Finding God on the Baseball Diamond

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 10:00 AM

Perfect Game

John Sexton on baseball and faith.

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Illustration by Luke Pearson

Hanging above the dresser in my bedroom, encased in Plexiglas, is a baseball. A birthday gift from my wife, the ball bears the 1982 World Series logo and was signed, at some point between then and now, by Robin Yount, the Milwaukee Brewers’ star shortstop and that season’s AL Most Valuable Player. The T in his signature resembles a star.

I’ve got a patchy memory that some weeks after the Brewers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1982 series, my grandfather took me to a breakfast sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, or maybe the Lions Club. I don’t remember whether my grandfather cared all that much about baseball, but I think we went because my father—his son—had died as the season was just getting underway and my family was trying to treat us kids to special events when they could. This qualified. The Brewers were all there—Molitor, Cooper, Gantner, Oglivie, Fingers, Yount, of course—and I left with a baseball signed by the whole team.  

One summer day some years later, a neighbor and I were playing a game we called “Kirby Puckett,” which had us leaping up against an imaginary centerfield wall to make miracle catches, just the way the Minnesota Twins’ centerfielder did. (Playing “Robin Yount” involved laying out to save a no-hitter.) The ball we were using got away, as the ball we were using often did—only this time it rolled across my front lawn and into a drain. When I emerged from the house with my autographed ball, we each promised the other it would never hit the ground. We’d catch every toss.

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In his new book, Baseball as a Road to God, John Sexton, president of New York University (where, full disclosure, he and I both teach), includes a similar story by essayist Leonard Kriegel. Stricken with polio as a child, Kriegel was once presented, while in the hospital, with a ball signed by the 1945 Detroit Tigers. In his own writing Kriegel recalls, “That ball simply embodied the idea of physical grace—a grace that had been ripped from my life by the virus.”

Time passed. And one day, Sexton recounts, while playing catch “the ancient ball they were using simply fell apart,” and Kriegel and a friend had reason to fetch that Tigers ball from the house. I imagine them making promises to catch every toss. And yet: “One by one, the names on the ball disappeared, chalked and cut and scuffed into oblivion by granite and brick and creosote.”

That is what happened to my Brewers ball too, of course. No one catches every toss. Fathers die. So do sons. Children are afflicted. Still, Kriegel can say about that ball: “For one last time, it had rescued me from a bad day.”

This is baseball to John Sexton. Grace and affliction. Miracles and doubt. Belief and joy and ecstasy, too. In his book Sexton argues that there are moments in the game that lift us out of our regular existence: rescuing us, say, from another bad day; granting us an experience, in the words of one theologian, of “‘standing outside of oneself’—without ceasing to be oneself” (the textbook definition of ecstasy).

Now, it needn’t be baseball, Sexton is clear to point out, that takes us out of ourselves. Organized religion can sometimes work. So might music or art. But Sexton’s hope, in chapters that follow the innings 1 through 9—with room set aside, as well, for a pregame show, a seventh-inning stretch, and a return to the clubhouse—is to reveal that this game can evoke the very “essence of religion,” that “inside the game the formative material of spirituality can be found.”