This excerpt from Tricycle’s features editor Andrew Cooper comes from his 1998 book Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports. In it, he chronicles the role that mythology and fate played in the Cleveland Indians’ 1995 World Series appearance.
As we speak, it is late October 1995, World Series time, and this year marks the Cleveland Indians first appearance in the series since 1954. In their coverage, the sports media make frequent reference to a single play from that series forty-one years ago: Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s mighty line drive. If ever a sports event glowed with numinous power, it was that catch, and Mays’s subsequent throw to the infield to hold the lead runner at third.
The 1954 Cleveland team had compiled the best regular-season record in modern Major League history, and they were heavily favored to beat Mays’s New York Giants. In the first game of the series, with the score tied at two, Wertz crushed a Don Liddle pitch 460 feet into the cavernous expanses of the Polo Grounds center field, the deepest in the game. At the crack of the bat, Mays took off, running full speed, his back to home plate. At the last moment, still at full speed, he bends his head back, extends his glove, and like a sparrow returning to its nest, the ball settles into Mays’s grasp. Then, just as remarkably, Mays spins on a dime and makes a perfect 300-foot throw to prevent even one run from scoring. What should have been a triple, or even an inside-the-park home run, is now just another out.
The Giants went on to win the game and eventually the series in a four-to-zero sweep. Had it turned out differently, the play could well have broken the Giants’ spirit. Instead, that was Cleveland’s fate. And not only for the series. With that play, Cleveland began a plunge into mediocrity that was to last for decades.
So now it is 1995, and in describing the Cleveland Indians’ return to World Series play, sports commentators can scarcely avoid discussing the aura of magic that still surrounds the event. Mays’s catch seemed to mark more than a shift in momentum; it seemed to occasion a shift of fate. That is what these mainstream commentators are talking about, and they are wondering whether things have finally shifted back in Cleveland’s favor. They might as well be speaking of the favor of the gods, for as Michael Novak writes, fate is “the unseen god of sports events,” presiding over sports as over life.
From one perspective this talk of fate is just an example of the necessary hyperbole of sports talk. If you were to ask, say, Bob Costas whether he believed that these events really represented the workings of fate or some supernatural agency, my guess is that he would say no. But whether or not one believes in such things, for those with faith in the game, fate feels like an actual presence.
The question of whether the transpersonal forces—fate, mana, God and gods, and so forth—are psychological projections or objective realities is a necessary question for the rational mind. But as the historian of religion Henri Frankfort and others have pointed out, such questions, based as they are on a detached distance from experience, on a series of sharp dichotomies—subject and object, inside and outside, reality and appearance—[ ] are foreign to the mythic mode of thought, in which either/or distinctions don’t apply. Or rather, they apply solely on a practical level. Mythic thought reflects an experience of continuity among all aspects of a single reality.
In Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Early Man, Frankfort writes, “Whatever is capable of affecting mind, feeling, or will has thereby established its undaunted reality.” In the second world of sport, we can feel the presence of transpersonal agencies without the burden of assigning to such feelings theological or scientific justification. In a modern world that is otherwise hostile to its viewpoint, the mythic mind finds in sport room to play.
For us, as for the ancients, sport exists in the borderline realm between jest and earnest. But the nature of that “in-between” place is not stable. It changes in response to the variousness of cultural attitudes and worldviews. For us, the borderline realm is more reflective of a psychological perspective than a cosmological one. Its truths are more metaphoric than literal. The sacred experience it models is based not on theological belief in revealed truth but on faith in the truth revealed by fictions. Befitting post-modern society’s plurality of viewpoints, sport today is laced with a strong dose of irony. And although our world lacks the unifying vision and stability of premodern societies, the second world of sport provides a niche in which mythic consciousness can flourish, allowing us to feel a world graced with depth and meaning. It demonstrates, if not a synthesis of the mythic and rational modes of thought, then a form for their playful interaction. In so doing, sport penetrates our intellectual arrogance and reminds us that, in W. H. Auden’s words, “we are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” Finally, it teaches us, whether we know it or not, to view this very condition as an expression of the mystery of play. Or as the poet John Webster put it:
We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them.
Excerpted from Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports, Shambhala Publications, 1998.
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