Last night at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, the 2001 World Series came to a fitting close: a seventh-game, bottom-of-the-ninth, come-from-behind victory by the Arizona Diamondbacks over the mighty New York Yankees, who were seeking their fourth consecutive championship and their fifth in six years. So ended one of the most memorable seasons in many years, with a Series that is certain to rank among the best ever.
Given the twists and turns that had led up to this finale, it was only to be expected that the Diamondbacks' victory had an extra measure of improbability. They were facing Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' Mr. Automatic, who has been the most dominating closer in postseason history. Rivera is a slender man, and where he gets the power to throw as fast and hard as he does is a mystery. But what has made him invincible is not simply raw speed—though that's no small matter. His pitches swoop and dart viciously as they enter the strike zone. And as if that weren't enough, he throws what hitters call a "heavy" ball, the kind that breaks bats and results in pitifully weak squibs.
In the eighth inning last night, Rivera was unhittable, and so when the D-Backs went into the ninth trailing 2-1—how they got to that point, after a duel for the ages between Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, is a story in itself—their prospects weren't cheery. But then longtime Cubs' first baseman Mark Grace led off with a hit, and before you knew it the game was tied 2-2 with one out and the bags loaded with D-Backs. Yankee manager Joe Torre elected to play the infield in, hoping to cut off a ground ball that could allow the runner to score from third.
Torre's choice was by the book, but TV analyst Tim McCarver noted the special risk of this standard maneuver when Rivera is on the mound. Always when you move the infield in, of course, you are taking a calculated risk, since a hitter has a much better chance of driving a ball through a drawn-in infield. But Rivera, McCarver said, routinely bedevils lefthanders with a ball that breaks in on their hands and breaks their bats, often resulting in soft flares that are easily catchable when the infield is back, but tantalizingly out of reach when they're in. No sooner were the words out of McCarver's mouth then the lefthanded Luis Gonzales fisted a soft flare off Rivera for the game-winning hit, and the place went berserk.
At such a moment it was possible to forget about the bloated corporate interests converging on Bank One Ballpark, the collective madness of owners and players and agents, and even the impending crisis as baseball's general agreement expires and the specter of another extended labor dispute looms large. It was possible to be blessedly absorbed entirely in the game itself.
There's a vein of writing about baseball that makes quasi-religious claims for the game, not entirely seriously, of course. The movie Bull Durham is a classic in this vein: the ballpark as a kind of church. At one level that way of talking about the game—which is certainly not the way most fans talk about it—strikes me as deeply perverse. The point of baseball is baseball. Its beauty and delight and its limitations are all of a piece: it's a self-contained world. We're not doing the game or ourselves any favors by loading it with a weight of meaning it's not meant to bear.
And yet there is a sense in which the self-contained world of baseball points beyond itself to larger meanings. "The ability to be 'at leisure,'" the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper tells us,
is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one's spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work.. Only in such authentic leisure can the "door into freedom" be opened out of the confinement of that "hidden anxiety," which a certain perceptive observer has seen as the distinctive character of the working world, for which "employment and unemployment are the two poles of an existence without escape."
So Pieper wrote in 1948; his book was published in English translation as Leisure: The Basis of Culture in 1952 and has recently been reissued in a fine edition with some supplementary material by St. Augustine's Press. I'm not sure what Pieper would make of the vast leisure industry in the United States today. Is there any room for "leisure" in Pieper's sense in the society of the spectacle, the land of instant replays and sports channels and DVDs and "leisure communities"? We can hazard a guess, perhaps, from Pieper's sardonic aside: "There will naturally be 'games'—like the Roman circenses—but who could dignify the amusements for the masses with the name of 'festival'?" Pieper at Yankee Stadium? Maybe not.
For Pieper, celebration and festival are at the heart of leisure, and hence leisure ultimately is rooted in worship:
What does "rest from work" signify for the Bible or for ancient Greece and Rome? The meaning of a rest from labor is cultic: definite days and times were designated to the exclusive possession of the gods.
And so of course the Sabbath restrictions which, in baseball's earlier days, ruled out games on Sunday.
No doubt last night's World Series finale can be filed under "amusements for the masses," in whose company I must be counted. "Games," yes. But is it possible that the God we talked about last week—the God who created such an excessive variety of beetles, the God whose mind may be reflected in some small measure in the useful uselessness of philosophy as practiced by beings made in his image—is it possible that this God might also be the source of the joy that spilled out of the ballpark in Phoenix? I think so. The more difficult question—Is God a Yankees fan?—remains to be answered.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Is God a Body-Snatcher? | The restless intelligence of philosopher Peter van Inwagen. (Oct. 30, 2001)
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)