Is this Heaven? An Ode to the Sacramental Beauty of Baseball

Is this Heaven? An Ode to the Sacramental Beauty of Baseball April 3, 2016

The Sick and Scruffy Pilgrims of the Gashouse Gang
The Sick and Scruffy Pilgrims of the Gashouse Gang

Our regular Sick Pilgrims might be shocked to read a meditation on sports gracing the pixelated pages of our broken spirituality blog. Sometimes, I encounter a sniffy disdain among my artier friends when we talk about sports. Whenever I gush about my love for baseball, I get the usual lectures about how obsession with sports has ruined America and taken public dollars away from worthier community projects.

I get it, especially when I look at the National Football League, the Donald Trump of American sports. It’s loud. It’s rich. It demands sinful and obscene tax breaks from local governments by holding a gun to the head of city governments. It uses lower class people to serves its own ends and has no respect for their own fan base (See the St. Louis/L.A. Ram debacle). And on a more serious note, they’ve criminally ignored the safety of their players for years. A friend, who worked at the National Football Hall of Fame, told me that John Elway leaned on her when they walked to the induction ceremony,  his knees destroyed. Even more heartbreaking are the players who go crazy from concussions, abusing their families or committing suicide.

And, it seems, America embraces both Donald Trump and the NFL. In poll after poll, the majority of people say they would rather watch the Super Bowl over the World Series. Trump and the NFL have become unholy sacramental reminders of what is wrong with our country. America seems to be a nation of bullies who love all that’s loud, obnoxious and destructive. Our sports seem to be an incarnation of that warped love.

Yet, there is baseball.

My love affair with the game began a long time ago in the farm fields of Southern Indiana. I would lay in bed at night, sweating and listening to Cardinals games on the radio. For me, baseball has always been a sign of God’s beckoning grace. It’s calm, deliberate and peaceable. You can take your kids to a game, talk to your friends over a beer and a dog, and enjoy the benefits of a large community. And you can cheer with all your heart for athletes who’ve worked their butts off to be at the top of their profession.

I’m writing this from deep in enemy territory surrounded by Cub fans. Their team and mine (the St. Louis Cardinals) have a long standing rivalry that has exploded into an all out war. Why? Because the Cubs, for once, are actually good. For a long time, I felt bad about hating the Cubs. It was like kicking a three legged puppy with one eye. Now, after last year, I can despise them in peace.

Yet we baseball fans share a common bond. In a 2013 Atlantic article by Allan Barra, he writes that people who live in cities with both an NFL team and a baseball team, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed would rather have their baseball team win the World Series. To test this, I just asked a bunch of Cubs around me whether they would have the Bears or the Cubs win the championship. In the immortal words of Harry Carey, “CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN!”

So, why is that? How does baseball strike so deep into our American souls? Ever since I read Barra’s article I tried to come up with my own explanations. To fall back on my Catholic theology, I would argue that baseball is a sacramental reminder of what’s good about our country.

Yes, baseball has its own scandals. But, the reaction to those scandals solidify the point. When bad things happen in baseball, it seems to strike deep in our collective consciousness. And we lash out at baseball for its “lack of purity”. Like people lash out at the Catholic Church. Deep down, they expect better and want more from it. That’s because we know that baseball has been the reflection of what we want America to be: a place of hard work, fairness, beauty, community and fun. In other words, baseball, at its best, is what we want America to be in the deepest part of our hearts.

The tension between the beauty of the game and its scandals demonstrates why it’s important to me and others. It reminds us of unseen realities and sacramental ideals while reminding us of our brokenness. Baseball is a human sport, real, gritty, and also a sign of something else.





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