The Virtue of Hope

We have to offer our apologies for failing to post this lovely reflection on hope, baseball, and the social politics of our beautiful city of Chicago. John penned these words several months ago now, in the midst of the dog days of summer. We hope it will remind you of those warmer times and the fact that even in these darkening days of winter, the spring will come again and along with it, the eternal hope of the great American pastime. 
– Hold to the Good Editors 

As I write this at the end of summer, baseball season is winding down; both Chicago teams have losing records and are tied for sixth worst team in Major League Baseball. Yet, today Chicago is going a little crazy over baseball. A team from the far south side of the city, Jackie Robinson West, has won the Little League National Championship in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, losing only to Korea for the World Championship. We are so desperate for good, winning baseball in this city that our Little Leaguers are being universally and wildly celebrated on the front pages of the papers, in a victory parade through the city and a huge rally in Millennium Park. The team absolutely captivated us with its excellent and aggressive play, team spirit and the discipline and poise of the 11 and 12-year-old players. The games were played against the backdrop of the tragic drama of Ferguson, Missouri: an unarmed, black teenager just a few years older than our Little Leaguers, shot six times by a police officer, a tone deaf and unresponsive police department withholding information and confronting protestors in full military battle gear, nightly protests in the streets. It was a harsh reminder of how profoundly our nation remains divided over race, how very differently black people and white people perceive the role of law enforcement and the entire judicial system. So the whole diverse city responded strongly and joyfully to a team of pre-teen African American young men not only winning, but reminding us that all is not lost: that there are African American families living in dangerous, violent neighborhoods, somehow succeeding, holding together, raising highly motivated, disciplined, mature children who would rather belong to a baseball team than a street gang, would rather pitch, hit and catch a ball than shoot a gun.

In his lovely book, Baseball As a Road to God, John Sexton, President of N.Y.U., cited the distinguished scholar of world religions, Mircea Eliade who observed that religions designate particular spaces and times as sacred. Sexton writes: “By its very nature and rules baseball operates outside ordinary time: in fact, timelessness is at its essence. The length of an inning or a game is not set by a clock: it shares the boundless framework of Eliade’s sacred time. It is not linear, with a simple past, present and future: it is cyclical, building and building toward certain quintessential moments.”

That is to say, the theological virtue of hope, which ranks with faith and love as Christianity’s highest aspirations, is a central component of the game. Who knows who might win this year? Anything is possible. Teams with long histories of losing rise up regularly and smite the mighty. In the American League currently, the lowly Kansas City Royals look like the team to beat. The Boston Red Sox, perennial also-rans to the New York Yankees for nearly a century have not only won three championships recently but are now perpetuating the cyclical nature of baseball by occupying last place in their division. My first, and deepest love, the Pittsburgh Pirates with a long record of losing seasons, have won three world championships in my lifetime and are currently playing good, competitive baseball.

The sad and dismal fact is that everybody has done it except the Chicago Cubs who last won a World Series in 1908. That is a lot of pathos and despair for their supporters of which I have numbered myself since coming to the city 29 years ago. John Sexton remembers a popular anecdote around here: the insightful t-shirt sold outside Wrigley Field which asks: “WHAT DID JESUS SAY TO THE CUBS JUST BEFORE HE ASCENDED TO HEAVEN.” The answer: “DON’T DO ANYTHING UNTIL I GET BACK!”

We Cubs fans have, by necessity, become paragons and practitioners of the theological virtue of hopefulness without peer. Annually, for 106 years, we think: maybe this will be the year when everything falls into place and we win it all. And every year we become reacquainted with disappointment, grief and despair. Now, however, there appears to be authentic, realistic hope. Smart, patient management decided to forego immediate success in order to build for the future and it seems to be working. A cadre of strong, young minor league players is being introduced in the daily lineup and in the last several weeks the Cubs have risen from the absolute bottom of the 30 Major League teams to a lofty sixth worst record. Hearts beat again. We fill Wrigley Field, watch on television, resume reading the sports pages, once again in hope.

The boys of Jackie Robinson West have reminded us of the hopefulness built into the nature of baseball while giving us the gift of a larger, far more important hope. They have reminded us that American culture, particularly urban culture is, and can be, more than the dreary daily occurrence of drug and gang-related violence, unemployment, poverty and social disintegration. We can do better. Many families are doing better and that is profoundly good – and hopeful.

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