Opinion

What baseball can learn from religion

Spectators stand for the national anthem before an opening day baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals on March 30, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Spectators stand for the national anthem before an opening day baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals on March 30, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(RNS) — Our national game is in trouble.

The Boys of Summer are back and another baseball season is underway, but the game is declining in popularity, losing ground to endless digital amusements and to other sports.

The world of religion offers clues to the causes and consequences of the present troubles. It also suggests what it will take to revive the great American pastime.

For baseball, the statistics are damning: The game’s fan base is simply too white and too old to have a future at the heart of American society.

There are not enough young fans to replace the ones passing away, and though teams remain profitable and player salaries continue to increase, a day at the ballpark is a luxury more and more American families simply cannot afford.

Even worse, there are fewer families to keep a baseball culture alive. When more people live in households of one, the atomization and estrangement of modern life make an afternoon or evening at a ballgame seem like a throwback to another time. When boys grow up without fathers, it is much less likely that they will learn to love, play or appreciate the game.

Baseball needs a revival — and not unlike that of religion, a dimension of American life that persists across the ages in spite of dire predictions year after year.

First, let us consider demographics. As much as religious market share seems to be determined by popularity and consumer choices, it is really a function of sociological trends. Religions with higher rates of fertility, intramarriage and adult retention tend to grow numerically. Faith groups with low rates in these areas almost always decline.

This is not to say that baseball fans should only marry each other and must from birth introduce their children to the glories of baseball — though it would help. The point, rather, is that when families are smaller and fewer children carry their baseball fandom into adulthood, support for the game declines.

Large sections of empty seats are shown during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field, on Sept. 8, 2015, in Seattle. The announced attendance of 13,389 was the smallest home crowd of the 2015 season for the Mariners. Many MLB teams struggle with low attendance. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Second, the role of religion in society depends to a great degree on its symbolic importance. Apart from any divine or human blessings that accrue to its adherents, religion benefits when the culture at large decides to support, subsidize and encourage it.

Baseball has an advantage here, as its status as our national pastime is irrefutable. Major League Baseball attendance is more than three times higher than the NBA and NHL, and more than four times higher than the NFL.

With its grueling 162-game schedule, the baseball season is a longer-lasting and more durable feature of our calendar and our culture than football, played one day a week in the fall.

Third, religion flourishes in a plural public square. Like religions, baseball should not insist that it be the only sport — only that it is better than the others. Competition with other teams and other sports for fans’ allegiances should make baseball attentive to what people want out of the ballpark experience and how to mediate the game to them through television, mobile apps, etc.

But in the end, religions stay fundamentally true to their core teachings, even as they are shaped at the edges by the demands of consumerism and pluralism. Religions that change too much in order to appeal to more people are doomed to decline.

Likewise, baseball must resist the temptation to change the character of the game by acclimating to the supposed preferences of people who find it boring anyway. The designated hitter rule — which allows teams to have another batter hit in place of pitchers in American League parks — and expanded divisions and playoffs arguably made the game more exciting. But let us not deny that something was lost.

Instant replay erodes the time-honored authority of umpires. Whether it changes something essential to the game is debatable.

Current innovations like the automatic intentional walk are just silly. Horrible proposals like starting extra innings with a runner on second to make tied ballgames end sooner remind me of churches that “innovate” with terrible music or by offering milk and cookies for Communion instead of bread and wine.

These smack of appeals to people who do not want the product you are offering anyway. Baseball could learn much from religion on that front, as many innovations have not only failed to reach new adherents, but turned off the longtime faithful as well.

Finally, the most obvious parallel between religion and baseball’s current situation is evangelism. While demography is destiny in the aggregate, it remains true that a faithful witness goes a long way and can indeed change hearts.

Baseball evangelists need not denigrate other sports. They should, however, speak boldly and confidently about the greatness of the game. Like religion, it takes a lifetime to truly “get” baseball. But you can decide at any moment to become a fan.

In the end, religion must be faithful to itself. The same is true of our national pastime. A watching world will see in the constancy, integrity and permanence of baseball the truth, beauty and goodness to which it points.

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

16 Comments

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  • As a baseball fan with no MLB team of my own (The quiche’ and Latte’ crowd in Portland would not support a major league franchise), I find more troubling trends in this commentary, with greater potential impact. The problems facing baseball mirror in a relatively banal way the deeper crises of our culture as a whole. America at present brooks comparison with Rome in its decline, shortly before its inevitable slide into oblivion; a fate common to every great empire.

  • As a baseball fan, I was hoping to read something interesting, or maybe even something infuriating. It was just banal.

  • For starters, both are very boring, religion more so. Can we do without both? Indeed we can.

    To increase the interest in baseball, some suggestions:

    1. Salaries for players and managers should be based only on performance. $500 per hit, $500 per win etc.

    2. No extra inning games. Games tied at the end to be decided by a home run sudden death with pitches thrown by a 100 mph fast ball machine.

    3. Game length to be eight innings instead of nine.

    4. More TV camera scanning of the crowds to see family members on TV during the game.

    5. Eliminate over-loading of one side of the field for pull hitters.

    6. Eliminate umpires replacing them with robots equipped with strike zone cameras and base touch and foul line sensors.

  • For religion? No way to increase interest because of the basic flaws in their foundations, history and theology.

  • This is an amusing little article, but let’s not get carried away here. Religions are based on doctrines. Sports are based on traditions.

    I’m as much of a baseball purist as anyone. I don’t like the DH, nor do I care for all these recent attempts to shorten the pace of the game by limiting mound visits, etc. But I have to admit that there’s nothing sacrosanct about the game. It’s just a matter of what I grew up with.

    If baseball needs to adapt to suit the preferences of a new generation of fans, so be it. Otherwise, it’ll fade away and we’ll be on to the next thing. That’s the way it goes.

  • Yet you seem incessantly interested in religion. Odd that you spend so much time on something you consider boring.

  • So true. I hear the manager of the Coliseum had the same issues as MLB with maintaining fan interest. He tried tee-shirt night, but that was a bust. Then he tried improving the pace of the games by releasing two lions for every Christian, but that didn’t go so well either. Then there was Nero’s fireworks night, and we all know how that turned out…

  • But the game of researching and conclusions about religion’s flaws is quite enthralling.

  • I know several atheists and agnostics. Some are good friends. Most of them state their case simply and let it go. Not you. You’re a zealot.

    Belittling people of faith is important to you to the point of obsession. You might ask yourself why that is.

  • Keep telling yourself that. Your posts betray your true agenda. I wish you well. Moving on.

  • Some of that reality:
    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an
    unproven, human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple, preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter

    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate, He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they grew into a religion known today as
    Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references
    used are available upon request)

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