From April through October, I continue to practice monotheism—though just barely.
I assemble with the faithful who find baseball nearly as powerful as religion. Its symmetry, its romance, its nostalgia sweep us up. We experience it in largely meditative ways, yet revel in its rare ecstasies.
My devotion specifically rests on the San Francisco Giants. My spirit is willing to cheer the Giants through good seasons and bad, but the flesh can be weak.
A Midwesterner who loves a team on the West Coast, night games starting on Pacific Standard Time make me feel like the disciples deep in the dark heart of the Garden of Gethsemane—afraid someone will come along and find me sleeping.
Stadiums and Sanctuaries
The more you train your eyes to see something, the more you see it everywhere. Which did I notice first: The way the church looks like baseball or the way baseball looks like the church? Either way, they bear a familial resemblance—beauty marks, warts, and all.
One is a community of grace; the other plays in cathedrals built by hands that know common grace.
Little moments can lead to big innings or spiritual breakthroughs. A well-timed bunt here, a two-out walk there. A word of encouragement here, a lifetime of regular spiritual discipline there.
Each possesses liturgies and rituals. An organist leads the assembly from one recitation to the next. Pitchers send rosin dust into the air like incense from an Orthodox censer. Hitters adjust their batting gloves in intricate, almost involuntary routines, as if making the sign of the cross.
Both exhibit more than a passing belief in the supernatural. Superstitious pitchers go out of their way to avoid stepping on the foul line. Superstitious teams strand those same pitchers in the dugout when a no-hitter brews.
Baseball reveres regional saints. The North Side of Chicago prays for—and perhaps to—St. Kristopher (Bryant) and St. Anthony (Rizzo). Houston recently uncovered enough miracles to beatify San Jose (Altuve) and San Carlos (Correa).
Those of us cloaked in vestal colors of orange and black venerate St. Buster (Posey), patron saint of pitch framing and timely hitting; St. Hunter (Pence), the patron saint of ugly swings and boundless optimism; St. MadBum (Madison Bumgarner) blesses every staring contest, strike-out and snot rocket.
Both fixtures push against a modern desire to craft our own experience. We skip opening bands at concerts, stay on our phones in public, only spend our money on sure things. We will get what we want, nothing more or less, from something.
A Swing and a Miss
Baseball is slow enough—and odd enough—to not cater to any one kind of person. It won’t give us what we want. At least not on our terms. And, as any churchgoer knows, you can’t pick who sits by you in the pew, predict what the pastor will say or dictate how the Spirit moves. That unknowing pays off in revelation with enough patience.
I love both the beautiful game and God’s church. And both break my heart. America’s pastime and the American church tend to swing at, and miss, the same pitches.
Baseball and Christianity endure, last beacons of tradition in a culture that has largely shed its interest in customs and institutions. I love tethering myself to their traditions, losing myself in them.
Yet both can be crippled by slavish devotion to the very traditions that make them great. Rules, some codified, some unwritten, seem unassailable to the faithful. They often go unexplained or unconsidered, perpetuating a sense of the outsider or other. This prevents both, at times, from keeping step with the world beyond their walls.
When it comes to cultural engagement and social action, baseball ranks a very distant third among the major sports. NBA players take charge and gain ground, encouraged by their league to speak up and stand out. The NFL hardened into a nasty battleground between an entrenched side and an emerging one—but at least something happens.
Major League Baseball is, well, out in left field, seemingly too numb, too conservative or too content to enter the fray. As writers like Dave Zirin have pointed out, baseball still lives on the glories of Jackie Robinson and warm memories of integration that came 70 years ago.
MLB fields a dearth of black players, and those that do rise through the ranks of the game, such as Baltimore bright light Adam Jones, face a toxic mixture of discrimination and disbelief.
This year, the Cleveland Indians announced they will shed their long-time mascot, the grinning caricature Chief Wahoo. But the seemingly noble gesture came with little urgency—the Indians will phase out Wahoo and, as keen eyes have observed, left enough wiggle room to profit from his visage.
Baseball has gained a serious foothold in Latin American countries. Yet an effervescence expressed by Latino players can lead to a clash of norms, rubbing baseball’s button-down culture the wrong way. Rather than embrace this verve as a blessing, stiff elbows and necks tend to win out. Young players from all over the map are encouraged to play the game “the right way,” discouraging shows of emotion or enthusiasm.
Christian circles champion unity—often at the cost of true diversity and equity. Majority-white churches want to draw black and brown members; older churches long for young blood. But newcomers often are expected to assimilate to a certain code of conduct. Those who step over the line aren’t subject to a fastball high and tight, but might find themselves on the outside looking in.
Each institution possesses just enough self-awareness to notice something’s wrong. Baseball knows it needs to get younger and more diverse; the church questions how to best serve an increasingly indifferent world. Sometimes the solutions offered feel just as tone-deaf as the actions that led to this moment.
Most suggestions within the baseball world involve a matter of time—if the game gets shorter, conventional wisdom says, its appeal will increase for younger, more culturally savvy fans. Just wind up pitch clocks and wind down the number of visits a team can make to the mound.
These changes would do little for baseball, other than strip it of a beautiful paradox. The game moves to certain rhythms—fastballs striking catcher’s mitts with a percussive ring, double-play combos stepping out defensive tangos. Yet, on a grander scale, it is largely rhythm-less, an arena—like church—alive with the glories of losing yourself in meditation.
Churches either ignore cultural issues in the name of “getting back to basics,” or assume they’ll survive by forfeiting the traditions and doctrines handed down to them. But what’s between the lines hasn’t failed us. Our orthodoxy, in the pews or around the diamond, stands strong. We suffer, or cause suffering, precisely because we lack faith in the fundamentals.
Institutions as grace-formed as the church, and as graceful as baseball, need to open their eyes to something. Grace, wherever it is derived, grants us the ability to love institutions—and the people in them—no matter how flawed. It also produces the confidence and courage necessary to stick it out, shaping what we cherish through our own living, moving and breathing.
Confidence tells us traditions worth preserving abound in strength and beauty, enough to stretch across eras and cultures. Those not worth keeping, those that implicitly oppress or keep others at an arm’s length, will naturally die away, and we will be no worse off.
From confidence, we gain courage to lay aside preference and ensure all sorts of people are truly welcome with us. Our traditions will be more fully enfleshed and alive when they are complemented by, and wed to, the traditions of those who share our deepest interests and passions.
We need each other—older saints teaching young folks how to keep score; young people finding new ways to share the same old gospels. People of every tribe, tongue and nation celebrating all we have in common, experiencing so much joy it almost feels like men playing a boys’ game—or children coming to the God who said he would welcome them.
Where grace abounds, fear subsides. Whether we fear losing a game, or a faith, to changing times, we can be sure that what is meant to last will last.
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