Baseball and Catholic Faith

In 1973, Tug McGraw coined the “Ya Gotta Believe” rally cry. He is seen in this photo placing his baseball hat on a nun in the stands.

I look forward to October every year – the peak of autumn filled with pumpkin based recipes, New England foliage, and warm apple cider on chilly fall days. Still, my favorite part of October will always be post-season baseball and the World Series. While some avid fans might say that their favorite month is April when the air warms and the players take the field for Opening Day, others may claim that the best month for baseball is July when the season is in full gear and the ‘midsummer classic’ captures our amazement. Yet ever since I was younger, my gaze has been set on these final weeks in October. So, I will be joining the millions of baseball fans tonight in watching the Kansas City Royals face the San Francisco Giants in Game 6 of the World Series.

Number 1 baseball fan at Shea Stadium

I love baseball. I know, I know, players are paid way too much money, the owners can be ruthless, and the whole idea of sports can be seen as an opiate of the masses. Nonetheless, baseball has always been a part of my life, and today the game is reminiscent of childhood nostalgia and family tradition. Some of my greatest memories from my youth were going to watch the New York Mets play at Shea Stadium with my family. I can vividly recall watching Robin Ventura’s grand slam single to beat the Atlanta Braves in game 5 of the 1999 NLCS. As my brother and I anxiously leaned in toward the television screen, I became completely entranced as time slowed and the moment built within as the ball carried some on for some 370 feet. The game of baseball truly has the ability to transcend – to make an ordinary moment in time utterly ineffable. Once the ball landed over the fence, and the players ran onto the field to tackle Ventura before he could even get to second base, my brother and I started jumping up and down on our parents’ bed so intensely that we broke a slate of the mattress frame.

As I have gotten older, I have begun to see that baseball is not all that different from Catholicism. Like religion, the timeless game of baseball has its own sorts of relics, rituals, prophets, saints and sinners. In both baseball and Catholicism there is a universal structure, and official recorded ‘guidelines.’ Despite this, the game is played slightly differently depending on its particular global context – a game in the Dominican Republic will undoubtedly be a little differently than a game in Boston. Baseball is like going to Church; many attend, few entirely understand. Until you go, you may never value what draws so many people in, and the more attentive you are to the game, the more it will begin to make sense. Unless you appreciate the history of baseball, and recognize that not all baseball fans are like the people in bleachers at Yankee Stadium, then attending only one game a season may seemingly suffice. If you are invested in the game, you will inevitably get frustrated, for calls in baseball are made based on the viewpoint of the umpire, and there is it least one bad call in every game. Showing up, and staying until the end of every game can teach you a lot about baseball, but it can also teach you a lot about what it means to have faith. Baseball is an avenue into the understanding faith the sense that there is a dimension that we experience in baseball that we cannot put into words. As in Catholicism, the seemingly impossible is part of the game.

1955 game winning catch by Sandy Amoros

When I was a kid, my Catholic faith was taught to me in the same way that baseball was. Before I could even read or write, I would sit on my brother’s lap at Mets games, and he would guide my hand to write in the numbers on his scorecard. During those same developmental years of my life, my parents would take me to Mass and guide my hand from my forehead, to my chest, then to my left and right shoulder to make the sign of the cross. The traditions of baseball and Catholic traditions were not only given to me, but they embedded some of the greatest themes of true faith. In the final innings of games when the Mets had a large score deficit to overcome, when all “faith” in the team was seemingly absent, fans would stand up with signs to resurrect the 1973 rally cry “Ya Gotta Believe.” As my 8-year-old eyes panned the stadium, I witnessed people of all ages on their feet shouting those words. To this day, I can feel the cheers coursing through my body and recall the joy, the amazement, and the awe. As these fans brought me into the realm of belief, they ignited me to stand up, cheer, and scream at the top of my lungs, “Ya gotta believe!” Baseball and Catholicism speak to the fact that the Divine is by definition beyond the capacity of a human to fathom, that faith does not necessitate certainty, and that we must leave room in our hearts for the ineffable. Coupled together, baseball and Catholicism taught me to believe in the impossible.

In his book, Baseball as a Road to God, John Sexton speaks to these similarities between baseball and religion. He uses a phrase by Rudolf Otto, a German Protestant theologian in the late 19th/early 20th century, to express baseball’s capacity to break the plane of ordinary existence into the extraordinary by allowing us to see a sacred space in a context that many would presume is not religious. Otto used the famous expression of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans to describe the mystery that is both awe- inspiring and fascinating. In many ways, fear and trembling is the quintessential religious experience, one that touches believers directly and makes them perceive their identity as creatures without any induction of rational reason. Otto felt that in these religious experiences the three elements of mystery, awe, and fascination are so intimately related that they form an ‘irreducible synthetic whole’.[1] John Sexton draws upon this notion of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans in his writing to show how baseball can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of concrete facts and science. [2] Baseball can reveal something to us about the world and our ways of living in it that goes beyond what we see in the field. [3]

Kansas City Royals Fans

Post season baseball has a tendency to reveal to us that there are moments in baseball that give a glimpse at something beyond ourselves: in the 1954 World Series, Willie Mays made that seemingly impossibly catch (and throw), and in 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won their first (and only) World Series with an extraordinary catch by Sandy Amoros. The beauty and the intensified sensitivity of the moment that comes with the Mays or Amoros catch can transcend someone to this sacred plane of being. Perhaps tonight as history unfolds, fans will experience the ecstasy and agony that come with true faith and belief.

This American pasttime can provide a glimpse, as St. Ignatius reminds us, to find God in our everyday life. We can infuse lessons from the diamond into our understanding of faith. To all of the fans watching in Kansas City and San Francisco tonight – live slow, notice that deep faith cannot exist unless there is doubt, and leave room for the ineffable. Whether the series ends with the promise of a Game 7 or not, there is always the promise of eternal return.

[1] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rudolf_Otto [2] Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton, p 220 [3] ibid, 219

Meg Stapleton SmithMeg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics.

Meg Stapleton Smith’s posts

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