By Tarikul Islam (New York University)
This past semester I audited a popular NYU class called Baseball as a Road to God. The course used classic literatures to connect baseball with ideas normally found in philosophical works and religious experiences. It may sound odd, but after pondering about it for quite a while I discovered that baseball can also be seen as a “road” to secular humanism.
Using Reason Instead of Bias & Superstition
Part of the foundation of humanism is naturalism, which states that reality is ultimately only made of matter and energy, or the natural as opposed to the supernatural. Moreover, all phenomena can be explained in terms of things that we can touch, feel, or study. This is an important characteristic of humanism because it acknowledges that reliable knowledge of our world is best obtained when we use scientific methods. Therefore, humanism focuses on rigorous and empirical thinking instead of superstition and fuggy intuition.
Baseball has moved in the same direction. From fantasy leagues to the front office of professional baseball teams, the use of statistical analysis to objectively compare players has revolutionized the sport. Traditionally, scouts would visually see and compare players based on specific skills, tools, and mechanics. Players with the proper mechanics in fielding, hitting, throwing, and running would get high grades by the scouts and ultimately a lucrative contract.
Sabermertics, a term coined by the famous baseball statistician Bill James, is the application of statistical thinking to baseball numbers in order to evaluate players with hardcore data. Michael Lewis’s bestselling non-fiction book Moneyball, which was also adapted to an Oscar nominated film starring Brad Pitt, delineates the importance of the science of sabermetics in modern baseball. The book follows Oakland Athletics’s general manager Billy Bean, who uses statistical analysis to sign players that were undervalued by scouts and traditional baseball methods. In the process, the team was able to manage one of the best winning percentages in major league baseball while having one of the lowest payrolls.
Numbers aside, the most powerful message in this book is that there is unseen potential and value in every human begins. In the book, certain baseball players, like Scott Hatteburg, Kevin Youkilis, and Chad Bradford, are undervalued by scouts using traditional methods of evaluating players based on intuition, perception, and perceived flaws – all very susceptible to human biases and prejudices. Using empirical data, Bean was able to overlook these superficial evaluations and bring out the best in these players.
This story highlights one of the most important themes in humanism: seeking rational methods to solve human problems accentuates the potential value in human beings. When we can overcome our biases, stereotypes, and prejudices about people, we can see them for who they really are.
Similarly, the occurrence of transcendent, magical moments, or so-called “miracles”, is one of the biggest appeals of baseball for most spectators. In these moments, the players accomplish the improbable while the emotionally invested fans rejoin in the ecstasy. However, these events can only occur because the players are well prepared and use logical reasoning to perform in high pressure situations. One of the most exhilarating homeruns in baseball history took place in game one of the 1988 World Series. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the injured Kirk Gibson hits the game winning homerun to beat the odds on the favored Athletics. The crowd burst into jubilation as Gibson fist-pumped and limped around the bases.
However, while people were calling the play a “miracle”, they also overlooked the preparation and logical reasoning used by the Dodgers team that made this moment possible. Before this homerun, Tommy Lasorda, the manager of Dodgers, tricked hall of fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley by showing that Dave Anderson would be the next batter, and not Gibson. The reason behind this move was that Eckersley would walk the batter Mike Davis in order to pitch to Anderson, who was a very poor hitter and an easier out. Lasorda’s strategy worked out and Eckersley walked Davis, who was the game tying run.
Surprisingly, the batter would be the most valuable player in the league: Kirk Gibson. The homerun was also possible because of the scouting report of Mel Didier. Right before hitting the homerun, Gibson steps out of the batter’s box to take a short break. In that moment, he thinks about Didier’s scouting report and realizes that in this particular pitch count Eckersley normally throws a backdoor slider. Thus, he positions his body to get the barrel of the bat to hit the outside pitch. The recounting of Gibson’s World Series homerun for the Dodgers outlines that hard work, clear thinking and preparation can lead to magical moments and “miracles” like this.
Community & Relationships are What Ultimately Matter
Baseball brings people together and creates communities. This is its only real purpose. Humanism, similarly, focuses on relationships between people for their own sakes and as what really matters in life. Other worldviews such as the Christianity of Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth believe that human beings are not the center of Creation, but connection with God and faith in Jesus Christ are instead. In contrast, humanism brings people together in order to improve the welfare of all humanities since that is what really matters.
For example, I was able to connect and bond with my father through baseball. My father emigrated from Bangladesh to America as an adult, while I grew up in America and have only returned to Bangladesh once. We have a huge gap in terms of language, culture, and ideology. However, none of these differences matter when my dad and I watch baseball. We are able to communicate with each other clearly by talking about the national pastime, like so many other generations of fathers and sons, and others, across the country.
In addition to personal connections, baseball also creates a community between unknown people, people who may never actually meet. For example, the Chicago Cubs have some of the most loyal fans compared to any major sports team in the world. The Cubs, who last won the World Series title in 1908, have been in the top ten in attendance in the national league since 1892. These diehard fans are coming to games because they are able to create meaningful connections with other people based on their shared love for their team and the game.
I experience the same passion and euphoric feeling when I go to Yankee Stadium. Being an unemployed student, I can only afford to sit among the bleachers creatures in Yankee Stadium. There is a negative perception of the bleachers creatures because we have to, by tradition, vehemently criticize opposing teams’ players and fans. I have to agree that for opposing fans sitting among the bleacher creatures while representing their team can be an unpleasant experience. However, for the Yankees’s fans in bleachers it is a very special sense of cohesiveness when we roar the roll call in the beginning of the game. And throughout the game, we are tethered to each other because of our dedication and love for the same team.
The theme of my course, Baseball as a Road to God, was to live slowly and think about issues at a deeper level in order to find connections between them. And, in this article, I believe that I have done just that, though in a very different direction.