April 16, 2024

I’m trying to explain the difference between sacred and profane time to my class on world religions, and baseball exemplifies the sacred variety. The experience of a baseball game offers a way of stepping outside time: At least for a while, no clock is ticking.

Now that the baseball season is upon us, and I’ve been listening to Cactus League games on the car radio as I drive around Los Angeles, I’m transported into a different feeling of time, a different experience of its rhythms. No ticking clock rules a traditional baseball game, allowing us to escape the tyranny of deadlines and the threat of finality. There is no “overtime” — just the possibility of extra innings stretching out to infinity.

Listening to the games takes me back to childhood memories of baseball in a neighbor’s backyard in northeastern Pennsylvania, games with a prospect of never ending. In the summer evening twilight, mothers call their youngest children home for baths and bedtime. A tie score at the end of the ninth could launch us into eternity, with only the darkening sky to remind us of time’s persistence.

Back in L.A. traffic, the soothing rhythms and reassuring tone of the play-by-play slow things down, including my heart rate. Between innings, though, an irritating commercial break forces me to switch the station. A basketball game is on — “Thirty seconds left in the third quarter …” — and my heart rate increases a few beats. I am briefly jarred out of eternity and back into the ordinary — out of kairos, sacred time, and back into chronos, chronological time.

Professional basketball, hockey and football games are all subject to the tyranny of the clock. I find myself continually aware of the impending buzzer and the end of play.

We can leave chronos when listening to an absorbing piece of music, spending time with loved ones or relaxing into the middle innings of a ballgame. Kairos may be initiated by a bell or some other kind of musical signal, even the singing of the national anthem at the beginning of a game.

Some baseball fans experience a kind of religious nostalgia. The desire to get back to the innocence of childhood, to the garden, to paradise, to the source of all being, is formally addressed by sacraments such as the Eucharist, which provides “holy communion” with the “real presence” of God. But it can also be incidentally satisfied by a good extra-innings game.

Sacred time does not “pass” like profane time but somehow suspends. Time disappears and is replaced with what the religious scholar Mircea Eliade calls the “eternal mythical present,” with its heroes and tragedies. One crack of the bat, missed catch or bobbled ball could mean the end.

That’s the great tragic and terrifying circumstance of our time and lives and the human condition. It can end any minute; every second could be the last.

But eternity has no end, and sacred time is eternal.

The church recognizes “ordinary time” in the liturgical calendar as the days between the holy seasons of Lent and Advent. Interestingly, the baseball preseason roughly coincides with Lent.

Last season, Major League Baseball adopted rules that essentially attempt to shorten the game, threatening to destroy the sanctity of baseball time. In extra innings, a runner is automatically placed on second base to rein in seemingly endless games. A new “pitch clock” limits the time the pitcher has to deliver the ball: no more than 15 seconds to start their windup or 20 with runners on base.

These innovations represent an encroachment of the secular, misapprehending America’s pastime as a way to merely “pass” the time. They violate the game’s sacred timelessness.

Baseball has its rhythms, its balls and strikes, its outs and innings. We can relax and enjoy the thrill of the home run, the drama of the double play, the impossible catch, the spectacular pickoff.

Baseball is a kid’s game, after all, and for kids, time doesn’t run out. The hope of an infinite game means we all get to stay up late and savor a delicious sense of eternity. Let’s play ball — and hope for extra innings!

Rick Mayock teaches philosophy at West Los Angeles College.

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