Baseball as Religion

John Sexton, a Fordham grad and the current President of NYU teaches a course on Baseball and Religion. Where do I sign up? Two of my most favorite things.

And the metaphor of baseball as religion, in Dr. Sexton’s hands, is a long way from the cornball claptrap about stadiums being “green cathedrals.” Over the current semester, the students are reading and discussing the work of theologians and cultural historians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Novak, Robert N. Bellah and Johan Huizinga alongside novels and reportage by literary chroniclers of baseball like Robert Coover, W. P. Kinsella and Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Dr. Sexton is distilling his own ruminations into a book, “Baseball as a Road to God,” which will be published in early 2013.)

When the class met on the night before opening day this year, Dr. Sexton took out the intellectual version of a fungo bat to knock questions around the room: Was the fisherman in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” having a religious experience? If he was, how did that experience resonate for the students in the class?

“In the depth of his adversity,” said William Visone, a 19-year-old junior, “he keeps talking about how the big fish is out there. That’s a kind of faith. And it’s like last week when I said that I believe that in my lifetime I will see the Mets win the World Series.”

I totally resonate with this. I remember being a Mets fan as as kid watching the 1986 World Series with my dad in our living room. All was lost…the Red Sox had taken the lead and surely the series. I had never seen MY Team win the world series–too young for 1969.

And then…

That ’86 team often came back when the chips were down. Having faith that they always would was the true mark of a fan. When Carter got the single I turned to my dad and said, “They just might have one more in them.” He thought I was nuts. When Knight crossed the plate I jumped up and nearly cracked my head open on the chandelier in our living room. I tackled my father and was sternly warned by my mother to not react the same way when they won Game 7.

Baseball often provides you with character. There’s an element of forgiveness associated with baseball. Sox fans needed and wanted to forgive Buckner. I have longed to forgive Fred Wilpon for ruining a team, my team…and for treating a bunch of us media types awfully bad in the late 90s. I vowed not to root for the Mets until he sold the team—and karma may still come for Mr. Wilpon before it’s all over, though it seems that he’s escaped having to sell the team for now.

Until that day, I root for the Cubs in these days. They help me build a bit of character. An old ballpark in a great city with great and intelligent fans. The ghost of Harry Caray and Ron Santo and the longing for a World Series. I remember those feelings growing up longing to see MY team win a World Series just once.

I knew I had become a Cubs fan once this happened:

The wheels came off after that play with the Marlins scoring 8 runs after an additional error by SS Alex Gonzalez. They went on to win 8-3 and then again the next night and Steve Bartman became infamous.

Baseball is about loss. It’s almost never about winning. The day in and day out grind of the season reminds me of an imperfect world, where bad things often happen to good people. Even the best teams lose more than a third of the time. You make an out more than 75 percent of the time unless you’re a star and still, you don’t come close to only failing 60% of the time.

The second thing is that baseball is almost never about what happens–it’s about what COULD happen. Anticipation both as a player and an observer is paramount. Strategy is at an all time high with every pitch and every single one is important. Alou makes that catch and Gonzo is shaded a bit differently and perhaps makes a double play a bit easier. It’s a tough game and one moment indeed can make a difference.

I can see Sexton comparing Steve Bartman and Bill Buckner’s one mistake to Richard Wright’s character Bigger Thomas in Native Son, where Bigger, a black man, accidentally smothers a white woman after chauffeuring her home carrying her into her bedroom because she has passed out. Her blind mother entered the room and Bigger thought he would be accused of rape if he was caught in her room. So he stifled her with a pillow and in doing so accidentally kills her. The rest of the story is all downhill from there.

One moment often makes a big difference. That’s life and that’s baseball.