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    Tradition, Baseball, and Liturgy

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    Photo by Jack W. Pearce.

    It is October in Minnesota, and I can’t help but notice and admire beautiful things. I love the bright flame colored trees, the decorative gourds, the last harvest of tomatoes, the taste of chocolate chip pumpkin bread, a hot cup of tea, and baseball. Yes, baseball is a beautiful thing. It also helps to be a St. Louis native and Cardinal fan this October. I have loved baseball as long as I have been conscious of it. It was a love passed down to me from my family in St. Louis. I am told that my grandmother listened to the games on the radio while preparing dinner, and my dad still talks about the 1968 series loss to the Detroit Tigers. My first October in existence, the Cardinals lost the 1985 World Series to the Kansas City Royals. I was born eight months later. My first memories of the Cardinals are watching them on television in the 1996 National League Championship. The Cardinal favorite Ozzie Smith flipped back flips on my parent’s television screen. I was hooked. I made it to my first game the next year on my birthday with my aunt, and then we never missed a birthday for years after.

    What is it that drew me in? In part, it was the way the legendary Jack Buck and Mike Shannon called the games on the radio. They taught me my first lessons in the love of baseball. I used to go to games with my grandmother and she always had us keep score and told me stories of baseball of the past. I researched the history of the Cardinals for a 40-page research paper in high school, and in doing so I went from being a part of the tradition to understanding the tradition. I feel like being raised in the tradition of loving baseball is similar to being raised Catholic, or even coming into the traditions of Catholicism in one’s adult life. The tradition has been passed down from generation to generation.

    Baseball, like any game that has rules (or rubrics) for how it is to be done, has some aspect of liturgy. I do not mean that it is the same as the Holy Mass or the other liturgical actions of the Church. I am saying that the laid out universal rules of the game create liturgy-like structures for the game to be played within. There are the three outs that must be made at the top and the bottom of each inning. It does not matter how many pitchers, pitches, batters, hits, and runs are in an inning, the three outs have to be made. Each team gets nine chances to score more runs than the other team. The bases make a perfect diamond, and the pitchers mound is exactly centered. In theory the players are spaced evenly around the field. Each at bat has potential for up to three strikes or four balls, but anything can happen. Every ball in play can lead to many different outcomes, but there is the standard of the rules to follow. It is a leisurely art form, and maybe that is why some dislike it. It has a slow rhythm of each pitch, the windup and the release, accented by the excitement of the strikeout or the line drive. The play of the game switches from a fastball to a ground out, a single to a double play. Each player has his own role on the field, and waits for the unexpected (sometimes the unexpected results in a missed pop fly).

    The human aspect of baseball works within the set rules of the game. The rules are enforced by a human umpire (who may not always get the call right), but that is part of the game, part of the tradition. Imperfect humans try their luck against each other. The pitcher and catcher try to outsmart the batter and the batter seeks to foil their plan and get on base. The fielders wait for the ball to be hit near them, making swift movements to get to the ball and send it quickly to the right base. A curveball that tricks a batter leads to a beautiful strikeout. A pitcher’s mistake over the plate leads to the arching homerun over the left-field wall on a field that extends to infinity. There is no end-zone, just the fair territory beyond the wall that goes on and on. The set structure of the game is what makes it a liturgical routine. There is the repetition of the pitch after pitch. The sound of the crack of the bat. The movement in the hustle of the outfielder. The beauty in the diving catch to save the inning. The careful bunt to advance the runner. The patient batter drawing a walk. There is something so beautiful and somehow liturgical in it all, and maybe that is what causes me to love it and its traditions.

    Something about it all is reminiscent of the liturgical actions of the Mass. The up and down of the faithful, and the kneeling at the consecration. The genuflections before the tabernacle. The repetitive actions of the priest and servers each and every Mass. We as humans thrive on the liturgical parts of life. We love them, and we need them. The changing of the seasons when Summer turns to Autumn and Autumn leads to playoff baseball, and then comes Winter. These things are part of our lives, and provide us the foundation to live full human lives. And of course they point us to the unchanging God, who is creator of it all.

    10 Comments

    1. Chris Davis /

      Susanna! Wonderful analogy!! I don’t know if I like it more because I am Catholic or more because I like baseball. I remember as a kid being an avid Atlanta Braves fan at about the same time I was confirmed as Augustine. I played baseball on some great teams and for some great coaches at Holy Rosary Grade School and Loyola College Prep. But my fondest memories are my latest ones; I recently joined an adult baseball league and it has rekindled a love of life in me like I haven’t had since my youth. I do a lot of work in the pro-life movement and I tell everyone to pick a hobby (or hobbies) and enjoy life to the fullest with your family and friends. Baseball, among other things, is what I do to fully appreciate the life God has given me. I try to adopt the Augustinian philosophy: “Let God turn your love of life into a life of love.” Only then will we truly be able to serve others, especially the unborn. I challenge everyone to do the same!

    2. Susanna! I love this :-D I don’t understand 3/4 of what you’re talking about, but I love it anyways :-D

    3. Joseph Grissom /

      Perfect. I think you are exactly correct. Now I know why I have always liked baseball more than any other sport. I have always had this intuition about the game.

      Baseball is also distinct among other sports in that it allows for the presence of players of varying physical stamina, skill-set, and intelligence. In soccer and football for example, nearly everyone must have the same kind of body and abilities (especially soccer). In Baseball, however, managers are fully aware that some of the players are extremely good at very, very specific types of things on the field, and others are more generally talented. Decisions about the hitting line-up and defensive positions are made accordingly. Whole games often hinge on such decisions.

      That is precisely how God sees each person: like a baseball team manager. He loves and values each player for himself like a father loves each of his children not because they are all identical to each other but because they are each very unique, and each has a very important task to do because of the ways in which each is unique.

    4. marty Guilfoy /

      As a boy all us kids would travel on the Rattla (street car) to
      to Fenway Park.Each year Cardinal Cushing would bring thousands of nuns to a game. The faithful at fenway were the faithful from
      the local parishes. You are right Catholic means universal and it could be said now that baseball is also universal.

    5. The mound is perfectly centered on a line from home to second, but it’s closer to home than to second. Go Cards!

      • Susanna Spencer /

        Thanks for pointing that out, Dave. That has to be symbolic in some sense as well I am sure. If home plate symbolizes Heaven, then of course the pitcher would be closer. :)

    6. Baseball is the most truly metaphysical team-game human beings play. The differences between baseball and the other mainstream sports are exactly what makes it so attractive to those of a contemplative nature. No clock keeping time. No goal to defend from an advancing enemy. Perfectly calibrated infield dimensions make almost every play a matter of unforgiving precision. One batter poised before an entire team of nine on a field that opens to infinity, doing his best to make it “home.” It is the least militaristic of sports, appealing more to our angelic nature than to our animal nature. I could go on and on.

      Susanna, being a philosopher and baseball lover, you will like what DB Hart has to say about baseball in his semi-tongue-in-cheek essay “A Perfect Game.”

      http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/07/a-perfect-game

      • Susanna Spencer /

        Thanks, Mark. I did read and enjoy the essay when it was published.

    7. Gemma Rivera /

      Has there ever been calls to have women in the MLB? Because the analogy extends to this as well. How come there are voices decrying the absence of women in the hierarchy of the Church but no similar complaints against baseball?

      I am of two minds about this. When my SF Giants won 2 World Series in 3 yrs, I & my female friends were so ecstatic – we couldn’t be happier. Yet somehow jealous that it is all men out there having fun, and still it is understood that is a men’s game.

      In the same way, I was so proud as a Catholic to see the ancient ritual of electing a Pope in a conclave given airtime on TV. I understand that the Holy Spirit is acting through the Cardinals so their gender (which happen to be all men) is really not an issue. And yet, I wouldn’t mind if there were women either, or would that somehow go against tradition?

      I am alright with keeping things the way they are but just wondering why there is this imbalance on the perception of these hallowed institutions when it comes to women participation.

      • Susanna Spencer /

        The Ken Burns Baseball documentary discusses women and professional baseball. I do not know if women are excluded purposefully, but I do wonder if many women have the physical ability to participate at the professional level. However, that does not stop women from playing the game on their own or in other leagues. The analogy of baseball and liturgy is not limited to the MLB.

        As for the ordination of women, the Church is fairly clear on the Tradition that Christ chose to have men as clergy and not women. Women are called to a different role in the Church as bride.