Wanted for Baseball: A Strong Pope

Wanted for Baseball: A Strong Pope September 30, 2011

To all appearances, the Boston Red Sox broke their curse once and for all during the 2004 World Series, when they took the Cardinals in four straight games. Now, in view of Boston’s late loss to Baltimore, some are saying that the hoodoo is still very much operational and under warranty. In Slate, Brian Palmer reviews his consultations with curse experts from various syncretic traditions, all of whom agree that curses aren‘t so easily shed:

How could the Sox break free, once and for all? It depends which religious tradition was the source of the curse. Adherents of Santería believe that angry or dissatisfied spirits cause many of our problems, although they wouldn’t use the term curse to describe them. (Perhaps Babe Ruth is still mad that the Red Sox owner sold him to fund a theater production.) It’s best either to appease the spirit through a ritual apology or offering, or to purify oneself with the help of a Santerían priest, or santero. The santero might smear coconut and honey on the suffering Red Sox players (or would it be their fans?), or shake their hands while spinning them in one direction, then the other.

Practitioners of Palo, another Caribbean religion with West African roots, sometimes take a more combative approach. Paleros maintain jars from which they can send out their own protective spirits to engage in warfare with the meddler. Red Sox fans might point to a 2004 game in which Manny Ramirez hit a long foul ball that bloodied the face of a teenage spectator who lived in Babe Ruth’s old house. But this probably wouldn’t qualify as a successful spiritual attack.

With all due respect to Palmer and his fine Caribbean friends, I contend that none of this applies. Baseball is an upright Christian sport — specifically, a Catholic one. Look at the evidence: Both the National Pasttime and the Universal Church subscribe to a vertical model off government — here the bishop of Rome, there the commissioner of MLB, both keeping an uneasy eye on the sensus fidelium in case Mass attendance or ticket sales fall off. Both baseball and the Church are evangelical, and have been received most warmly in the old Spanish dominions and Portuguese sphere of influence. The Church had Pius X and the Oath Against Modernism; baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the Black Sox. See?

The best-known — or rather, most widely rumored — curse in Church history was the one the Jews were believed to have called down on themselves by rejecting and crucifying the Messiah. Though perfectly wrongheaded, obscene and pernicious in its own right, this notion becomes plain comical when transferred to the Red Sox and Babe Ruth. Many baseball figures invite comparison to Church figures — Roberto Clemente to Martin de Porres, Lou Gehrig to Therese. Even Joe DiMaggio can claim a counterpart in Pope Pius XII, since both were Italian and had the whole bella figura thing down, but neither quite managed to be the life of the party.

But Babe Ruth and Jesus? Sorry. That flies foul.

Look, I have nothing against the Bambino. For helping restore public faith in the game after the Black Sox scandal and the death of Ray Chapman to a wild pitch, he’s a seminal figure in a major renewal. No one who draws a parallel between his legacy and Odo of Cluny’s, Francis of Assisi’s or Don Escriva de Balaguer’s will get any argument from me. On the other hand, the Babe single-handedly created the mold for the most noxious type of player the sport has ever known — the arrogant, overpaid, power-hitting doofus. (Though he played right field competently, and was, for a time, the most promising left-handed pitcher in the game, these accomplishments were incidental. Neither Ruth’s reputation nor his salary depended on them.) If Ruth was St. Francis, then his Fraticelli include the likes of Dave Kingman and Jose Canseco — a group that will likely prove hard to suppress.

When the Church decided it would not do for the Jews to be cursed, or to be seen as accursed, she handled things in her usual top-down fashion — by issuing a decree on the subject. Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965, by Pope Paul VI in plenum with the bishops, declared:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

So that the Red Sox and their fans might rest easy forever more, Bud Selig should take a page from the council and speak infallibly on the subject. If I may ghost-write for him:

“We define and declare that, though Red Sox owner Harry Frazee showed the business sense of an ant when he sold the greatest player in baseball to his arch-rivals in order to fund a forgettable musical comedy, this imbecilic transaction cannot be charged against all the Red Sox then living, without distinction, nor against the Red Sox of today. They should never be presented as accursed or rejected by God. The Sultan of Swat just doesn’t deserve this kind of karmic pull; for all his gifts, he was a libertine, a prima donna, and to managers, a scorching pain in the keister. If he is still sore, let him put on his big-boy pants and deal with it.”

Of course, some might argue that major-league baseball has already been through the equivalent of Vatican II, what with Astroturf, league expansion, inter-league play, designated hitters and uniforms that seem to get sillier every year. Fine, then; let the curse’s formal cancellation usher in a reform of the reforms. If Selig won’t come across, we can always try to draft Bishop Bruskewitz.

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