Feeding the Soul

The only church that feeds the soul, day in, and day out, is the church of baseball.

— Annie Savoy in Bull Durham

This essay follows a decision by baseball club owners in the spring of 2022 to cancel the opening day of the season in a contract dispute with their players. This is not the first time play has been disrupted while billionaire owners square off against millionaire players. A bitter strike in 1994-95 forced cancellation of the World Series and led to a truncated season the following year. The issue then, as always, was money, and fans were not amused. Average game attendance plummeted during the strike-shortened 1995 season, and TV ratings also took a big hit. Neither owners nor players seemed to understand that our national pastime did not belong to them; they were merely its stewards.

It is hardly an original observation to say that baseball is America’s civil religion. Numerous academics have weighed in on the subject. But perhaps its most succinct expression came in the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, about an Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, who risks bankruptcy by plowing up a cornfield to build a baseball diamond. A cult writer played by James Earl Jones tells him:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game -- it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

You don’t have to look very hard to find baseball’s quasi-religious trappings: its elaborate rituals and mythology, its superstitions, its hymns (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), its saints enshrined in Cooperstown, its perennial hope of redemption. Baseball’s stadiums have been compared to cathedrals, but I think its well-manicured playing fields are closer to the Garden of Eden, timeless and innocent of the world’s pain. Baseball was there to bind up the nation’s wounds after 9/11. It was there again when terrorists detonated a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz gave voice to a hurting city’s outrage and resolve. Standing in front of a giant American flag unfurled at Fenway Park, he bellowed, ““This is our f**king city, and nobody gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”

There are limits to how far you can push the notion of baseball as a kind of religion. It has all the rites and rituals of a religion, to be sure. But it ultimately points to no higher reality beyond itself. In this respect, it may resemble Confucianism rather than any Western spiritual tradition. Confucius ( 551 BCE - 479 BCE) was a Chinese sage who was primarily concerned with reviving ancient Chinese traditions, particularly ancestor worship. He was a master of rituals and music. For Confucius, it was not enough just to go through the motions of ritual observances; they must be performed with reverence and strict attention to detail. Had Confucius been a baseball commentator, he doubtlessly would have looked askance at designated hitters, instant replays and other innovations that modern-day baseball purists regard as assaults on sacred tradition.

Ritual was never an end in itself in Confucianism but a means of achieving human perfection. It promoted filial piety, brotherliness, righteousness, good faith and loyalty, as well as maintaining the social order. An ancient Confucian text, the Tso Chuan says: "Ritual determines the relations of high and low; it is the warp and woof of Heaven and Earth; it is the life of people.” This may be the closest Confucianism comes to a metaphysical dimension, in the cosmic harmony achieved when ritual is performed to perfection by men of good character. According to Mencius, another classic Confucian text, heaven never speaks directly but is revealed by its deeds and actions in nature and in the affairs of men. Confucius commented, “What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being.”

In America, the coming of spring is marked by the opening of the baseball season. Like Confucianism, there is no explicit metaphysical dimension to the sport. And yet, when its rites and rituals are performed to perfection, you just might get the sense that heaven and earth are aligned. You certainly get that sense in Field of Dreams, when Ray Kinsella plows up his cornfield to build a baseball diamond, and players from a bygone era emerge from the ether to a game that is timeless and innocent of pain. One of the players, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, thanks KInsella for allowing them to play and asks, “Is this heaven?” Kinsella replies, “It’s Iowa.” Then, looking around, he thinks better of it and adds, “Maybe this is heaven.”

© Copyright 2004-2022 by Eric Rennie
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