Finding God on the Baseball Diamond

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

Perfect Game

John Sexton on baseball and faith.

(Continued from Page 1)

In baseball, time passes more slowly than in the real world, Sexton notes, and without a clock to regulate the game it could go on forever. This slowness and, with it, a suggestion of eternity, trains us to see the world more fully and with more care. And this feels true—the slowness, at least—until you look back and realize no game ever has gone on forever. Or, until you recall with a sense of deepening nostalgia, as Sexton does, the days when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, which makes you realize just how quickly time actually goes. The Dodgers have been in Los Angeles for more than half a century—long enough to allow for Sexton’s conversion to the Yankees. My Brewers have played in the National League for almost 15 years now. Yount’s been on the shelf for nearly 20. Yet, somehow, every game is still a break from that time speeding by.

1304_SBR_BASEBALL_AUTHOR
Author John Sexton

Photo by NYU Photo Bureau Madere

Each spring for more than a decade, as if in anticipation of the upcoming baseball season, Sexton has offered an undergraduate course, also called “Baseball as a Road to God.” (The book is co-authored by Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz, friends and colleagues of Sexton who both have long connections with the course. Oliphant’s best-selling Praying for Gil Hodges has been included on the syllabus over the years. Schwartz was the first student ever enrolled in the course.) This class and the book both rely on two terms of art from Sexton’s earlier days in religious studies to pave the road between baseball and the divine. The first is ineffable, “indescribable in words yet … palpable and real.” The second is hierophany, a term borrowed from University of Chicago legend Mircea Eliade, which means “a manifestation of the sacred or holy.” And to bring these terms together, Sexton takes us to Yankee Stadium. The date: Oct. 4, 1955. The Dodgers’ shortstop Pee Wee Reese tosses a low ball across the diamond, and first baseman Gil Hodges catches it. Game over.

“In the basement of my family’s home, my friend Bobby ‘Dougie’ Douglass and I knelt and prayed with all the intensity we could muster, grasping between us in dynamic tension each end of a twelve-inch crucifix we had removed from the wall. … We prayed before a radio instead of an altar, which broadcast the sounds of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series instead of hymns. … For three innings, time had slowed; but in that moment it froze: The Brooklyn Dodgers had won the World Series! Seven decades of waiting were over! Dougie raised his arms in exultation, releasing the crucifix, whereupon the laws of physics drove the head of Christ into my mouth, chipping my front tooth. I wore that chipped tooth, unrepaired, as a visible memento for nearly fifty years.”

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“October 4, 1955,” Sexton concludes. “For me and millions of others, a sacred day. Why? Hard to put into words. Impossible to capture completely in our limited vocabulary.” One catch by a first baseman who throughout a season may catch hundreds and hundreds of tosses across the diamond, who in a career gloves thousands of outs—this catch is a hierophany. Without it, the day might just have fallen into the realm of the profane, easy to capture with available words: Another Dodgers loss. Another season lost. Wait ’til next year. What makes it ineffable—for Sexton and those millions of others—is the wonder and joy, the miracle at long last, of a Brooklyn win.

Sexton’s writing is not always up to the likes of Whitman or Updike or Bernard Malamud, some of his favorites whose writings on baseball make appearances in the book. There’s nothing from Sexton in Baseball as a Road to God that’s as moving, say, as this, from onetime Yale president and former commissioner of the major leagues, A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying. Nostos; the going home; the game of nostalgia, so apt an image for our hunger that it hurts.”

And where God is concerned, Sexton’s not quite Abraham Joshua Heschel or Paul Tillich or Rudolf Otto, the theological stalwarts he’s been raised on and the non-doctrinaire believers he most believes in. But the God they describe—always the indescribable one—is the one at the center of the book and his course. Here’s Tillich, for instance: “The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without reservation.” And here’s Heschel: “By the ineffable we mean that aspect of reality, which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind”—a thought that Sexton follows with: “Like what Dougie and I experienced that day in 1955 when the ball landed in Hodges’s glove.”

I think it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge that a grown man with an autographed baseball hanging on his wall is probably more inclined than non-fans to find Sexton’s argument worthwhile. Yet what’s most striking about Sexton’s book is its reminder of just how rare it has become for a professor—or a teacher of any sort, even a religious one—to ask a student to go with him on a journey into the depths of a life or the source of being. The notion that we might take anything seriously without reservation is not one that tends to get much play, in my experience, even in Religion or English 101. But Sexton—teaching sophomores and juniors and now writing for readers of all ages—is a true believer. It isn’t doctrine he’s talking about. It’s not rote prayer. Sexton believes in the language we use—and the ways that language fails us—when describing what concerns us most. He believes there’s more to existence than what we can say. And he believes it’s worthwhile to remind young people, especially, of this, to advise them to slow down in the way baseball slows its fans down, and find ways to see more in life, to see more intensely. Our lives are never slow for long, yet baseball, Sexton says, “calls us to live slow and notice.”

Play a game. Play in the street. Scuff a ball. Go for breakfast when your team loses. Long for home. And be rescued by baseball from one more bad day. It’s a generously long season. Our long winter is nearly done. We’ve all got a lot to look forward to. So live slow. Because it will all, all of it, go by so, so fast.   

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Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game by John Sexton, with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz. Gotham.

Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game

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Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One and Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College. He lives in New York City with his family.

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