Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Church of Baseball


A year ago, I posted a column about Baseball as a Road to God. In this one, written a number of years ago, I explore the similarities between baseball and religion. There are more than you might think.

Baseball is back!

Not officially, of course; the season hasn’t yet started. But spring training is well underway., and its return serves notice that winter, at long last, has really been vanquished—even if the evidence in some parts of Canada might suggest otherwise.

Baseball’s return inspires a sense of hope, renewal and new beginnings, all of which sounds sort of religious, in a way.

In fact, there are many parallels between baseball and religion. For example, baseball, like religions, has adherents, although in baseball they are called fans.

Baseball also has a holy book, in this case the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. And, like with other holy books, there are innumerable books of commentary and interpretation.

Baseball has a creation story. But just like the biblical creation story, the origin of baseball is in dispute. Was it really created by Abner Doubleday, or did it evolve from things like cricket and rounders?

Baseball has temples, called stadiums. It has a shrine in Coopestown, replete with relics, and every year hundreds of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to that sacred place.

Baseball has rituals—players cross themselves, touch each hand several times, wear certain clothes, put their hats on backwards, and adhere to all sorts of pre-game rituals that seem, to non-believers, to be completely devoid of common sense. 

But that's not al. Baseball has other things in common with religion, such  as falls from grace, prophets, heretics, deities, icons, sacrifice, devotion, miracles, saviours and  faith (“You gotta believe!”) 

Some fans take their faith very seriously. As Susan Sarandon’s character said in the movie Bull Durham:

“I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones . . . and the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”

Baseball’s similarities to religion prompted William Herzog and Christopher Evans of Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York to write The Faith of 50 Million, a collection of essays that “plumb how baseball illuminates significant patterns of faith and meaning.”

“People are incurably religious," said Herzog in an interview. “We have to have some form of religion, and for some people it's baseball. It's only a game, but it has elements that point beyond.”

The book’s foreword is by theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a baseball fan and professor at Duke Divinity School.

Mennonites can identify with his remark that “being a Cubs' fan and a pacifist are closely linked; namely, both commitments teach you that life is not about winning.”

Like religion, baseball also has sinners—lots and lots of sinners.

Why are baseball and religion so similar?

It's not just the superficial things. When you come right down to it, there’s something about baseball, and other sports, that is spiritually appealing. 

With its clear outcomes, distinct boundaries, universal rules and final judgments—if the umpire calls strike three, you’re out, no matter how much you dispute the call—baseball provides an alternate reality that seems to reasonate deep inside our souls.

It is very different from real life, where everything seems to be in flux, open to debate and subject to very personal interpretations.

But that’s not all; baseball, like religion, also offers something we all crave: Redemption. Losers can become winners, and sinners can come clean and be made whole again.

That keeps the faith of fans alive, and it keeps us going in real life, too. 

For if there’s one true thing about religion and baseball, it’s the promise of a brand new start. Or, in this case, a brand new season.

So, praise Goder, play ball!

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