I have loved baseball all my life. It is a wonderful game with a rhythm of its own.
It’s the only major sport where the game is played on its own time, which doesn’t designate a specific length of time, only innings.

But more than that, there are so many positions and so many strategies that even the least athletic of us can enjoy the wonder of this game.

Growing up, I can’t tell you the number of hours I spent with baseball. When I was just a first-grader, my parents gave me a Don Mueller autographed glove – my heart’s desire.

I played baseball on old sandlots and manicured fields. I played stickball – an urban form of baseball on the streets of Jersey City, N.J. I even played ball on our driveway, pounding our garage door over and over again.

When I was in Jersey and it was rainy, I did the same thing in my grandparents’ basement.

Not only did I play a lot of ball, I became a statistics nut. I collected baseball cards and magazines – keeping my own lists of teams and their batting averages and so on. I went to high school games as a kid and even the minor league games featuring the Odessa Dodgers or Midland Braves.

Baseball was and is a grand sport.

Of course, my favorite player was Mickey Mantle. I collected his cards and imitated him in every way possible – even the way he jogged around the bases in a home-run trot. Unfortunately, I seldom got to use that trot.

When my family went to my dad’s folks in New Jersey, my dad and uncles would take me to Yankee Stadium, where I would sit in utter awe.

I remember on one occasion my Uncle Val got us box seats on the third base side where we could see everything. On that particular day, Mantle hit a triple, sliding into third in a majestic sort of way.

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered. I am sure I cheered loudest of all because Mantle turned and looked in our direction and smiled. I knew that out of the 40,000 people who were there, he looked right at me.

Mantle has often been described as one of, if not the best, players ever. He could hit home runs from both sides of the plate, drag a bunt, run like the wind and play centerfield in a manner that made people forget about Joe DiMaggio.

However, years later I heard the stories of Mantle’s shadow side – of how his late-night carousing probably hampered his magnificent gifts. Few people noticed because his career was so incredible.

As good as he was, and as superior as he was to most of the other ball players, Mantle didn’t exercise his gifts to the fullest. He was just a mere shadow of what he could have been – the undisputed best ever.

Who knows what might have happened had he talked with Bobby Richardson, the old Yankee second baseman-turned-preacher (the conversation that occurred right before he died) at an earlier time in his career?

Who knows what kind of man he might have been? Who knows what kind of athlete he might have been if he had taken better care of himself?

Who knows what records he might have set by being more focused? And who knows the number of people he might have influenced in even greater ways?

I say all of this only to remind you, and myself, that eternity is not so much based on how we did in comparison with others, but how we did with the gifts and purpose of God.

I want to play well in this game of life, don’t you?

Mike Massar is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La. A version of this column first appeared in UBC’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.

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