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Baseball as a road to God

A general view outside of Wrigley Field before game six of the 2016 NLCS playoff baseball series. Wrigley Field will host a World Series game for the first time in 71 years on October 28, 2016. Photo by Jerry Lai/USA Today
A general view outside of Wrigley Field before game six of the 2016 NLCS playoff baseball series. Wrigley Field will host a World Series game for the first time in 71 years on October 28, 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports, via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SEXTON-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 28, 2016.

A general view outside of Wrigley Field before game six of the 2016 NLCS playoff baseball series. Wrigley Field will host a World Series game for the first time in 71 years on October 28, 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports, via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SEXTON-OPED, originally transmitted on Oct. 28, 2016.

(RNS) Soon, more than the seasons will be changing.

The Fall Classic will yield to a winter of blitzes and bombs – leaving behind the quieter images of double plays, curveballs and sacrifices. But first, the seats at Wrigley Field on Chicago’s North Side will fill up once more with Cubs fans, who have suffered for as long as they can remember but still have hope.

For decades, people have milked metaphors of baseball and religion beyond what they are worth. It’s not illegal, though there should probably be a special place in hell for those who claim to see the Trinity in baseball’s rule that three outs end an inning, or that the ballpark is a “cathedral.”

The truth is, we can go deeper.

For years, I’ve tried to do just that, teaching a course at New York University with the mischievous title of Baseball as a Road to God, and writing a book by the same name.

What I’ve figured out with my students is that there’s common ground we can all learn from – above all, the special feelings in seemingly secular settings that suggest the spiritual. The feelings can be as powerfully simple as having a catch with your dad, or watching the Cleveland Indians win the pennant against all odds, or actually hearing Jackie Robinson breathe as he sprinted toward home plate.

If the evocative capacities of religion or spirituality are to have any credibility, they have to be universal – meaning, one’s muse is deeply personal and can be almost anything.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For some, indeed, for a great many, a feeling of heightened sensitivity can be evoked at Mass; for others, the spark can be a Beethoven symphony; for others still, an Andrew Miller slider. As James Joyce wrote in “Ulysses,” “Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.”

People always ask me if baseball is truly a road to God. The short answer is, “Of course not.” But the longer answer is a defiant “Yes!”

If given sensitive attention, baseball can awaken us to a contemplative dimension of life that is often missing in our increasingly peripatetic existence. We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply. When we embrace its ineffable joys, baseball can be a guide to viewing religion and the spiritual life differently, to living differently, to being in the world in a different way and seeing more in it.

One time, outside of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, I saw a T-shirt for sale that asked: “What did Jesus say to the Cubs just before he ascended into heaven?” The answer: “Don’t do anything until I get back.” Yet another proclaimed the words of the late, archetypal Chicago broadcaster Jack Brickhouse: “Hey, anyone can have a bad century!”

By now, the second century of World Series drought is upon them, but until it ends, Cubs fans will continue flocking to the corner of Clark and Addison streets on game day – not because they expect to win, or because they want to see how exactly they’ll manage to lose, but simply because they want to be there. Just in case.

They sit, waiting to experience the ecstasy of release; the blessing that follows the curse. The only question that remains is how much longer that wait will last.

(John Sexton is a former president of New York University and dean of its law school)

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  • Baseball is also a path to Enlightenment. After all, the Buddha taught the Dharma to the (Cleveland) Indians.

  • What God said to the Cubs? Hilarious! Thanks.

    No, baseball is not religion. No sport is, except, I understand football in the Southeast. But softball and baseball are the most enjoyable, relaxing and pleasant sports to watch. Screaming drunkenness is not required.

    GO CUBBIES!!!!

  • The Twins? Meh. If they do well that’s nice, but I don’t follow men’s major sports. I’ve seen first hand how greedy billionaire owners rip off taxpayers and I’m not interested in contributing to that.

    However, the Cubbies are a special exception. I’m a lifetime underdog lover and it’s not possible to get less far under than them.

    I came to my love for softball from playing it and baseball beginning in the 1960s when it was America’s past time, not a multi billion dollar business. Sandy Koufax, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Tony Oliva, Don Drysdale, etc. Oh yeah. ?

  • I entirely agree with you on the failures of ownership, on the other hand (and this goes back to all hero worship) why are we so prone to idolize sports stars, or any other celebrity? This speaks to the innate human need to have Someone to worship. Yet, I respect many of the sports stars of the past (not all, of course), but it seems a bit harder to do today. It’s a bit silly to pay professional athletes the monstrous sums they receive for what is essentially an unproductive endeavor, except to the extent it somehow drives the economy, though I would prefer other methodologies. I do appreciate your sympathy for the Cubs, I spent 2 1/2 years at the former FT. Sheridan while in the army, just north of Chicago in the late 1970’s and became a Cubs fan at that time, though my preferred sport is football.

  • It’s a very difficult step for people to recognize a particular skill, be it athletic, artistic, social, intellectual or something else, does not necessarily equate with that individual’s moral code.

    In my thinking, our entire remuneration system for services/labor is tremendously out of whack.

  • I am in complete accord with you on the question of remuneration, but I have no solution to offer except that I would argue that Capitalism would be more just if tempered by Christian reflection.

  • Congratulations to the Cubs on their harrowing win, now we need to root for the Indians, since they now hold the longest streak without a World Series win at 68 years.

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