I sometimes refer to this time of the year as the other “Holy Week,” as it marks the playing of the World Series, the annual “Fall Classic” which crowns the champion of Major League Baseball. My passion for baseball is so intense that some compare it to a form of religious fervor. While I would never claim to place baseball on par with my faith, I must confess that I often find spiritual overtones embedded in the game. I think this can be traced back to my early childhood, when my dad told me that God created baseball when He made the world, telling me to look it up in the Book of Genesis, where the first line reads “In the big inning.” And, while I no longer adhere in my dad’s form of Biblical interpretation, I do delight in making the following spiritual connections with baseball.
Sacred Names: Scripture scholars remind us that the Biblical tradition held names in great esteem. Names were considered sacred because they contained the identity of the person. The Scripture passage which highlights this phenomenon most profoundly is the revelation of the name of God to Moses in the third chapter of the Book of Exodus. Baseball has a long history of fascination with names as well, often designating certain players with special nicknames which capture something of the nature of the way they play the game. Our very own Milwaukee Brave Henry Aaron was given the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank” to illustrate his ability to pound the baseball for hits all over the field.
Intercessory Prayer: Our Catholic faith has a great affection for the Communion of Saints, our belief that we have a connection with the holy men and women who intercede on our behalf when we call upon them in prayer. Anthony of Padua, for example, often is sought as the patron saint for seeking and finding lost items. Baseball seems to have its own form of intercession, as there is a communion of pitchers in the bullpen whose sole purpose is to enter the game to bring relief and even “save” a victory.
The Just Judge: The Biblical witness, in both Old and New Testaments, points to a God whose purpose is to issue judgments regarding the rightness and wrongness of behavior and belief. These judgments are considered sacrosanct and, once revealed, are to be followed faithfully. Baseball, too, is a game of judgments, with a comprehensive set of rules dispensed by the ultimate authority, the umpire. And, while some players and managers strive to challenge the umpire, such arguments end in futility, succumbing to the one who has the power to make the final call.
Sacred Numbers: Scripture scholars tell us that there is a special form of numerology in the Bible. Some numbers have a symbolic meaning. The number 12, for example, often refers to a sense of “completeness” or “fullness.” Thus, we have the 12 tribes of Israel representing the fullness of the Chosen People of God. Baseball has a special form of numerology as well, which takes the form of statistics. Certain numbers are considered holy because they represent remarkable achievements. One of the most sacred of numbers in baseball is the number 56, which points to the consecutive number of games in which the legendary New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio got a hit. Most baseball historians maintain that this achievement is one record which will never be broken.
The Liturgical Calendar: The Catholic Church has its own form of calendar based on the Liturgical Year. It marks special days and seasons which highlight the events of salvation history. Because of the length of its season of play (i.e., longer than any other major sport), it is possible to suggest that baseball has a schedule which mirrors that of the Church. For example, one might consider Spring Training as a form of Advent, Opening Day as a form of the Nativity, the unfolding of the 162 games as a form of Ordinary Time, the All Star Game as a form of a Feast Day, the World Series as a form of Holy Week, and the presentation of post-season awards as a form of Mystagogy.
Gentile Inclusion: One of the most significant events in the history of Christianity was the series of events which led to the decision of the Apostles to admit Gentiles as members of the Church. Previously, because of its initial origin in Judaism, it had been held that Christians needed to adhere to the rules of the Jewish Holiness Code to be ecclesiastical members. However, the profound efforts of Saint Paul the Apostle made it possible for inclusion within the Church apart from the Law, as it was the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ which brought salvation. In the history of baseball, a similar event took place when a player named Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers bravely and heroically broke through a ban of discrimination which prevented black athletes from playing in the Major League, and it opened the way for players from all races and cultures. His noble witness has been recognized in the retirement of his uniform number of 42 on each and every team.
Coming Home: When Jesus speaks of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven, He sometimes describes this ultimate destiny as a homecoming – the promise of a special dwelling place prepared just for us. It is one of the most comforting and consoling images in all of the Bible. Baseball is unique among all sports in describing its primary destination in a similar manner. Other sports speak of crossing a goal line or making a basket, but baseball points to “coming home.” And, just as it takes a Church to help believers make the journey to their eternal destination, so, too, does it take a team to secure the journey around the bases and send a player to the triumph which comes in crossing “home” plate with the winning run.