At first glance, comparing baseball to religious faith might come across as trite, absurd, offensive, and perhaps, to some, even blasphemous. This is, obviously, not my intent at all.
One of the disadvantages of living in a secular democracy is that one necessarily sacrifices a shared religious identity with one’s larger cultural community. Not that I’d ever have it any other way. Religious freedom and pluralism is part of what makes America unique and one of the great, progressive innovations of the framers. Still, it does come at a price, and it can leave individuals longing to connect with their neighbors in a deeper sense of shared faith.
Baseball-as-secular-religion is hardly a new idea (and it is certainly not mine). Because baseball is more than just a game: it is a shared, cross-generational, cultural experience. And like religion, it has a myth, a narrative, and it has its venerated figures who have shaped its legend. As the Buddhists have Siddhartha and Christians have Jesus; as Hindus have Krishna, or even Gandhi, so too baseball fans have Cy Young. As the Abrahamic religions share the founding figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, so too do baseball fans share Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson.
As religions put forth creation stories, allegorical myths, and dogmatic frameworks to help us better understand the world we live in, forge a better relationship between the self and the greater whole, and provide explanations for the abstract mysteries of the heart and the soul, so too does baseball put forth such legends, to help us better understand why the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in a hundred years (the Curse of the Billy Goat) or why the Red Sox hadn’t won it in 86 years as of 2004 (the Curse of the Bambino), or even mythologizing such unlikely triumphs as the 1967 Brooklyn Dodgers, and such devastating betrayals of baseball’s moral sanctity and revered legacy as the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox, who, like Adam and Eve, were banished from the garden (or at least Major League Baseball) for their sins and tainted the game for everybody else, casting a shadow they would not fully shed until the White Sox won again, in 2005.
And there are the iconic moments; the mountain top sermons, when mere men become immortal and their words eternal. Just as Moses delivering the Ten Commandments from atop Mt. Sinai is such a moment, so too is Lou Gehrig’s “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech, delivered at Yankee Stadium during a ceremony honoring Gehrig after announcing his retirement due to his diagnosis with an incurable (and in this case, fatal) condition, ALS.
No doubt popular culture has picked up on the relationship between baseball and faith. “Damn Yankees” would have you believe that the devil (literally) could have some sway over the game as it tells a tale of the fate that awaits those who dare compromise baseball’s moral integrity. “The Natural” is essentially a hero’s journey myth, strewn with unlikely supernatural occurrences and presented as sweeping, inspiring epic. “Angels in the Outfield” is about what its title implies and has been made twice. And the perennial favorite of baseball fans, “Field of Dreams”, tells an existential story of faith and redemption and includes some bluntly Biblical allusions.
Growing up an English Episcopalian in a largely Irish Catholic suburb of Boston (which has, of course, an overwhelmingly large Catholic presence), I was both culturally and spiritually estranged from my own community.
But growing up in any part of New England means, almost without exception and regardless of precondition, growing up a Red Sox fan. New England eats, sleeps, and breathes the Red Sox; so much so that one might actually be tempted to seriously entertain the notion that it is, in fact, “in the water”.
The Red Sox bridged the spiritual divide. No matter how or whether New Englanders viewed God, no matter their religious convictions, they could unite under a banner of Fenway green as they engaged in a unified struggle to overcome universally held obstacles, challenges, and burdens. It was a communal struggle for redemption, to throw off the oppression of decades of futility. And it was a pursuit that required not just unwavering faith from the individual, but from the entire community; a shared faith that comes from directly from the soul and joins directly and inseparably with the souls of millions of others who were, for better or worse, steadfastly faithful. Believers, you might say.
The Red Sox may be on the extreme end of this comparison. Indeed, the religious analogies have a kind of fevered ubiquity in the case of the Fenway Faithful. Fenway itself is treated as sacred ground, no more or less so than the world’s great cathedrals and religious monuments and temples. And, indeed, there is something palpably spiritual about being in its presence. I detected that the first time I sat in its stands, and I was only four years old at the time, and thus immune to the influence of any preconceived grandiose mythologizing that might have shaped that feeling.
And certainly Ted Williams had achieved something close to deification when I was young. And, yes, the decades-long drought made New Englanders equate themselves with the Israelites, the chosen people in search of a promised land they were divinely entitled to. And, certainly, when that moment finally arrived, 25 years into my own life and 21 years into my life as Red Sox fan, it happened in seemingly (and appropriately) impossible fashion (you really can’t make this stuff up). And as Red Sox Nation ran up to that ultimate, long-sought victory, the terms “Keep the Faith” and “I Believe” were plastered all over t-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters and littered every corner of Red Sox Nation. It didn’t hurt, either, that the ace of the pitching staff literally bled for the time through his sock, or that a certain center fielder bore a striking resemblance to a certain religion’s depiction of the Messiah.
For me, when it did happened, the first thing I did (literally) was fall to my knees in tears. The second thing I did was throw my hat in the air. Then I cheered. Loudly. Then I told my girlfriend I loved her. Then I hugged my friends and anybody else I could find. And then, finally, I called my parents, and told them how happy I was that they were alive to see this happen, because, at more than one point in my life, I had thought that they may not have been. I was overcome, in other words, with a feeling of quite religious rejoicing.
At more than one point along that long, unlikely road, I found myself (at least in the most tense moments, of which there were many) with my eyes closed, my hands clasped. Rabid Sox fan Stephen King called his book chronicling that fateful season “Faithful”. A DVD retrospective of that season was called “Faith Rewarded”. You get the idea.
It’s not like that everywhere. For New York Yankees fans, the team has won so many times and become so synonymous with triumph, their team is almost expected to enter every season as favorites. In Chicago, Cubs fans have entered into an unprecedented benchmark of futility, but losing and loving anyway is the hallmark of Cubs fans. It is, in other words, their spiritual identity. For the former, they are the blessed, reaping the fruits and rewards of their God. And for the latter, they are the meek, living for the promise that they shall, one day, inherit the Earth.
The fact is, wherever you look –Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Houston, Minnesota- some variation on this theme exists, and it provides a rich and very real sense of cultural identity. Even for newer teams, like Tampa Bay and Colorado, it is clear to see this narrative emerging as the fans find a way to fit their teams’ trials and tribulations into the broader, shared narrative of the great tradition of baseball. Colorado’s amazing run to the World Series in 2007 means something; it means something to fans, it means something to baseball, it means something in the grand scheme of the greater story. It’s just not entirely clear what, yet. And that this story goes on, forever, and that the fans and the players alike help to shape, mold, and further its meaning, impact, and iconography every season, without fail, is a testament to its enduring and indestructible spiritual and cultural relevance.
Ultimately, regardless of your team, your town, and thus your philosophy and identity, we all answer back to the same authority: the love of the game. And that love is based not on reward and personal gain, but rather on an unceasing faith that often flies directly in the face of rationality and reason. It unites generations of fans in common cause. It is iron-clad. It is frustrating. It is communal. It is timeless. It is utterly beautiful.