Baseball and Sisyphus: Repetition Brings Focus and Purpose

Richard Linklater’s latest movie Everybody Wants Some!! follows the lives of college baseball players over a weekend in 1980, as they attempt to define themselves en route to adulthood. In one pivotal scene, Jake, a freshman pitcher, talks about his college admission essay, which compares baseball to Sisyphus from Greek mythology. What follows is that essay, or at least one possible version of it.

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Why play baseball? Why study? Why do anything? Each of us must answer these questions and many others like them for ourselves.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a clever king. He was too clever for his own good, and also too greedy, which ultimately led Zeus to punish him. The punishment was for Sisyphus to be bound in chains by Thanatos. Alas, Sisyphus was again too clever, and managed to escape.

Zeus therefore devised another punishment, condemning Sisyphus to endlessly roll a large boulder up a steep hill. The intent was to force him to spend eternity performing a meaningless and interminable task, thus inflicting great misery on him.

There is, however, another way to view Sisyphus’ plight. Rather than punishment, might it not instead give him focus and purpose? No longer free to choose from any number of activities, he can now channel all of his energy into a single task. Even if it is not the task he would have chosen for himself, it is what he has.

As Albert Camus concludes in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In other words, it is the pursuit of a goal that brings meaning and joy, not the goal itself or its attainment.

Viewed in this way, Sisyphus’ struggle is no different from the struggle of baseball players on a diamond—even the best in the world, like Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver; these players may or may not always succeed in their efforts, but they will nevertheless persevere in their pursuit of a common goal. After all, what is inherently meaningful about baseball?

It’s only a game, with a set of largely arbitrary rules that have been codified over time and passed from generation to generation. Without those rules, there is no order to this activity, no point to this task. Yet we imbue the game with meaning, and in its playing we find focus.[1]

When we find our focus, we find our purpose. The act itself becomes its own justification, its own reward. Why does Sisyphus push a large boulder up a steep hill? Because he has a large boulder and a steep hill, and this is his task.

Will the task ever be completed? No, but over the course of time Sisyphus will see improvements in his technique and in the boulder’s luster, polished as it is by endless friction that smooths its rough edges and transforms it into something more beautiful.[2]

Picking up a small ball and trying to throw it past someone wielding a long stick is no different. Like pushing a large boulder up a steep hill, it is not punishment. Both are just actions without inherent meaning until we decide to make rules, play by those rules, and do the best we can within that framework.

There is nobility and grace in the effort—Ryan’s curveball[3] buckles men’s knees, while Seaver’s drop and drive delivery is the model of artful consistency. Our goals, whether to bring a large boulder to its final resting place or to achieve mastery of a seemingly simple game like baseball, may lie forever beyond our grasp. What does lie within our grasp is the ability to bring joy[4] to our task and achieve mastery of ourselves in performing that task.

I play baseball because it is there, and it is my task. I study for the same reasons. My dedication to the pursuit of goals, regardless of how realistic they might be, is what defines me. My desire to improve myself—even when there is no obvious external advantage to doing so—is what keeps me going every day.[5] It is why I will excel at your school if given the opportunity.

Like Sisyphus, I will never stop trying to improve, to struggle toward heights.[6] Whether it be on the baseball field or in the field of life, I will never be satisfied with anything less than my very best effort. Having the opportunity to exert such effort is my reward. I thank you for giving me that opportunity.[7]

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[1]    The idea of finding internal focus through the playing of sports is prominent in Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis: “The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.”

[2]    Although the concept of “flow” or “being in the zone” wasn’t popularized in Western psychology until recently, similar ideas have long been a part of Eastern religions. In the Tao Te Ching, for example, water is used to demonstrate this concept. Water naturally flows, and though it yields to many forces it is also powerful enough to carve canyons into the earth’s surface. Like water, we can be yielding yet powerful if we remain focused on our task rather than allowing ourselves to be distracted by external obstacles.

[3]    Ryan is known for his fastball, but as former big-league pitcher Herb Score has observed, “What people don’t realize is that he has a great curve… He throws it hard.”

[4]    Seaver, incidentally, would seem to agree with this interpretation As he said to Pat Jordan, “Why do I do it? What does it all mean? That doesn’t interest me. I only know it excites me. It’s the one thing I do in my life that excites me.”

[5]    As Rush once said, “These walls that still surround me/Still contain the same old me/Just one more who’s searching for/The world that ought to be.”

[6]    Where Sisyphus reaches for heights, the Tao Te Ching advises that water flows downward, remaining ever close to the ground. While these notions would seem to contradict each other, belief in such contradiction indicates a duality that does not in fact exist beyond our human conception of it.

[7]    But seriously, let me into your school. I’m awesome.

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Geoff Young may be the ghost writer responsible for getting countless athletes into college – you’ll never know. You should follow him on Twitter.

Image credit: Robert Montenegro

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