Baseball: the most virtuous, and Catholic of games

Baseball: the most virtuous, and Catholic of games April 6, 2015

Image via
Image via

As George Harrison said, “it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.” And it feels like years since baseball has been here.

But what joy to flip on the television in my office and find Yankees in blue pinstripes, standing in the bright April sun! As I type this, they’re losing 5-0 but it doesn’t matter. There is the whiff of ball against leather glove; there is the crack of bat-on-ball. There are the crowd noises as A-Rod gets his first hit of the season. There are new names and old names and they reflect players who came into the game from Japan, and the Dominican Republic and the corn fields of Kansas, and here it is, baseball. The game still represents the American melting-pot, it still works as a reflection of our saving virtues:

A baseball manager will tell you that careful forethought, and an ability to size up a situation before it gets out of control, is the key to surviving a season. In Exodus, a sensible mother hid her child in the bulrushes at a time and place calculated to attract the attention of the pharaoh’s daughter, in hopes that her son would be rescued. In the same way, a good manager is the vanguard of the virtue of prudence, although it’s unlikely that Leo Durocher or Whitey Herzog would ever have used the word.

Seattle Mariners manager Darrell Johnson explained how the cautious skipper can ascertain when to change pitchers: “You just listen to the ball and bat come together. They make an awful noise.”

The legendary Casey Stengel had prudence in spades. “You never release a player from the team,” he counseled, “without first searching his room for a gun.”

Stengel’s cautionary wisdom aside, guns have never been much of an issue in the culture of the game. In baseball, the weapon of choice is statistics, which bludgeon players with the truth.

John L. Allen argues that baseball is like Catholicism, and he’s got a list of ten reasons why:

1. Both baseball and Catholicism venerate the past. Both cherish the memories of a Communion of Saints, including popular shrines and holy cards.
2. Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the infield fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)
3. Both have a keen sense of ritual, in which pace is critically important. (As a footnote, that’s why basketball is more akin to Pentecostalism, since both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience. I’d go into why football is pagan, but that’s a different conversation.)
4. Both baseball and Catholicism generate oceans of statistics, arcana, and lore. For entry-level examples, try: Who has the highest lifetime batting average, with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats? (Ty Cobb). Which popes had the longest and the shortest reigns? (Pius IX and Urban VII).
5. In both baseball and Catholicism, you can dip in and out, but for serious devotees, the liturgy is a daily affair.

Read the rest. I concur with it, especially the “everyday” of it. I remember George Will writing about the simple pleasure — now almost gone in our internet age — of opening the sports page and going over the box scores and standings. I can’t tell you what made that so delightful, but I remember, as a kid, being completely absorbed in that daily ritual. Baseball is a memory of a pleasant breeze beneath a willow tree, and the box scores and averages being committed to memory before the afternoon game began.

As much as I agree with Allen, though, he left off one more reason why baseball is like Catholicism: both bring us right to the clutch point, and then demand a follow through:

For it is only in surrender that the clutch is resolved. Eventually, a pitcher must release the ball from his callused fingers and send it spinning into the arcane triune powers of physics, probability, and pure skill, and the batter must commit to an outcome with both swing and stride, or nothing will ever become resolved.

Baseball is a game of inches. And hours. And in those moments between release and resolution are contained particles of infinity—the space between a prayer of supplication and the surrender of “Amen”; the whisper of intention that brings what is empty and void into fullness. The hope for redemption.

We can relate to that just as we can identify with pitcher and batter; the individual confronting a full team of resistance with the humblest of weapons—a ball, a stick—speaks to our daily grinds, the resistance, the persistence, the victory of getting through a day; of correcting a flawed stance; of breaking a bad habit before it owns you.

Yay, Baseball. You’ve been a long time getting here! Welcome!

The Republic of Baseball

Browse Our Archives