Now here’s an original thought: ‘baseball as a metaphor for life’! Having spent too many hours to count in front of games six and seven of the World Series, it was hard not to absorb some of the wisdom (no groans, please) of the seasoned manager, Tony LaRussa, that pulled the Cards from the brink of elimination likely a few dozen times between mid-August and the finale of the ‘October classic’. For those of you who spent great chunks of Thursday and Friday night listening to the attached commentary, it was quite impossible (evidently almost as impossible as St. Louis winning this year’s version) not to hear of the unlikely story of overcoming a 10.5 game deficit to catch the Braves on the season’s final day; for the ‘Carps’ (aka Chris Carpenter) beating the Phillies’ best (Roy Halliday for those of you who were never a Blue Jay fan!) — only to face the remaining National League favourites, Milwaukee. Not to be awed by, down to their final strike — not once, but twice — this model of resilience and tenacity forcing a game seven. . . and then to win it all (as the cliche goes).
Buried in the blizzard of commentator hyperbole and expressed disbelief was a little gem that just may have some relevance to mindfulness practice. And attributed not to the fickle gods of baseball (be they human or heavenly), nor to the various and sundry candidates for this year’s version of ‘Mr. October’ (turned out to be David Freese clothed in all his mid-western humility). But in fact to the sometime disgraced hitting coach of the Cardinals: Mark McGwire. His advice to his hitters: don’t try to hit the ball to a particular spot on the field.
Perhaps a bit of connective linkage between this folksy intelligence and mindfulness may help. The expanded version of his counsel is first, you need to see the ball. (Stay with me here — we are navigating our way thru’ baseball cliche after all.) In baseball parlance, ‘seeing’ means attending to all the nuances of what’s coming down the tube toward you, as batter, at something between 140 and 150 KPH: ball rotation, pitch plane, pitcher release point, etc., etc. That also means resisting the urge to ‘predict’ what you think might be about to happen — generally leading to a swing that, in the exaggerated baseball babble of the colour commentator, has you ‘coming out of your shoes’ (overswinging), ‘being late’ (thought you’d get a curve and were greeted by ‘high heat’ — a fastball), or frankly being embarrassed in some other way. In meditative terminology: being very present.
Once you’ve ‘seen’ the ball, concentrate on hitting it to the same spot on the field each time — according to Mr. McGwire’s wisdom, if possible, the middle of the park. Conjures up visions of seven fielders lined up and spaced out (as it were) behind the pitcher, just waiting for the highly predictable, middle of the field smack. Again advice that sounds very counter-intuitive, not to mention counter-productive. Implies that, if the hitter is successful, he will dump the ball to the shortstop or centre fielder each time he makes contact (which, for most of the spear carriers in the game will be about one time in four). Baseball lore demands, given the myriad of different scenarios possible when a batter comes to the plate, that you might ‘pull the ball’, or perhaps ‘hit it the other way’, keep in on the ground, slap it, bunt it, knock its cover off, and on and on. Mr. McGwire would have none of this. He rebuts all the naysayers with another truth: the pitch will determine where you hit it; your job is to just hit it. Again, in translation: the universe will provide the scenario — we don’t get to say; our job is to take that circumstance and greet it consistently, bringing to it that same non-judging, fully aware, acceptance of ‘what is’. Attempting to control an outcome, wishing the situation to be otherwise (being prepared for a fastball and getting something off-speed) is not part of the deal. The slider down and out over the plate will go the other way; the fastball, squarely meeting a bat swung with every bit as much speed as the ball contacting it, will find its way over the fence.
Not to say that Tony didn’t have a piece in all this as well. Following a hugely entertaining, albeit keystone-coppish game six (outfielders tripping over each other, MVP’s dropping ‘routine fly balls’, catchers throwing to the fan behind the centre field fence instead of the second baseman) capped with the dramatic triple, then home run of Mr. Freese, the team’s manager had the wisdom to remind his players that yesterday is yesterday — and it has absolutely nothing to do with today beyond allowing us to show up for one more day of work. Now is now. Then is then — and ne’er will the twain meet, except for losers. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s catchy book title: wherever you go, there you are.