(OPINION) The first game of the 2023 baseball World Series is Friday. The audacious name for the championship event dates back to 1903, when almost no one outside the United States played the sport. Now, baseball is also popular in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Caribbean countries and parts of Central and South America — and the sport’s peculiarities can help us understand both biblical truth and American culture.
Let’s start with chapter nine of Ecclesiastes: “Under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” Baseball is different from basketball, where a perfect shot will go into the basket. In baseball, it’s possible to hit a ball so hard that it can travel for over 330 yards (300 meters) at 124 mph (200 kilometers) — yet a well-positioned fielder can catch the ball in the air. The hitter then trots back to his team’s bench, a failure.
In that way baseball reflects life, which often shows us how little we control. In the top baseball leagues, an average batter gets a hit only one of four times at bat. The best batters get a hit only one of three times. Forty-five years ago I interviewed Bart Giamatti, who left the presidency of Yale University and became the chief executive of Major League Baseball. Giamatti said about baseball: “It breaks your heart, it’s meant to break your heart.” (He died of a heart attack at age 51.)
Giamatti’s statement is true as far as it goes. Not only individuals, but teams have to deal with surprising failures. Three teams this year — the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers — achieved the traditional mark of excellence by winning at least 100 of the 162 games played in the regular season. All three lost in their first round. The Texas Rangers (90 wins this year) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (only 84 wins) are meeting in the World Series. Both teams surprisingly triumphed in each of the first three playoff rounds.
Baseball also differs from basketball and football in its lack of an overall time limit, such as 40 minutes — Olympics basketball — or 90 minutes (World Cup). Instead, each team gets nine chances (“innings”) to score: An inning continues as long as the team is successful. Teams gain success not by running down an oblong field to deposit a ball in a goal or over a line, but by running from base to base in a circular motion and reaching the base from which they started: home plate.