Small Ball and the Little Way

Christian Colon scores the winning run and celebrates with the team.

I don’t normally talk about baseball on this blog, but I couldn’t help seeing a connection between the performance of my Kansas City Royals and the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is today. Bear with me for a moment, even if you know nothing about baseball and/or Catholic spirituality. Really: stay with me just for a few paragraphs, and see if it doesn’t become clear.

Last night (early this morning, for those of us watching the game in Rome), the Royals beat the Oakland A’s. This is the first time we’ve won a playoff game in 29 years. In fact, the last time we even made it to the playoffs was 1985, when I was seven months old (granted, we won the World Series that year, but we haven’t even come close since then). But it’s all the more remarkable for another reason: the Royals aren’t exactly known for power hitting. As Rany Jazayerli of Grantland pointed out back in August:

They aren’t a Moneyball team, at least in the “get on base and hit home runs” sense. In fact, they’re last in the majors in walks and home runs. And it’s actually worse than that: The Royals’ walk rate (6.04 percent) is the lowest in the major leagues since the strike zone was redefined in 1969. They’re on pace for 99 homers, which would be the fewest by an AL team since 1994.

Since then, we only got worse on both fronts: our walk rate dropped to 6.03 percent, and we ended the season with only 95 home runs, the fewest of any AL team since 1992. So how does a team that doesn’t make a lot of home runs end up in the playoffs? Jazayerli explained the Royals’ strategy:

The Royals’ philosophy is decidedly retro, more suited for baseball in 1914 than 2014. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Play good defense. Somehow, finally, it’s working. When it comes to putting the ball in play, the Royals are, relative to the league, one of the most prolific teams in baseball history. Because while they’re last in the majors in walks, they’re also last in strikeouts: They’ve struck out more than 100 fewer times than every other team in baseball. 

Other stats tell the same story: for example, we ended the season behind only the Tigers in scoring singles. In other words, while we didn’t make a lot of huge, splashy plays, we were consistent in doing the small things well.

And that’s exactly what happened last night. More than once, the A’s looked they were going to destroy us, with a couple of really epic home-runs. But the Royals came out on top by making the most of small plays: getting on base, stealing bases, etc. They brought the runners home carefully and deliberately, rather than risking it all on swinging for the fences. In baseball parlance, this is called “small ball”: doing the small things right.

Six of us Royals fans here at the North American College in Rome decided to watch the wildcard game,
which lasted from 2-6 AM local time. Two of the guys made it all the way through: I slept from the 6th-12th inning..

And that’s exactly what St. Thérèse of Lisieux calls for in her “little way.” Thérèse was a young cloistered French nun who longed to do something great for God: specifically, she grieved over the fact that she couldn’t be one of the great martyrs of the Church. This changed when, in reading 1 Corinthians, Thérèse realized that the greatest vocation was to love.

In 1 Cor. 12:31, St. Paul has just finished speaking of the different spiritual gifts, when he says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That more excellent way, Paul explains in 1 Cor. 13, is love. Great acts done without love are spiritually worthless, while small acts done with great love are priceless.

Thérèse realized that this was a call for her (and indeed, for all of us) to do all things lovingly:

MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.

And these acts of love are not typically going to be great and heroic sacrifices. More often, they’re going to be small, almost unnoticeable things: the sacrifices nobody else notices, the smile when you don’t feel like smiling, and so on.

Here’s how Thérèse described it, in a prayer to Jesus:

What this child asks for is Love. She knows only one thing: to love You, O Jesus. Astounding works are forbidden to her; she cannot preach the Gospel, shed her blood; but what does it matter since her brothers work in her stead, and she, a little child, stays very close to the throne of the King and Queen. She loves in her brothers’ place while they do the fighting. 
But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love. Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.

Or, to put it in another way, we’re not all called to hit grand slams, but all of us can play small ball. We can do the small sacrifices, offer up tiny acts of charity, and sanctify every moment of our lives, no matter how small.


  1. Thanks for the reflection Joe! We are watching with you here and impressed at your fortitude to watch from 2-7! Give the deacons our congratulations and know of our prayers.

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