I felt a familiar knot return to my stomach a couple weeks ago.
The knot usually announces itself in late March or early April with the advent of baseball season. Exhilaration and anxiety wind together as I ponder the prospects of my beloved San Francisco Giants. Mixed feelings flutter when I watch any team, waiting to see if runners can stretch singles into doubles or if relief pitchers can wriggle free of bases-loaded puzzles.
Just as this year’s knot began to form, COVID-19 clamped down on the season. Baseball pressed pause. In the absence of normal, I found plenty to keep me inching toward the lip of the couch. Parenting during a pandemic, job insecurity, the enveloping pressure to remain in the “on” position—all this and more did a number on my guts.
When baseball eased back into its liturgies, I sensed the knot but discerned differences. Now when I feel tangled, it’s not because I expect the Giants to be good. It’s because I want them to be well.
Major League Baseball issued protocols to keep players safe as the sport moves ahead. But testing delays, player opt-outs and the broad shadow of the unknown heighten awareness around the game. With these issues in mind, and a second-chance Opening Day set for Thursday, I circle back to a question that increasingly defines my fandom: How do I love my baseball-playing neighbor as myself?
The late Howard Thurman wrote to prove that the Bible’s unspoken answer to its own question—“Who is my neighbor?”—is anyone and everyone. “Neighborliness is nonspatial; it is qualitative,” he said.
The average among us struggle to see sinewy professional athletes as neighbors. We imagine even the last man up, making a league-minimum salary, enjoying the lush life in a better zip code. But if Thurman and, by the transitive spiritual property, Jesus are right, I count the world’s select baseball players among my neighbors.
Looking past the post-game interview cliches, through the colored laundry, beyond the script stretching across the breastbone, I see the cluster of contradictions living within all of us. Everyone acutely feels the pull of family obligation, struggles to shake off our desire for approval, needs to sense the worth of our work.
An abundance of zeroes at the end of a paycheck no doubt eases some of that struggle. Exercising our imaginations for even a moment also reveals how higher stakes exponentially press on the soul. As influence stretches to its full height, so do idols. Being asked to parse all these concerns before a watching world, and consider the trickle-down effect of your playing on coaches, scouts and other staffers, feels like an unfair straw for anyone to draw.
Throughout the pandemic, I return to certain longings—to be seen as more than what I produce, to set the world right for those depending on me, to even know how to start doing so. Loving an all-star second baseman as myself means recognizing these invisible strings bind us together. And it means worrying over my neighbor as I worry for myself.
When the cornerstone of my team, Giants catcher Buster Posey, opted out of the 2020 season, I experienced empathy and not disappointment. Posey and his wife recently adopted twin girls, born premature; his hiatus springs from the desire to nurture those babies, to spare them harm.
I used to mouth specific prayers for Posey—that his bat would find a hole on the right side of the infield, that he would play defense like a divining rod, calling the right pitch in the do-or-die. Now I pray Posey’s girls mature into wholeness, that he never wastes a moment with them. I want Posey, and everyone within the broader family of baseball, to make it safely to the other side of this moment, to even find themselves a little happier and simpler for the experience.
Loving anything comes with complications. Baseball provides me with so much, and it too easily lets me down—with the lip service it pays diversity, with its displays of cheap patriotism. My anxieties around player health come against a backdrop of systemic inequity in the minor leagues and other persistent labor issues.
As much as we might wish otherwise, devotion never awards easy answers; instead it demands a certain level of discontent, an ever-present desire for something better. The reasons I love baseball are the very reasons I refuse to lighten up about its future. The game engages every atom within me, sharpening my mind and making me think two moves ahead, instilling fresh hope and stretching my soul.
Baseball’s inherent lyricism bridges athletics and art. The arc of a shortstop hurling his body into the gap reads like a Christian Wiman poem; the crack of a home-run ball leaving the bat rattles my bones like a guitar solo. All the humanity of the game requires me to see the humanity of its players. Real love means caring about the future of its families, and deeming baseball vital while stopping short of labeling its workers essential.
Maybe baseball means little to you. In your world, watching the NBA, going to the theater or standing in front of a live band signifies a full return to your humanity. Check the direction of your love; ensure it points toward the people who make our cultural engines hum. Ask better questions of the institutions that surround them and shape their futures. Acting as good neighbors today will preserve and cultivate what we love, contributing to its future survival.
When the Beloved Game returns tomorrow, no doubt I’ll lose myself in those nine innings. But in the moments before the national anthem and after the final out, I’ll wring my hands a little and turn over big ideas. I’ll keep searching the diamond until I see more than balls and strikes, until I see a field full of my neighbors.
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