Play Ball! On Faith and Baseball

Baseball may be a religion. You can pretty much make anything a religion, because you can worship anything or anyone and make it your god. This is not faith.

Let me put this right out there from the get go. I am not a theologian. I’m a baseball fan. Someone once asked me if I was a religious fanatic (apparently, today, it’s the definition of anyone who loves Our Lord and speaks about him honestly and without equivocation). I told them that “no, I’m a Phillie Phanatic.” But, if someone asks me my opinion about my faith or about the Philadelphia Phillies I’ll give it. And, from time to time people do ask me about my faith and about baseball.

This is what I’ll say: there is a heaven and a hell and a purgatory in between; there is no such thing or place called limbo unless you’re referring to some contortionist West Indian dance with a horizontal pole or where the Phillies are destined to be for the next five God-forsaken years.

But, the buds are growing now, even after the crazy winter we’ve had, and it’s finally, praise the Lord, time for the blessings of warmer weather. And that means baseball. My wife did a cryptogram the other day in the newspaper. It was a quote from Rogers Hornsby, the legendary infielder, who could almost match Yogi Berra for his homespun wit: “I don’t want to play golf. When I hit a ball, I want someone else to go chase it.” No, sorry, wrong quote, we were talking about spring. Here it is: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

It isn’t faith—baseball, I mean. It could be a religion. It could even be individually sacrosanct. But, it’s not faith. It’s a beloved pastoral pastime. A reason to go to the park on Sunday afternoon and have a beer and a hot dog with your wife and kids, watch grown men shag flies, and stand up and stretch in the middle of the seventh. It’s a reason to hang on to every pitch and every swing because it means something if your home team wins or not. An obsession, I grant you, and a worthy one to boot, especially if you’re a Royals or a Nats fan. For those of us here in Philly it’s more like time spent in purgatory because we poor souls firmly believe that we shall rise again even if this takes another hundred years. I know a lot of Protestants don’t believe in purgatory, but that would make them Yankees fans.

In his 2013 book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton, the President of New York City University, confuses baseball with something that it’s not. In a review of his work, Slate Book Review said this:

Now, it needn’t be baseball, Sexton is clear to point out, that takes us out of ourselves. Organized religion can sometimes work. So might music or art. But Sexton’s hope, in chapters that follow the innings 1 through 9 – with room set aside, as well, for a pregame show, a seventh-inning stretch, and a return to the clubhouse – is to reveal that this game can evoke the very ‘essence of religion’ that ‘inside the game the formative material of spirituality can be found.’

Bill Moyers, in his recommendation of Sexton’s book says “In the church of baseball, John Sexton is one of the preeminent theologians.”

This is how spirituality is explained, taught, digested, and either dismissed or disseminated among the cultural elite who cannot take a knee and bow before their loving Father. They can accept organized baseball but never organized religion. Because there are rules between the base paths they can never play by.

The following quote (Susan Sarandon, as character “Annie Savoy” to minor league catcher “Crash Davis,” Kevin Costner) from the movie Bull Durham pretty much sums up their thinking:

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stiches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex.

Now, I have no idea how many stitches there are in a baseball, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t 108 beads in a rosary. This was a curve ball some screenwriter hoped would pass over the corner of the plate. 

My old, departed pastor, Fr. John Foster, would spit. He absolutely detested the fact that moms and dads were gathered on the fields of the parish grounds in order to cheer on their darlings involved in soccer matches before the final blessing was given ending the noon mass on Sundays. “The gods of sport,” he would snort, “have taken over the Lord’s Day.”

So they have, and not just on soccer fields, but for about the past sixty years or so, ever since an innovation called television entered into every American household and replaced the altar as our place of adoration. The good Foster was thirty years late in noticing this phenomenon. This was not his fault. He was busy being faith-filled and administering to his flock. The world was looking in another direction; hence the end of Sunday as a day of rest, worship, and reflection.

Baseball may be a religion. You can pretty much make anything a religion, because you can worship anything or anyone and make it your god. This is not faith.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

Baseball is certainly my passion. I enjoy the game, I suppose, because it’s filled with so many enjoyable memories. Coming home from school on a sunny-warm, glorious springtime afternoon, mom would have a glistening pitcher of iced tea on the table and the pre-season Phillies game on the kitchen radio. I would pour a tall glass and swipe it across my sweaty forehead before swigging it down in several delicious gulps. Both the iced tea and the sounds of the game were downright comforting.

At night, before I went to bed I would massage my leather glove with neat’s foot oil making sure that every crevice was cared for, even the laces. Then, when I fell asleep, I would dream of making game-saving catches like Brooks Robinson (in Philadelphia, you always had a “B” team in the American League, because the Phillies in the sixties weren’t going into post-season play and you needed a backup, ergo the Orioles).

Yet, baseball is not the very “essence of religion” where “inside the game the formative material of spirituality can be found.” This is silly because John Sexton is equating a sport with the gift of faith. People don’t give up their very lives for baseball, unless you count the number of hot dogs and cold beers consumed over a lifetime and what that can do to you.

They also do not die in martyrdom on a beach in North Africa because ISIS has decreed that beheading is an acceptable way of disposing of Christians. I, almost, but not quite, concur with atheist and long-time conservative commentator and columnist George Will: “Part of the beauty of baseball, and sport generally, is that it doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

That’s not exactly how I would put it. Baseball does, indeed, mean something, to me, to you, and to our nation. When George W. Bush threw out the first ball in Yankee Stadium after 9/11, it raised our spirits when they desperately needed a lift. It did because baseball is still “America’s Game” despite football’s popularity.

Baseball is nearer to our hearts, I think. It speaks to a simpler time, yet, like our country, it grew and it prevailed, like we all did, thanks to the heroics of Jackie Robinson and the courage, if not wise business acumen, of Branch Rickey. If you’re a baseball fan then you certainly remember the following quote from another Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good and it could be again.

If this is akin to faith, then it is certainly the faith of individuals who happened to be in the game, not the game itself. “In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: ‘Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #155, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas).

As I said, I’m not a theologian. I’m a baseball fan. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one in the world who has to read something six or seven times in order to comprehend it. I just had to do that right now with the quote from the catechism cited above. But, I think I’ve got it now. You see, if you’re like me and you want to really see – to comprehend a divine truth – you have to ask for help, say a quick prayer, “assent,” “command,” and accept the grace.

If that makes me a religious fanatic then so be it.

Baseball isn’t the gift of faith. It doesn’t even come close. Even with Ryan Howard at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two runners in scoring position. It isn’t even the gift of hope. It’s more like delicious wishful thinking. And, that’s okay. After all, it’s only opening week.

About George J. Galloway 8 Articles
George J. Galloway is a retired history teacher, now freelance writer and novelist. He is a father of three and married to Cathy, his bride of 33 years. He writes from his little Cape Cod in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at georgegalloway.wordpress.com/.