A THEOLOGY OF (CARDINALS) BASEBALL
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
April 29, 2018
Dear friends, I come bearing good news: Here in the northern hemisphere the earth has tilted back towards the sun; finally, after a long, cold winter we are enjoying warmer days. It’s spring, the season of life, of birth and reincarnation; the trees and flowers burst back to life, birds sing and frolic, and squirrels and rabbits dart out from bushes. But most important of all, the season of baseball is underway.
In cities and towns throughout this great nation, boys and girls are digging out their cleats and mitts. They’re getting dropped off at practice on baseball fields behind radio stations and in the middle of industrial parks.
Kids everywhere tune in to baseball games on TV and the radio. There’s so much I love about baseball I don’t know where to start, so let’s start with comparisons to other sports:
Baseball doesn’t have an obnoxious spectacle like the NFL’s draft, nor does it have their concussions and violence. It’s free of hockey’s dental problems and terrible hair, not to mention the cold and ice. It’s not played to the ceaseless sound of squeaking shoes running back and forth on overly polished courts, the likes of which give you a crick in the neck. No, baseball is a benevolent sport; baseball is to Jesus as the NFL is to the God of the Old Testament.
And all you need to play it is a stick and ball. The rest is magic.
For as long as baseball’s been in existence, regular, everyday people from Omaha, Nebraska; Spavinaw, Oklahoma; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Cairo, Georgia, transform from everyday mortals into heroes. You don’t have to be over 6’ tall to play it, either; you don’t have to know how to skate, and you don’t have to be willing to get hit over and over every time you touch the ball. Baseball is a pastoral sport, a sport of gentlemen and women. It’s also a thinking-persons sport, complete with more statistics and theories than the departments of economics and philosophy in every university, from Portland, Maine, to Seattle, Washington.
Baseball is a game of everyday heroes. With names like Mo’ne Davis, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Bob Gibson, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Sandy Koufax, you’d think we were talking about the local mechanic or pediatrician. Instead we’re talking about everyday people who became superheroes for doing something as basic as hitting a ball with a stick or throwing one. Every kid’s done it. Even babies play baseball; just look in a kid’s bassinette and notice as they stare up at butterflies, flowers, and moons, swatting the figures attached to strings, over and over.
But baseball is more than its players and personalities. Baseball is, in the words of George Will, “Heaven’s gift to mortals.” Baseball, far more than just a sport, “is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season – these are essentials and they are remarkably unchanged for nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” As the old saying goes, if it’s not broken, then why fix it?
Here in the U.S., we’ve been changing our institutions since 1776. That’s not a criticism; after all, equality and justice is an ideal, and a truly just society is hard to pull off. For as many haves as there are in society, there are far more have not’s. So, I think it’s safe to say, if history and the current state of political affairs is any indicator, here in American we’ll continue arguing justice and fairness a while longer.
With immigration issues, social networks selling our identities to the highest bidder, judicial overreach, a president who conducts foreign policy on Twitter, an EPA chief who buys mansions and takes taxpayer funded vacations in private jets, hush money to adult film stars, Veteran’s Administration nominees drinking on the job, police bias, and housing crises, it’s no wonder so many people chose to keep their noses in their phones and iPads all day.
But as society, culture, and other sports evolve, baseball will stay the same. Baseball will stay the same because when something is perfect you don’t change it.
I often think to myself at some point every season, that baseball somehow manages to showcase all that our society may one day be: a world governed by fairness, where the rules are enforced regardless of the color of your skin or income. There’s no judicial politicking, there are no temporary bans on anyone unless they get caught doping.
Baseball is a bit like life. You don’t know how long you’re going to be stuck watching the game.
There’s just an indeterminate amount of time in which the players play; and in just one throw or swing of the bat someone can be transformed from a short, stuttering kid in Ms. Oliver’s second grade class into a hero.
The baseball diamond is a place where a 13-year-old girl named Mo’ne Davis can shatter ideas about boys being better at sports. In 2014, when Mo’ne became the first girl to pitch in the Little League World Series she not only won the game but pitched a shutout.
The baseball diamond is a place where, in 1947, 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 18 years before the Voting Rights Act of ’65, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, signaling to black boys and girls they belong, and that they can be heroes. Roger Kahn, a Hall of Fame sports journalist wrote, “Jackie Robinson made his country and you and me and all of us a shade more free.” Barack Obama, the 44th, and first African American, President of these United States once said, “There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me.”
Baseball is a perfect game because it’s not just the pitchers and the sluggers that matter, it’s the people on the bench and in the stands that matter just as much, if not more. They matter because at any moment they may be called upon, thrust into an unfavorable circumstance. A player on the bench is what hope looks like with a body. A pinch hitter or runner is a manifestation of the underlying truth to all of life, that when the going gets tough sometimes the bravest thing to do is hand the wheel over to someone else and let them lead for a change.
And it is the people in the stands who matter most. They matter because on afternoons and evenings and weekends families make pilgrimage to parks like the bi-annual trip to church on Christmas and Easter. You go to a baseball game because it’s your sacred duty. Only in baseball will a stadium’s usher have his uniform and I.D. badge displayed in a Hall of Fame.
I’ve had conversations with people who were literally dying who told me their final wish was for their baseball team to win the World Series. What other sport lets kids and cancer survivors and the families of fallen soldiers start their games like baseball does with throwing out the first pitch? The answer is none. Baseball is a community sport unlike any other.
Almost everyone I know has a baseball story. Unlike every other sport, baseball doesn’t need any equipment. A fallen stick and a crabapple will do just fine. Trust me, I’ve done it.
I once finished a memorial service in St. Louis to walk outside and find three boys in suits playing baseball with only their imaginations. I stood for a moment just to see if I could figure out the score.
Just before I turned to walk away one of the boys hit the longest imaginary homerun in the history of baseball.
The magic of the moment came alive when his two friends, the imaginary pitcher and outfielder, transformed from his competition to adoring fans. They stood in the alleyway yelling, “There he goes, the greatest hitter in the world.” All the while the homerun hitter ran the imaginary bases waving to his adoring fans.
Most of the time one’s baseball allegiances are handed down like their genetic traits. So, when I hear that someone’s a baseball fan I almost always ask what team they root for and why. Most of the stories come complete with images of little kids snuggled up in their grandpa’s lap listening to the radio on front porches in summertime, with grandpa occasionally cussing out the “good for nothing” pitcher for losing the strike zone; or young kids going to the stadium for the first time, complete with their glove to catch a foul ball; and let’s not forget the hotdogs, popcorn, soda, and kissing under the bleachers.
And those of us who have spent any time in baseball stadiums know that the game is only half the show. The other half is the sideshow in the stands. Most of us know the ever-present guy without a shirt, red as a lobster from sunburn, yelling at every play like it’s his dog being overly affectionate with a throw pillow.
Or that couple behind you who turned a Sunday afternoon at the park into a philosophical debate about parenting and punishment. Or the people who carry hand-held radios and hold them up to their ears, listening to the game just to make sure what they’re watching is really true.
There are the city rivalries that encourage the best kind of competition and bring out regional pride.
The great city of Los Angeles, where the Dodgers play, proudly boasts the highest annual attendance of any baseball team. Greater Los Angeles is home to more than 18 million people. And just last year almost 3.8 million people walked through the turnstiles at Dodger Stadium.
But second to the Dodgers, in L.A., isn’t Chicago or New York or Seattle. If you take an eight-hour dive south, deep into the heart of the Midwest, you will find the best baseball city and team in America, with the second most attendance in all of baseball.
St. Louis, Missouri, has barely over 2 million people, 16 million less than L.A. However, in the greatest baseball city in America, almost 3.5 million people walked through the turnstiles at Busch Stadium, barely losing to L.A. by a little more than 300K people. In St. Louis, baseball is pathological; in fact, it’s referred to as Cardinal mania.
I’ve been told that the only thing comparable to Cardinal mania is Packer fever, but with less cheese hats and more toasted ravioli.
The Cardinals have a religious-like devotion among its fans, drawing millions of fans each year from Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and now, Wisconsin. And since 1875, when professional baseball began in St. Louis with the Brown Stockings, the Cardinals have delivered their fans 11 World Series titles. The only other team with more World Series wins is the evil empire otherwise known as the New York Yankees. And in the words of my Union-carpenter grandfather who was more faithful to the Democratic Party than he was to my grandma: “I’d rather vote for a Republican than root for the [you-know-what] Yankees.”
What makes the Cardinals unique is that first and foremost they’re a team. It’s not LeBron James’s team like the Cavaliers, or Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers’s team like the Packers. It’s the Cardinals, plain and simple. Sure, they’ve had present and future Hall of Famers like Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, and Yadier Molina. But in the end, it’s always about the integrity of the team as a whole.
In football, basketball, and hockey you often hear people say that when the team is down they want the ball or puck put into the hands of the team’s best player.
In baseball the rules of the game prevent that kind of favoritism. Your best pitcher might be too tired from going 9 innings the night before, or you might have pinched hit them trying to pick up a run; and your best hitter might be locked somewhere deep in the lineup.
Baseball is Plato’s ideal republic. If the starters can’t do it, then the bench will give it a go; if an umpire’s call is bogus you argue your case. It’s Aristotle’s perfect median: the goal of the game is to win, of course. But mostly it’s about duty, responsibility, and teamwork.
In baseball the rules are so straightforward someone unfamiliar with the game can likely intuit them after watching an inning or two. Everything comes down to management, to teamwork, to sacrifice. Whether you win or go home is a shared effort in practice and patience.
Whether you’re sitting in the dugout or a major league stadium, or on a steel bench in the drizzling rain, baseball has the ability to bring out the child in all of us. It brings the child out in us because the season of baseball lingers on a bit like life.
There are moments so dull that the only thing worth living for is a box of chips covered in spicy, radioactive-looking cheese, and a beer. There are nights when the games drag on so long that you look around and notice that the children have moved from their seats into their parents’ laps, reminding you that there will be times when the only thing able to bring you comfort will be when you’re enfolded in the arms of someone you love.
Baseball is a world where justice and fairness reign supreme. It is an international sport filled with immigrants from more than 15 countries and territories throughout the world.
Baseball is a bit like heaven because it is a reflection of a beloved community. It is a game played by boys and girls in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan, Colombia, Panama, Australia, Nicaragua, Korea, Venezuela, Canada, the United States, and everywhere else sticks and crabapples fall from trees. It’s played in alleyways and stadiums, backyards and imaginations.
I think baseball season starts at springtime to remind humankind that we’re capable of making something that actually makes sense, to remind us that we can make rules that work, and rules worthy of being followed. Moreover, baseball season shows us that the world is a diverse, beautiful, and dazzling place, where ushers get inducted into the hall of fame; where girls break glass ceilings, and war heroes break color barriers. Baseball makes heroes out of everyday people.
Baseball is like heaven because in the end all of us long to go home, to be safe, to be a part of something that matters. So, may it be. Amen.