01 April 2011

Great John Allen Piece on Roman Catholicism and Baseball

From NCR's John Allen and "All Things Catholic": 
I’ve always wondered how anyone born in St. Louis, great baseball town that it is, could possibly regard April as the cruelest month. With all due respect to T.S. Eliot, any month that usually features both Easter and Opening Day just can’t be that bad. (Bear in mind that by the time Eliot was born in 1888, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who eventually morphed into the Cardinals, had already won four American Association pennants in a row as well as the 1886 World Series against the forerunner of the Chicago Cubs, so it’s not like he could be excused on the grounds of getting there too early.)
Yesterday marked the opening of the 2011 campaign, so in honor of the occasion, I’ll roll out my personal list of the “Top Nine Reasons why Baseball is to Sports what Catholicism is to Religion.” Why nine? It’s a key number in both traditions -- nine players on a diamond, nine innings in a game, and nine days to a novena.
The following are nine reasons why Catholicism and baseball are, quite literally, a match made in Heaven:
  1. Both baseball and Catholicism venerate the past. Both have a Communion of Saints, all the way down to popular shrines and holy cards.
  1. Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the Infield Fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)
  1. Both have a keen sense of ritual, in which pace is critically important. (As a footnote, that’s why basketball is more akin to Pentecostalism; both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience.)
  1. Both generate oceans of statistics, arcana, and lore. For entry-level examples, try: Who has the highest lifetime batting average, with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats? (Ty Cobb). Which popes had the longest and the shortest reigns? (Pius IX and Urban VII).
  1. In both baseball and Catholicism, you can dip in and out, but for serious devotees the liturgy is a daily affair.
  1. Both are global games which are especially big right now in Latin America. (Though I’m principally a Yankees fan, I live in Denver, where the Rockies’ starting rotation is composed of two pitchers from the Dominican Republic, a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and a guy from South Carolina. In a lot of dioceses, that’s not unlike the makeup of the presbyterate these days.)
  1. Both baseball and Catholicism have been badly tainted by scandal, with the legacies of erstwhile superstars utterly ruined. Yet both have proved surprisingly resilient -- perhaps demonstrating that the game is great enough to survive even the best efforts of those in charge at any given moment to ruin it.
  1. Both have a complex farm system, and fans love to speculate about who the next hot commodity will be in “The Show.”
  1. Both reward patience. If you’re the kind of person who needs immediate results, neither baseball nor Catholicism is really your game.
As an “extra innings” bonus, I’ll toss in my theory as to why the American League represents the Catholic instinct in baseball, while the National League is more Protestant.
Famously, the National League does not permit the designated hitter, reflecting a sort of fundamentalist Puritanism. It’s not the way the game was originally played, and no power on earth has the authority to add or subtract to scripture. The American League, however, has adopted the designated hitter, striking a balance between scripture and tradition. The designated hitter rule, in fact, is arguably an athletic analogue of what Pope Benedict XVI talks about as a “hermeneutics of continuity,” of reform without rupture.
By the way, if I’m right about that, a great irony presents itself: Both the Cardinals and the Padres play in the more “Protestant” National League!
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. He can be reached at]


Anonymous said...

pretty cool stuff--many years ago someone sent me an email comparing the National League to Catholicism and the AL to Protestantism. I have since forgotten all the details however....

Chris J

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Anglicanism and cricket could be compared the same way? The "high church"/"low church" division in Anglicanism certainly parallels the division between test cricket and one day cricket.


Katie B said...

nice. :)