Baseball’s back — with a truncated season, the universal DH (a bitter pill for this National League snob to swallow), and deep uncertainty involving the ongoing pandemic — but it is back nonetheless. I could hardly be more grateful. Besides the joy inherent in the game itself, it’s a huge relief to transfer some of my focus from the constant drumbeat of bad news to wondering if and when the Cardinals are going to start hitting again. St. Louis has already been forced to postpone eleven games due to the virus, but even before the delays, they were showing evidence that their offensive struggles will spill over from last year.  

In fact, it’s a bit of a running gag in my marriage that every time my wife and I sit down to watch the Cardinals together, the entire lineup acts utterly lost at the plate. Inning after inning goes by with very little more than pop flies and strikeouts to show for it. In a game against the Chicago Cubs last year, St. Louis scored four runs in the first inning — and then failed to get the ball out of the infield for the remainder of the game. Our veteran radio broadcaster groused that he had never seen anything like it. 

Games like that are not only frustrating; they also make it hard to answer the most common criticism aimed at baseball: that it’s boring. I usually respond to this barb by pointing out that I’ve witnessed some absolutely mind-numbing football games (of both American and non-American varieties). Even sports as dynamic as basketball and hockey can slip into stretches of tedium. 

Admittedly, though, baseball has an especially high drag capacity. Not only are there longer periods in which “nothing happens,” but the absence of a game clock means that “nothing” can technically go on happening forever. Even the most hardcore fans will admit that it sometimes feels that way. Two hours and six innings into a 1-0 regular season game, no one is paying much attention who isn’t paid to do so. 

But what makes baseball the most tedious of all sports also makes it unique. Because all other major team sports are time-bound, at a certain point it becomes physically impossible for the losing team to stage a comeback. There is no hope if you’re down 42-10 with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. Your mistakes are permanently locked in, so to speak, even as the game technically continues.

Not so with baseball. If you’re down six runs in the bottom of the ninth with nobody on base and two outs, then you apparently have a 0.01% chance of winning. But that’s not quite zero, as the 1952 Cubs proved against Cincinnati (nine consecutive Chicago batters reached base safely on their way to a 9-8 win). In baseball, there’s always the chance to atone for mistakes and make good on deficits. It really is “never too late” to turn things around. 

I suspect that the “never-too-lateness” of baseball is one of its chief draws: we’d love for that to be true for other aspects of our lives. As a hospital chaplain intern, I once found myself at the bedside of a middle-aged lady recovering from heroin addiction. Over the course of the conversation she expressed regret over various missed opportunities and, in particular, not finishing her degree. 

“Well,” I offered, “it’s never too late to go back and finish it.” (Did I mention I was an intern?)

“Yeah, that’s true,” she said, in that politely dismissive tone given to well-meaning but unhelpful clergy for millennia. Because, of course, at some point it is too late to finish the degree, or to heal that broken relationship, or to leave the kind of legacy we always wanted to leave. Baseball might not have a clock, but our lives certainly do. We are always running out of time to find that thing to which we can point and say, “This proves that I have lived my life well.” 

“It’s never too late” can thus be an empty platitude or even a mockery. It can also be the best news possible. For a certain criminal dying on a first-century cross, it was far too late to turn around a life wasted on thievery and violence. The time had long since passed to learn lessons, re-evaluate personal goals, or make amends to those he had harmed. But it was not too late for him to hear these words: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).

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To be clear, this was not some kind of dramatic ninth-inning victory. The “good” thief was less like the 1952 Cubs and more like that other baseball team from Chicago — namely, the 1919 White Sox squad, who sold one of America’s great cultural treasures to gamblers. To this day, baseball holds the dubious distinction of being the only major American sport whose championship has been fixed. The eight “Black Sox” never played organized baseball again (although Shoeless Joe Jackson allegedly appeared in the minors under a pseudonym). Since then, involvement in gambling has been baseball’s unpardonable sin.

The greatest baseball film of all time, however, centers on the pardoning of the unpardonable. By some miracle, the Black Sox awake to find themselves in a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, their past forgotten or somehow irrelevant, once again enjoying the game they had betrayed. Field of Dreams spiritualizes the timelessness of baseball: it really is never too late in Dyersville to find what you’re looking for.

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In 2017 the self-help industry made nearly as much as Major League Baseball (around $10 billion), suggesting that the quest for personal improvement might be a new National Pastime. If so, the new one definitely has a clock, and it’s always ticking. Moreover, it doesn’t appear to be a winnable game. Take the evidence provided by social media, which functions not only as a place where users can pass judgment on strangers, but also a kind of public log for self-evaluation. Scrolling through Facebook reveals countless memes ranging in tone from self-exaltation, to self-exculpation, to self-loathing, sometimes posted by the same people on the same day. Most of us, on most days, feel like we’re down by at least a touchdown or two. 

But the good news isn’t that we can get enough done before the buzzer. The eternal love of God has broken into our time-bound existence and rendered the clock ultimately irrelevant. In Christ we’ve been enough — we’ve been beloved — before the foundation of the world and after the last star burns out. It’s not too late, and it’s not a dream.