower than ever. The only reason he was able to get in was that J. D. Martinez got caught in a run-down between second and third and the opposing players didn’t have time to throw V-Mart out. In an interview after the game, J. D. told a reporter, “I had to do that,” he said. “We all know [Victor] isn’t the fastest guy, especially now that he’s dealing with an injury. We couldn’t give them a chance to throw home.”

I can’t finish well alone.

Of the lives I’ve watched, the ones who finished well had these things in common: the hope of a Savior, and the knowledge of His grace; the willingness to play the whole season, with its ups and its downs, all 162 games of it, focusing on every at-bat rather than the home runs; and a team, men and women around them to whom they could turn and say, “Will you help me finish well?”

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