The Spring Training of Lent

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Springtime brings about two of the greatest events that humanity gets to celebrate. The first, of course, is the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. No other event, save perhaps his Incarnation, has such significance for all of humanity. This event we celebrate each Spring restores order as God has indeed defeated sin and death so that we might live, not only in eternity but today.

Of course, there’s another springtime event that does not appear on the liturgical calendar: Spring Training and the return of Major League Baseball. Indeed, what greater event can drive away the cold, dark winter—and the dashed hopes of twenty-nine of the thirty teams from the autumn before?

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Now, I am certainly not trying to equate baseball to life in Christ and the Church. However, analogies can sometimes help to teach us and remind us who we are and whose we are. Viewed this way, it’s easy to see that both Spring Training and the season of Lent and Holy Week are new beginnings. They call to mind Lamentations 3:22-23:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning…”

A Fresh Start

Spring Training is a fresh start for teams, players, and fans. Every team starts with an identical record and the same possibility (at least in theory) of winning it all. It wipes away the previous season’s failures, providing a chance to start over with a clean slate.

Sure, there are sacrifices, such as giving up one’s freedom to join a team and sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen. However, it is an opportunity to grow to be a better player, coach, and teammate—to give oneself to the betterment of the team and focus together on the task at hand. Substitute the vocabulary and Lent works much the same way.

This is just the first of many parallels that can be made between baseball and our Christian walk.

Beating the Clock

Baseball has no clock. Time never runs out. There is always hope. It’s always just a glimmer that things are not over until they are over. It reminds me of the parable of the vineyard (cf. Matthew 20:1-16). Until the final death knell is rung, there is still hope of scoring that winning run or coming to life in Christ.

The game continues until it is over. No bases are loaded; it’s the bottom of the ninth with nobody out. Sorry, the time has expired, and you lose. As long as one is still alive, they are still in the game and have an opportunity to come to Christ.

Individual or Team Sport?

Baseball is also both an individual and team sport. On defense, you are one of nine players, each in a different position. When the ball is in play, every person on the field has a responsibility to the betterment of the team. If one individual is out of position, the entire team suffers—much as the body of Christ suffers when one member is sick or ineffective. Imagine a baseball team where everyone wanted to be the first baseman. Nothing would work. The team would no longer be a team, just a bunch of selfish individuals.

Christianity is like that in many ways. Although my faith is a decision I have made to follow after and be obedient to God, I must do so within the community of the Church. If I am selfish and make this walk all about me, the rest of the community suffers. The rest of the community will have to hobble along if the foot is missing (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

This can impact the community so much that it may become necessary to expel the member from the Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5). In baseball, if a teammate is ineffective, they may be sent down to the minors. In the case of the Church, expelling a member will hopefully restore them to the community of faith and their salvation. Likewise, in baseball, the hope is they can be rehabilitated or restored as a fully functioning team member.

Art or Science?

Is baseball an art or a science? Is following after Christ and living out faith in the Church an art or a science? They are both.

The Science

On a physical plane, every Major League Baseball infield has the same dimensions. Here’s a scientific definition of just one aspect of a baseball infield:

The pitcher’s plate must be a 24-inch by 6-inch slab of whitened rubber 10 inches above the level of home plate and 60 feet, 6 inches away from the back point of home plate. It is placed 18 inches behind the center of the mound…

(from MLB rules on field dimensions)

Yet, every outfield is different. Although there are minimum guidelines for outfield fences, even those are sometimes allowed to be “violated,” especially for parks built before a particular date. And every surface varies, from dirt to astroturf to grass.

Recently, analytics have taken over much of the game. This is the science of the game. Batting averages against left-handed pitchers during day games played on artificial surfaces can determine if the infield should play in a shift, play at double play depth, or be ready for a bunt from the batter. Managers pull an overall better-hitting batter because of a pitcher match-up. Statistics. Science. Dimensions.

The Art

There is a beautiful soul, an art, to the game. Ron Washington, one of my favorite MLB managers, has often made managerial decisions that sometimes went against the analytics. He’s talked about following his gut or his heart. A famous quote attributed to him is: “That’s the way baseball go…”

That is the heart, soul, and beauty of baseball. The game is a mysterious painting laid out on a field of both science and art.

So is faith. Sure, Church structures, traditions, and liturgies have a science about them. There is an order, a prescribed living out of the faith within the bounds of Scripture, holy traditions, and the teachings of those who have gone before. Even the daily disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, and contemplation are like a well-manicured and symmetrical palace garden.

Yet, there is a beautiful mystery and art to living out of the Christian faith. It is unknown. Life happens. The way we are shaped and formed changes. We enter into the narrative of the Gospel story, and our whole story changes. We enter into community with others and find ourselves growing and maturing. This discipleship life is like a wild English garden: beauty, textures, colors, and shapes change in every direction.

It is all the Church—and baseball—lived out at its best.

New Beginnings

This year (2024), Maundy Thursday and the opening day of baseball both occur on March 28. Two events. One day. Maundy Thursday, of course, has far more significant consequences and importance. The institution of the Eucharist invites all who would be a follower of Christ to enter into intimate and eternal community with the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Major Leagues Baseball opening day invites the fan to enter into the eternal hope of “maybe this will be our year.” Maundy Thursday has eternal consequences, Major League Baseball for 162 games—half a year. What a beautiful time of year of new beginnings, of hope springing eternal.


Image by Dmytro Aksonov from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Craig Daugherty

Craig Daugherty is a Deacon at St. George Parish at Fort Wainwright (Fairbanks), Alaska. He serves as the Director Religious Education for the U.S. Army and is also the Director of Formation for the Order of Saint Cuthbert.

View more from Craig Daugherty

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