And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made (Gen. 2:2).

Rest, respite, relaxation. Leisure. Many people equate rest and leisure exclusively with bodily rest, kicking back in a recliner after a long day at the office, or spending a week on a beach, cabana boys bringing you drinks – and that does have its time and place. What feels better than flopping on the sofa, clean and showered, tv remote and tall iced tea in hand after a day of grueling yard work?  How about sitting in a stadium seat on a warm summer night soaking up the near-perfection of a baseball game and all the romantic serendipity it possesses?

Then there is recreation as leisure. It would almost seem like the term ‘leisure activity’ is an oxymoron. My daughter and her boyfriend rock climb for leisure – I mean really rock climb, as in the Tabula Rasa route on the face of a granite monolith called The Monastery in Estes Park, Colorado – an activity that makes my legs feel like jelly just looking at the photo of her clinging unnaturally where no human should be. But a day of that craziness recharges her soul even though it exhausts her body.

Just two chapters into the Bible we find God Himself taking a rest after a job well done – so surely restorative leisure is His idea. In Common Joys and Other Poems, poet W.H. Davies writes:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.[1]

If I were Davies’ editor, I might have suggested he change that second line to “We take no time to stand and stare,” because taking leisure is an intentional choice meant for our own well-being and many of us simply do not do it. Leisure doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be a multi-thousand dollar vacation to Europe or the Caribbean, though those pursuits certainly qualify. Leisure can be a lazy Sunday afternoon napping on a front porch swing, or watching kids catch fireflies in Mason jars in the waning light of day while you chat with neighbors. Leisure can be two sweethearts on a picnic, reveling in the mystery of their blossoming romance. It can be the thrill of swinging from a rope and dropping into a clear, blue-green river, or attending the best game ever created by man – baseball.

Baseball is like no other sport because it requires nothing of you but your loyalty, your devotion to just being there to enjoy the gift of this elegant game that offers a gentle syncopated rhythm within bursts of high action, and a disconnect from the busyness of life you leave outside the park walls. The game itself is the very definition of leisure, as it combines both the physicality of the game with your own relaxation, waiting patiently for you to fall into its arms.

For seven glorious summers, and 81 home games out of the 162 total games each season, I was privileged to take my leisure, something I considered to be an absolute gift from God, in an MLB minor league baseball park. As a spectator, a mysterious thing happens as all five senses are engaged simultaneously. The result is an ethereal sense that something romantic is afoot. As the season begins you look around wondering if your fellow fans feel it too. It’s something nostalgic, winsomely patriotic, even heady, and you find yourself wanting to hang onto it with all your heart. And by the final out of the World Series in October, the curative power of baseball has shown its ability to heal what ails your technology-burdened soul.

In the magical land of baseball, the field is pristine emerald in the diminishing light of dusk, and it fairly glows as the stadium lights take over. Crisp white and purple uniforms populate the field, and the soft smack of a ball hitting a glove coming from the bullpen ignites a gentle anticipation that’s hard to explain or even understand. Hawkers with their shoulder-strapped trays move up and down the stairs calling out “Peee-a-NUTS! COLD BEER! Cotton Caaaaaandy!”

Sensory overload is the hallmark and the heaven of baseball

Baseball is a sensory sport if there ever was one, and isn’t it wonderful that God created us with the ability to employ all our senses in leisure pursuits?  After all, we are made in His image and scripture bears out that He also experiences his own senses for His own pleasure.

In Genesis 8:21 his sense of smell put Him in a good mood so to speak, though we know the Lord is not ‘moody’ in the fallen human sense that we are.

“And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake . . .”

God loves pleasing aromas and He knew we would love them too; He knew that pleasing aromas would make us happy, sentimental, refreshed and restored.

And nothing else smells like baseball. Damp earth, freshly cut grass, pine tar and that unmatched night air. The night air at this particular high-mountain desert stadium was distinctive. There’s a shrub in the desert called greasewood – it’s an unassuming and scraggly thing, but the fragrance after a desert rain shower is simultaneously pungent, crisp, and clean. Some might think heaven will smell like an Iowa cornfield, but baseball fans from the Southwest know that heaven will smell like greasewood after the rain. The occasional waft of a freshly lit cigarette (back in the day) and the unmistakable smell of beer are aromatic staples in a ballpark. Then there’s the fragrance of the food – roasted corn, hot dogs, popcorn and more. The mouthwatering aroma of sweet n’ salty kettle corn and spun cotton candy flowing down from the concourse fills your olfactory heart with breathable goodness.

What about our sense of taste in the context of leisure?  We don’t have to wonder if taste mattered to the Lord. He gave us taste buds after all, and there are multiple references to taste in the Bible:

There is the Lord’s metaphorical warning about salt (meaning us) losing its flavor found in Matthew 5 directly after the Beatitudes, explaining how tasteless salt is good for nothing. From that scripture we know the taste of good salt was revered even in ancient times. Chances are, our ancient ancestors would have understood the value of a warm, soft, salty pretzel at a ball game.

In the 61 times honey is mentioned in the bible it is often used as a metaphor, but Solomon literally tells us to eat honey in Proverbs 24:13 because of its sweetness!

“Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.”

And Moses describes the miraculous provision of manna in the desert that God rained down upon His people:

“The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31).

Sounds like God cares about taste for the sake of taste to me! What is leisure, and baseball without great tasting and unique foods we don’t normally allow ourselves to have, or can only get at a leisure-type location? Who includes in their everyday menu those nachos in a paper boat with the ever-famous canned and liquified ‘vomit cheese’? No one, I promise you that – but fans love this creamy delicacy that is reserved for the ballparks of the world. Who drinks draft beer from a plastic commemorative cup anywhere else but at a ball game? Or cracks and eats peanuts, leaving the shells where they fall, anywhere but a ballgame? And we cannot forget the hot dogs, steamed or grilled, piled high with mustard, tangy relish and sharp onions. Taco Tuesdays, Dollar Hot Dogs, Thirsty Thursdays – these are all promotions of professional baseball that exist to titillate the taste buds.

Ahh, our sense of hearing employed at a ballpark is like nowhere else. There is so much to hear, to process, to enjoy!

Scripture often describes God’s voice as wings of cherubim, a tumult of waters, a rumbling, a mighty rushing wind and more. The sense of hearing was important to God as evidenced by Jesus healing the deaf in Mark chapter seven. The Bible is full of verses showing God enjoying the sound of His people praising Him, rejoicing over and singing to Him, even creation itself singing. But did God intend for us to derive personal enjoyment from our sense of sound just as He did? I would say a loud YES!

If you have ever listened to Bob Uecker’s character as the announcer in the 1989 movie Major League – it’s pretty spot on as far as minor league announcers go. He’s a font of baseball knowledge dispensed with partly endearing rhetoric and partly resigned snark. The entertainment value of a baseball game is directly connected to what a fan hears, and minor league press box antics especially never disappoint.

The music playlist in our minor league ballpark is why my kids, who are all adult millennials now, still prefer 70’s rock over any other genre to this day. And most surprising to their peers, it’s why they know the words to all the songs of that era, and understand cultural references from the 60’s through the 80’s as much as any Boomer or Gen-Xer does. Everything from Motown hits, to Steely Dan and Bachman Turner Overdrive to the sentimental “Closing Time” by Semisonic played after every game. And it’s just not real baseball if the announcer fails to rally the fans to stand and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the 7th-inning stretch – and I’ve never seen them fail.

When it comes to the sounds of baseball, there’s the distinctive and identifiable crack of a home run. It just sounds different coming off the bat than a regular hit does. You don’t even have to see it to know. There’s the low-hum chatter throughout the stands, the “hey-y-y battah-battah-battah, swing!,” and the roar of the crowd along with the boom and crackle of after-game fireworks. And always – the sound of fans and families laughing and enjoying themselves drifts over the summer air.

Why did God give us a sense of touch? Our sense of touch can connect us to reality, can slow down our nervous system allowing us to relax and enjoy, to feel loved and show love. In the Gospels, Jesus never hesitated to touch those He healed, showing us the power of this mighty sensory gift. But touch as a sense at a baseball game? How does that work when you’re just a spectator?

It’s in the warmth of the jacket you pull on around the 4th inning at spring games because it’s still chilly when the sun goes down. It’s in the feel of your own supple, broken-in glove on your hand. The hard plastic or wooden slat seats on the back of your thighs that probably inspired the 7th-inning stretch to begin with. An ice-cold cup of beer in your hand now dripping with condensation, and sticky fingers from cotton candy that seems to evaporate upon touch. Finally, there’s the deeply contented trek back to your car after a night of leisure that culminates in dads and moms hugging their kids on that tandem walk – the reconnection is real, and touching.

The sense of sight, of course, is king, and the other four senses bow and follow the king’s lead. In ancient times, just as today, it’s natural to judge something or someone’s inherent qualities by observing its outward visible characteristics. In the case of baseball, that’s a pretty good measuring stick. Watching the game itself in all its exquisite precision is the primary reason for going. The athletes, skilled in their youthful glory, execute the most amazing plays, from a seamless slide to a circus catch, they make it all appear effortless.

There’s the sight of an umpire and manager hotly arguing nose-to-nose, exchanging obscenities you can’t really hear, but you can clearly see. The bulging neck veins, the red faces and the flying spit, followed by the dramatic “YERRRR OUTTTA HEEERRE!!” arm gesture. Kids in oversized ball caps and gloves, sweaty and beaming, hop up and down the stairs hoping the next foul ball is theirs. Fans delight in the sight of a giant yellow chicken mascot dancing on top of a dugout – all this and more visually shapes our memories of those warm summer nights.

A sight to behold like no other

But there is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the sight of a grounds crew pulling a tarp in anticipation of a rain storm. One of the most amazing things you will ever see at any professional baseball game, minor or major league, is the ‘pulling of the tarp’. The tarp is a huge vinyl-coated cover that protects the infield during rain. The romance of baseball is vast and mysterious, and you wouldn’t normally connect watching a grounds crew pull a tarp with any sort of romance at all – but it is such a sight to behold that layers something different into that mix that defines baseball as romantic.

It’s an unexpected joy. It’s something that happens at baseball games that the uninitiated are ill-prepared for and shocked to see. A first-time witness to a tarp-pulling usually sits in awe, beer suspended in midair, staring in slack-jawed wonderment at the process.

It takes a minimum of 15 to 20 men or more to pull a tarp, as these woven monstrosities are massively heavy. Most tarps are about 160 feet square and can weigh roughly 1,500 lbs. bone dry, and even more once an inch of rain collects over its roughly 25,000 square feet. There are grommet handles and strap handles stitched in at intervals to aid in pulling as the tarp is folded and unfolded.

That sucker is big and heavy. It truly takes a village to move it. It is rolled up on an inner core and in the minor league they don’t get fancy, they get men, because the brute strength of multiple muscles is needed here. In the minors, there is also no ivory tower where the front office folk are above physical labor. If needed, everyone comes out of the office and down to the field to help. We’ve even seen players from both teams contribute.

It wasn’t a record wet summer, but during a 2002 fourteen-day stretch of games played at the home field it had rained every single day. Each day it was usually just a one-hour cloudburst that delayed the start but fans kept busy and were enjoying themselves anyway. The covered part of the concourse was packed with fans in more than a dozen concession lines that snaked backwards for yards. There were face painters, jugglers, lines for promotional giveaways, and bumbling mascots knocking over kids too short to be seen. The call goes out over the shoulder-mounted microphones and it’s all hands on deck as every available staff member heads to the field.

The high desert is known for its wind gusts, and that night was no different. To watch the process unfold is literal – they unfold it. In unison, akin to a synchronized dance, they peel back the heavy layers of the tarp, unfolding one section, then walking back over the part they just unfolded to unpeel it further. Eventually they must collectively pick up the remaining edge and run with it together, using momentum to their advantage and spreading the tarp to cover the entire infield. Cheers usually ensue as the crowd becomes engaged in the unfolding spectacle.

There are dozens of videos on YouTube you can watch, but seeing it in person is truly a thing of beauty. That night the wind was showing off and warm gusts kept ‘inflating’ the tarp, stealing under the edges being held firm by these men of bronze. The threat of it being altogether taken across the angry sky if the workers didn’t hold on tight was an imminent possibility.

However, there’s a limit to that insanity. Usually, there is one person who barks out instructions: when to hang on, when to run with it, when to let go or risk being catapulted into the atmosphere. This little fact my husband either did not hear, or he thought everyone else was still hanging on – when they weren’t.

Up, up, up he went, so high that the fans watching gasped in shock. The ‘balloon’ of heavy tarp lifted him roughly 20 to 30 feet at the apex of his flight, flinging him like a rag doll, his red staff polo shirt coming untucked from his khakis. The shoulder mic flapping wildly, swinging and stretching on its curly cord, hit him in the face as he held on for dear life. He was committed now – suspended briefly in that space where you realize what you’ve done, and are gripped with the knowledge that there’s no way out except to have not done it – then to keep holding on, anticipating the inevitable. It was not a gentle thing that happened.

I sat up in my seat, hands over my mouth and nose, eyes wide and absolutely helpless. His landing was hard, like the tarp was angry with him or something. He slammed to the rock-solid infield, never letting go of the strap, and immediately jumped up, calling out to keep going as they had the wind on their side now. The fans watching this drama applauded and shook their heads. His shoulder was separated but he didn’t know it yet because the adrenaline was still pumping. Leisure indeed! To this day, I am thankful he didn’t somehow hit his head.

As if on cue, the rain came. Torrents of cold crystal drops quenched the desert around us. The staff on the field stood on the perimeter of the tarp to keep it from moving, and of course got utterly drenched. They didn’t care about the rain because pulling a tarp makes you dirty anyway – what’s the difference if you also get soaked? Like a horde of boys caught in an unexpected rainstorm at summer camp – their collective thoughts ran to the next logical action, which was concocting mischief. What good was a tarp in the pouring rain if not as a giant slip n’ slide? So there he was, our 11-year-old son doing his part as a volunteer, being egged on by the older grounds crew boys to go for it. Even the players from both dugouts rooted him on.

I watched as my son backed up into left field and took off running towards the tarp with all the speed and abandoned joy of summer pumping in his veins. A fleeting thought of a trip to the ER zoomed through my mind’s eye as I stood on top of the stadium steps, where I’d fled to avoid the rain. He sailed into the air with impressive force, briefly suspending the laws of gravity, and hit that tarp like a seal on ice, sliding about 40 feet, his prepubescent body hydroplaning effortlessly before he slowed to a rain-soaked stop. The crowd erupted into cheers and laughter as he got up and ran back to do it again, and again. It’s fair to say that every person watching this had a dopey grin on their faces and probably a memory of their own childhood water escapades came to mind. Just as all the boys on the field began to take turns, someone from the press box radioed down for that to stop before it became a free-for-all. Killjoys!

For the Family Love of the Game

The facility my husband managed was a 10,000-seat stadium for an MLB Texas AA affiliate that called it home. The team’s 100-year history in this arid, high-desert town on the U.S.- Mexico border was the stuff of legendary Minor League lore. The stadium was painted a gaudy red and canary yellow, and sat nestled at the base of a lower mountain range cloaked in matching yellow Mexican poppies. To the joy of our family’s leisure pursuits, part of my husband’s employment package was free admission to every home game for me and the kids, in box seats no less.

Baseball became a family affair with our two oldest kids becoming employees and the two youngest kids perfecting their park-rat personas. By park rat, I mean they had the run of the place. The 200+ seasonal employees knew the two little ones by name and became my eyes and ears. My youngest son along with his little sister (when she wasn’t chasing the visiting Famous San Diego Chicken around the bases in her own baby chick costume) would sidle up to the skybox concession counter and the barkeep would ask, “Your usual, young fella?”

Our oldest daughter tried her hand at everything, working every spring and summer from the age of 13 to her sophomore year of college. She was an info booth girl, usher, skybox receptionist, ticket seller, mascot, and ‘mascort’ (someone who guides the mascot in a costume so cumbersome they often can’t see where they’re going). Our oldest son was only 9 years old at the onset of our tenure there, so his dad let him ‘volunteer’ on the grounds crew and paid him out of his own pocket till he was old enough to legally work, at which time he became a beloved bat boy the players nicknamed ‘Bacon’.

To say that our immersion in this leisure activity of ‘America’s Pastime’ shaped us as a family is a huge understatement. We learned that work and fun can co-exist. We also learned that some jobs, especially in the leisure industry, take the effort of the whole family. It’s sort of how a successful vacation doesn’t just magically happen; it takes everyone pitching in. Even though we’ve been out of the ‘inner circle’ of baseball for nearly 20 years now, reminiscing about those summers still brings the longing back in all of us, the wistful expressions, and the hard belly laughter at those memories. And just like memories of anything worth remembering, our reminiscing is always shared in the rich context of our five senses. How could it not be?

Romance and Restoration

What I love about baseball as leisure is hard to put into words, but I do know that three minutes of action packed into three hours is just my speed. Tarp-pulling, giant chickens dancing on dugouts to rock-n-roll tunes, and free souvenirs are just added merriments.

No one can be grumpy in this setting, for it is too perfect. What a good nap does for a toddler’s cranky disposition, a good three to four hours at a baseball game does for the overworked and cranky soul. Leisure is a God-given gift, meant to be experienced with all the five senses he gave us, and believe it or not, baseball has a way of proving His lordship over all of creation to me. How? Because we are not meant to be workaholics. We were created with a need for respite, as God himself taking a day of rest after creation shows us. God is always in favor of us being wise with our time, but that also means recuperating from the care and toil of life. Baseball and all leisure is a necessity and we should absolutely view it that way, for there is no nobility in working ourselves to death.

And herein lies some of the romance of baseball as a specific form of leisure and all the characters that comprise it. For they are us, and we are them. In the prime of our own youth, with enough batting practice, fielding, and games of catch, any one of us could play baseball, and many of us did. Neighborhood pickup games on dusty, grassless corners, or organized Little League games are part and parcel of many a childhood. Sitting at a minor or major league game we can imagine ourselves having gone the distance. Maybe not professionally, but we recognize that the requirement for 9% body fat or a Greek-god physique simply isn’t necessary for baseball, and we mentally revel in that fact.

There is a scene in my all-time favorite baseball movie, Moneyball, where Jonah Hill’s character Pete is showing General Manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, something so endearing, so human, so any of us –that it makes me cry every time.

The California League Single-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s were the Visalia Oaks in the year 2002 when the story of Moneyball takes place. Beane had been attempting something everyone else in baseball said was crazy, something no one had ever tried and could be potentially career-ending for Beane. He built a winning team via a new data-sorting computer framework, from players that virtually no one else wanted. Underdogs, some with odd playing styles, some over the hill, from baseball’s island of misfit toys so to speak. And who hasn’t felt like an underdog or a misfit at one time or another in life? So we instantly relate to what Beane is trying to do – we want him to succeed for our sakes, for the sake of hope itself.

The video clip that Pete shows to Beane is of Visalia Oak’s catcher Jeremy Brown at bat just a few weeks before. Brown is a hefty 240 lb. fellow, sporting a beer belly and some not-so-helpful fears. On this night, however, seeing his hit go deep center, Pete explains that Jeremy decides to do what he usually never does – to go for it. But then all his worst fears happen. As he rounds first base he slips, and tumbles like a dinner roll knocked off a table. The cringe is real and Pitt’s character expresses all the sorrow of a father as he laments while watching the soundless film clip, “Awww . . . they’re laughing at him.”[2]

And they were, but not to mock his swim through the red dirt back to first base. They were laughing in relatable joy because Brown was the only one who didn’t realize he had hit the ball 60’ over the fence. He had hit a home run. Beane backs up the video and watches again, sitting back he sighs and says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”[3]

It’s that romance, that knowledge that we, the fans, are related in humanity to the players in this best of all leisure activities, that keeps us coming back to baseball, back to the engagement and appreciation of all our God-given senses that make baseball so deeply satisfying. Back to emulating the Lord in his endorsement of leisure and rest from the beginning of time. Because in a dancing chicken, or on a giant slip n’ slide, and certainly in Jeremy Brown, we all see a little of ourselves – and we are restored.


Citation Information

Sandra G. Hicks, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame: How Baseball Can Restore Our Senses And Our Souls,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 219-234.


Endnotes

[1] W.H. Davies, Common Joys and Other Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1941).

[2] Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (Columbia Pictures, 2011)

[3] Ibid.