Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on a Field of Dreams: In Defense of Baseball Polygamy

I sometimes flirt with books at bookstores.  I give them sideways looks, and the occasional meaningful glance.  Then I’ll pick them up, only briefly, a mild skimming.  But for some reason I’m not ready for commitment--not yet, even though a real connection is there.  I come back a few days later, slink back to the shadowy aisle in question.  I visit the row where the sparks were lively.  Is the magic still there?  Then, finally, I grab the book in a seemingly impulsive flourish, and whirl to the cashier, for consummation. 

I had such a coquettish courtship for several visits with the book Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game at the local independent bookstore.  Though they are a dying breed, like the church and mainline denominations, I love independent bookstores.  And for whatever reason, and questionable taste, I love the church.  If we are dinosaurs, let us remember how much all kids really love dinosaurs.  There are worse things to be in this world. 

But back to baseball and theology.

I was intrigued by the title, but I worried about any Christian piety, especially because this book seemed to be going about its baseball musings in a Judeo Christian framework.  If Ray Kinsella, the mystical Iowan corn farmer in Field of Dreams (1989), had mentioned Jesus, or Moses, just once, it would have ruined the film, but the movie was absolutely theological.  They now show it on Turner Classic Movies, which makes me feel very old.  In my reading past, I have devoured books about Zen Buddhism and sports, from the likes of Phil Jackson and the former Dodger and Met Shawn Green, but I worried about baseball and God from the Western religious traditions.  I have also done quite a bit of baseball theology from the pulpit, and I always get oddly nervous when a book is too much in my wheelhouse.  This book certainly was.
The author of Baseball as a Road to God is John Sexton, the fifteenth President of New York University, who used material from his class of the same title to shape the book’s theology.  I’m not sure why he needed the help of Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz, but there they are on the cover, cited for their baseball and/or theological wisdom.  The course at NYU is geared towards helping undergraduates create an intellectual and personal context for the ineffable.  As any mystic will tell you, or not tell you if they’re really mystical, the ineffable is hard to talk about.  Words fail.  They’re bound too much to culture—they are the very currency of one’s culture.  That’s why Buddhists prefer silence.  Christians and Jews, however, like to yap about a personal God, our loaded and problematic term for the ineffable.  As for other fields, science isn’t generally helpful with the ineffable (and the religious faith it generates).  Theology is the best field to talk about the ineffable, and how it can be found in baseball, according to Sexton: “Whatever its particular manifestation, faith is an affirmation of something that cannot be expressed, for it is rooted in another domain of knowledge, one that is unknowable in scientific terms.”

Fortunately, this baseball theology from John Sexton is not Billy Graham at all, but rather more like Meister Eckhart in its style, or St. John of the Cross, for its capacity to both absorb and articulate the power of suffering, and the joy of partisan baseball endurance: in a religious context with one’s chosen team.  Baseball is just different from other sports.  It abandons time in its system of order--of outs and innings, and the game and the park become a sacred space for the players and the fans alike, as Sexton claims: “In this and many other ways, baseball creates and lives the cyclical, repetitive liturgy and sacramental time of religion.”

John Sexton makes active use of the wonderful and articulate baseball theology done by others: John Updike (who is even better with golf theology), the mystical novelist W.P. Kinsella (whose main character also bears the author’s last name), and the former President of Yale and Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti.  The President of NYU definitely channels the late President of Yale whose passion for baseball was unbounded. 

For Sexton, a major baseball motif is a sense of brokenness and a longing for home.  Everything comes back to home in baseball.  Baseball requires, if one is to be successful, a separation from home, by three stations, and a return when the runners—the former hitters—are somehow changed by the journey.  They score; they return to the fraternity of dugout and clubhouse.  It all comes back to where it started.  But none of this happens safely; there is always peril.  Baseball seems to have a knack for breaking one’s heart, while inviting, on a mystical level, a deeper commitment to secrets, mystical coincidences, and anomalies.  In the words of Sexton:

“Faith is often the handmaiden of hard work, intellectual and otherwise.  In religion thinkers have often tried to use reason to convince others to join them in the faith.  Much ink has been spilled, for example, on various philosophical arguments designed to ‘prove’ God’s existence.  I find it interesting that the argumentative style and logical structure of some of these arguments have parallels used—with equal force—to suggest that something more than coincidence is involved in some of baseball’s delightful anomalies.”

The hard, personal work of religious faith began with Sexton’s love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how they embodied the joy and sorrow of his childhood.  Listening to Dodger games on the radio was a magical experience, a scrolling narrative of imagination in every Brooklyn neighborhood.  (At the time of the Dodgers, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the United States.)  Going to the park, to little Ebbets Field, was heaven itself.  Sacred places and sacred time at the park require partisanship, and this partisanship creates the suffering, and the glory.  Many baseball thinkers from New York never got over the Brooklyn Dodgers, who won one World Series in 1955.  The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn, is the best book about this fascinating and lovable crew, including captain Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.  The Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, but they left Brooklyn in 1958, when Walter O’Malley moved his team to Los Angeles.  The New York Giants also left New York and the Polo Grounds in 1958.  Major League Baseball required that if the Dodgers were going to move, they would have to add another West Coast team.  The Giants, my team, came along in the deal and settled in at windy Candlestick Park, a recurring setting in my own childhood and coming of age.  
1955 and 1958, there is the theodicy.  The childhood high of victory is eclipsed by heartbreak, abandonment, and intellectual adulthood.  What is one to do?  What moves are available for the baseball lover in 1958?  John Sexton does what many Dodgers fans did for a few years; they rooted for the Los Angeles Dodgers, from 3,000 miles away.  But this was never going to be enough.  Some gave up baseball entirely.  Most refused to root for the Yankees.  The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former Brooklyn Dodger lover herself, writes of her own conversion to the Boston Red Sox in the introduction to Baseball as a Road to God.  In the book, John Sexton records his religious conversion to the New York Yankees.  I do not dislike the Yankees (or the Red Sox), but I admire those who waited for the New York Mets in 1962, the local team that I have now adopted fully, without diminishing my love for the Giants.
Though this may seem immoral, it can be done.  I did it.     

Baseball love affairs are often very complicated, with a nasty thorn for every petal of beauty.  I have lived on the East Coast since 1999, and in the Tri-state area from 2004 to the present.   I found it difficult to follow a team 3,000 miles from my home.  I needed something more.  My current predicament as a baseball polygamist, like Abraham and Jacob, is unusual, but there are others like me who have found the Mets irresistible.  Because of World Series victories in 1969 and 1986, they are much more than lovable losers.  Yet no one will ever accuse you of jumping on the bandwagon if you choose the Mets as your team.  Some baseball lovers and theologians may never understand this position, but here is my apologia, simply stated, and defended.  I love, and root for, two baseball teams: the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets.  I love Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, and don’t get me started on King Solomon. 

Can this be done?  Is it legal?  Does Major League Baseball approve of this kind of hooking up?  Will free love undermine the institution of marriage? 

“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” 

Just to complicate matters before clarifying them, I also root for Army and Navy, Cal and Stanford.  Does it ever get confusing?  All the time.  The heart is a fickle organ, and the heart is more faithful to the ineffable than the mind.  As a Giants fan, I do not dislike the Los Angeles Dodgers because of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese (the captain who supported his black teammate), Sandy Koufax, Shawn Green, and Roger Kahn (the aforementioned writer, and beat journalist for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s).  Koufax and Green both took public stands for their Jewish faith during their playing careers.  You can look it up.  I live and breathe in the Switzerland of sports.  I blame my education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and its mascot the Banana Slug (who has no known predators) for my sporting bipartisanship, and free love.  UCSC students tend to look at the world a little differently.  My romantic relationships with sports teams are not normal, and you are right to still be skeptical.  Sexton also makes it clear in his book that doubt is not the absence of faith; it is the beginning. 
Ok, here’s why being a baseball polygamist like me is theologically defensible--even coherent, but hardly scientific.  What was the original name of the New York Giants?  The Metropolitans.  The Mets.  They became the Giants in the 1890s.  What were the colors of the old New York Giants (and still the colors of the San Francisco Giants)?  Orange and black.  The Dodgers?  Blue and white.  The New York Mets in 1962?  Orange and blue.  Colors can communicate something at a deep level.  The original ownership team of the New York Mets invoked the National League history of New York City by team name and colors, and thousands of heartbroken Giants and Dodgers fans embraced the lovable New York Mets.  I am numbered among them, strangely faithful to both coasts, and to history.  What happens when the Giants play the Mets, like the weekend past?  I’m happy either way.  And sad too. 

You know that Abraham must have seen a few cat-fights between Sarah and Hagar.  From the biblical record, Solomon seemed to be an able mediator of disputes among women.
Religious conversion doesn’t happen just once.  It comes again and again, winding deeper into your heart and soul.  Flirting with the Mets has become a lifelong commitment in my adulthood as I pursue, and cultivate by faith, the ineffable in baseball and religion.  You can too.  Conversion becomes the sacramental rite of Confirmation.  So I stand up for the Giants and the Mets.  Combining unlikely bedfellows shouldn’t be so strange, according to John Sexton.  He did it with baseball and theology.  For those who find their love of God strangely close to their love of baseball, this slim book is right in your wheelhouse.  So swing away! 

Let’s go, Mets!     

No comments:

Post a Comment