Fr. Z on John Allen on “Top Nine Reasons why Baseball is to Sports what Catholicism is to Religion.”

My friend the nearly ubiquitous John L. Allen, Jr., sadly still writing for the ultra-liberal dissenting National Catholic Reporter has a in his Friday saddle-bag a piece about the sport God loves which I must share with the readership here. My emphases:

I’ve always wondered how anyone born in St. Louis, great baseball town that it is, could possibly regard April as the cruelest month. With all due respect to T.S. Eliot, any month that usually features both Easter and Opening Day just can’t be that bad. (Bear in mind that by the time Eliot was born in 1888, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who eventually morphed into the Cardinals, had already won four American Association pennants in a row as well as the 1886 World Series against the forerunner of the Chicago Cubs, so it’s not like he could be excused on the grounds of getting there too early.)

Yesterday marked the opening of the 2011 campaign, so in honor of the occasion, I’ll roll out my personal list of the “Top Nine Reasons why Baseball is to Sports what Catholicism is to Religion.” Why nine? It’s a key number in both traditions — nine players on a diamond, nine innings in a game, and nine days to a novena. [And let us not forget the NINTH Beatitude, the one that alas didn’t make it into the pages of Holy Writ: Beati qui non expectant, quia non disappointabuntur.  Each year millions of fans, many of them in places like Chicago and Cleveland, start with high expectations, after all.]

The following are nine reasons why Catholicism and baseball are, quite literally, a match made in Heaven:

  1. Both baseball and Catholicism venerate the past. Both have a Communion of Saints, all the way down to popular shrines and holy cards.
  2. Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the Infield Fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)
  3. Both have a keen sense of ritual, in which pace is critically important. (As a footnote, that’s why basketball is more akin to Pentecostalism; both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience.)
  4. Both generate oceans of statistics, arcana, and lore. For entry-level examples, try: Who has the highest lifetime batting average, with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats? (Ty Cobb). Which popes had the longest and the shortest reigns? (Pius IX and Urban VII).  [I wonder if Urban VII’s threat to excommunicate anyone who used tobacco had anything to do with his death.  Until that is resolved, perhaps he should have an * by his name.]
  5. In both baseball and Catholicism, you can dip in and out, but for serious devotees the liturgy is a daily affair.
  6. Both are global games which are especially big right now in Latin America. (Though I’m principally a Yankees fan, [UGH. You know, John, that’s just sad. That’s another thing you have to give up, along with the NCR.] I live in Denver, where the Rockies’ starting rotation is composed of two pitchers from the Dominican Republic, a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and a guy from South Carolina. In a lot of dioceses, that’s not unlike the makeup of the presbyterate these days.)
  7. Both baseball and Catholicism have been badly tainted by scandal, with the legacies of erstwhile superstars utterly ruined. Yet both have proved surprisingly resilient — perhaps demonstrating that the game is great enough to survive even the best efforts of those in charge at any given moment to ruin it. [Just as the Lord never said the Church would survive everywhere, so too teams such as the Braves and the A’s moved around.  The Senators became the Twins, etc.  Then new teams set up shop.  New Evangelization?]
  8. Both have a complex farm system, and fans love to speculate about who the next hot commodity will be in “The Show.”
  9. Both reward patience. If you’re the kind of person who needs immediate results, neither baseball nor Catholicism is really your game.

As an “extra innings” bonus, I’ll toss in my theory as to why the American League represents the Catholic instinct in baseball, while the National League is more Protestant.  [Okay… I think he may be showing his NCR stripe here.  Though I am from an AL town, I look upon the DH as something like heresy.  Let’s read what he has to say with an open mind.]

Famously, the National League does not permit the designated hitter, reflecting a sort of fundamentalist Puritanism. [?!?  Oh, John. That’s just sad.] It’s not the way the game was originally played, and no power on earth has the authority to add or subtract to scripture. [Hmmmm…] The American League, however, has adopted the designated hitter, striking a balance between scripture and tradition The designated hitter rule, in fact, is arguably an athletic analogue of what Pope Benedict XVI talks about as a “hermeneutics of continuity,” of reform without rupture.  [Or… it could be an example of the false archeologizing against which Pius XII warned us!]

By the way, if I’m right about that, a great irony presents itself: Both the Cardinals and the Padres play in the more “Protestant” National League! [I think there is a great deal to be learned from that fact.   Think about it.]

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jacob says:

    I would say rather that the lowering of the mound and the DH in the American League fit more with the spirit of the times during the 60s than any other analogy that could be made. And note as well when divisional play began with the expansion teams. Same idea. :D

  2. Marius2k4 says:

    Agh… I’m pursued by inferior sports even here!

    Alas, there are still five months until Football resumes… [Perhaps football is admired by modernist Catholics… because of its incessant committee meetings.]

    FWIW, I cheer for the Aggies (with 12,000 Catholics out of its 45,000 enrollment, I believe it’s technically the biggest ‘Catholic’ school in the country) in college and the Cowboys (everyone knows that the Lord loves the ‘Boys. Hole in the roof, etc. :P ) in the NFL.

    Expectabam victoriam, sed anima mea calcata et ‘disappointata’ est. :P

  3. maynardus says:

    As a Red Sox fan of long standing I always thought that my many years of suffering were analogous to – and good preparation for – my standing as a traditionally-oriented Catholic. Each year our hope sprang anew: the Sox looked good in Spring Training, and did you hear that the Cardinal is going to grant an indult Mass?, only to be dashed, cruelly, before the leaves fell. Sometimes it was excruciating – 1978, 1986, and 2003 were the worst as a fan, but the endless “SSPX is DEFINITELY going to be reconciled next week” and “Pope is DEFINITELY going to issue a ‘universal indult’ this year” teases were tough too. In order to follow my bent in person it was necesary to travel a lengthy distance into a bad part of the city, but after years of unstinting support, management repaid our loyalty by threatening to tear down the antiquated shrine in which the faithful gathered for rites, sell the land, and move the whole operation to the suburbs where we’d have “all the comforts”.

    Then came 2004 – and 2007. I’m a good deal happier now, but believe it or not there do seem to be people in both realms who can’t stand the prosperity!

    Upon reflection there do seem to be lots of other parallels: doubleknit uni’s came in about the same time as polyester poncho chausibles; we got whacked with divisional play, the DH and the Novus Ordo within 3-4 short years; no sooner had Saturday “vigils” and Sunday evening Masses come into vogue when they started playing World Series games at night. I can’t say I’m really a fan of most of it…

  4. lacrossecath says:

    He is of course wrong on the DH. I would say the DH is much more like Relativism, or Kant’s philosophy. What is a pitcher batting to me might not be a pitcher batting to you. My teams played in both; NL is Catholic and AL is protestant. NL is older than the AL, NL has curses(still) and usually larger ballparks where actual baseball is played, not just a home run derby. [Usually larger… and then there is the silly park the Giants play in in SF.]

  5. Steve T. says:

    “(Though I’m principally a Yankees fan, [UGH. You know, John, that’s just sad. That’s another thing you have to give up, along with the NCR.]

    Father, for this rank heresy and detraction against the team clearly most favored by heaven, you must stand for three days and nights outside Holy Innocents, barefoot and in the garb of a penitent.

  6. The Reds start every year, as it only right, with the Findley Market Opening Day parade full of bands and symbolic things important to the faithful. This is similar to a feast day procession (just not a Eucharistic one).

  7. Legisperitus says:

    Actually, St. Peter had a longer reign than Pio Nono, no?

  8. Ernesto Gonzalez says:

    I don’t think the analogy to Puritianism is quite correct. It would be better to say that the National League is semi-Jansenists, while the American League is Neo-adoptionist.

  9. MissOH says:

    Father Z, you made me laugh out loud (which was quite nice as I am in the middle of doing our taxes, sigh:).
    Beati qui non expectant, quia non disappointabuntur, I was able to translate it even with my very humble Latin skills. Though our family was not at “baseball family” we are Cleveland Browns fans so as far as we follow baseball, alas, we root for the Tribe….I offer our family sports frustrations for the poor souls frequently.

    Good article and perhaps explains why I never really liked baseball. I still don’t understand the Infield Fly Rule and the idea of strategy in baseball??? Um, hit the ball and run for offense and catch the ball and throw it for defense and scratch and spit in between. I need a beer and a hot dog….but it is Friday and Lent. Oh well :)

  10. BaedaBenedictus says:

    I’m a Yankees fan and a definite partisan of the American League, but I look on the DH as the Novus Ordo of baseball.

    I sort of see the NL as the Eastern Catholics/Orthodox, and the AL as Latin Catholicism. Go AL, and get rid of that abomination called the DH!

    The greatest player in baseball history was a Knight of Columbus and was schooled at St Mary’s, which is located in our nation’s oldest diocese.

  11. the AL does have the Angels…though I’m not a fan of the DH

  12. Bryan Boyle says:

    You mean there are teams other than the Yankees and Red Sox? I thought those other ones were the farm teams for the big time.

    A “NY Yankees”, “NY Mets”, and “Red Sox” fan were climbing a mountain, and arguing about who loves his team more. The Mets fan insisted he was the most loyal. ”This is for the Mets” he yells, and jumps off the mountain. Not to be outdone, the Red Sox fan is next to profess his love for his team. He yells “This is for the Red Sox!!!” and pushes the Yankees fan off the mountain.

  13. scarda says:

    I am so tired of being expected to care one whit about sports; they are tedious and stupidifying to watch. If you want to go out and DO them, have at it; just quit talking about them. The only sport that ultimately matters is the race for the imperishable crown. There seem to be fewer and fewer people who acknowledge or even recognize this.

  14. Pachomius says:

    Sorry, Fr (and Mr Allen), but there’s no way that you can skew the word “global” to fit baseball. Speaking as someone who lives outside the US, I’ve scarcely heard of it, and on this side of the pond it’s never mentioned outside of an American context. Even cricket is more of a ‘global’ game.

  15. Centristian says:

    “Though I’m principally a Yankees fan, [UGH. You know, John, that’s just sad. That’s another thing you have to give up, along with the NCR.] ”

    “Actually, St. Peter had a longer reign than Pio Nono, no?”


  16. Legisperitus says:

    35 years for St. Peter, 32 for Pius IX.

  17. ALL: Let’s not get confused – in this thread about baseball – about the length of the “reign” of “Popes”. Yes, we can call St. Peter the “first Pope”, but this notion of “Pope” as we see it in modern times cannot easily be pushed anachronistically back to the time of St. Peter. I don’t think we can say that Peter “reigned” in the same way that a distant Successor of Peter Bl. Pius IX “reigned”.

    Close of Rabbit Hole.

  18. Will D. says:

    who lives outside the US

    “Outside the US” is a pretty big place, you may not have visited every corner. Baseball is played up and down North and South America, in Australia, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and there are quite devoted fans (if fewer players) all over Europe. It’s not as Universal as soccer, but it gets around.
    Scarda, de gustibus non est disputandum. I doubt that anyone’s every waking moment is concerned with the imperishable crown. Surely you you do things in your leisure that you enjoy. Watching a baseball game is one that I and Father and many others enjoy. And discussing the game is also enjoyable.

  19. Marius2k4 says:

    Alas, there are still five months until Football resumes… [Perhaps football is admired by modernist Catholics… because of its incessant committee meetings.]

    *Cough*… I don’t think anyone’s ever called me a modernist. That feels a lot like being kicked in the chest. I’m the guy in the office who tries to teach everyone Latin, for heaven’s sake.

    Modernist? Blech, that tastes terrible.

  20. incorpore says:

    With its intent to create more instant gratification and thus high revenues, I’d consider the DH rule an outcome of hedonism and materialism! :)

    Ps – Go Cards!

  21. Goodness me. I thought all baseball leagues were the same.

  22. APX says:

    Alas, there are still five months until Football resumes… [Perhaps football is admired by modernist Catholics… because of its incessant committee meetings.]

    Fortunately for me I only have to wait until June 17 for football season. However, Father’s comment leaves me confused.
    Where do those of us who admire both football and baseball fit in???

    Ps: Go Jays! It’ll be a great game tonight.

  23. wchoag says:

    Clevelanders always do start off baseball season with highest expectations–they are the masters of the virtue of hope. But even in their annual latter season sorrows they are still secure in the knowledge that they have the best minor league team in the majors. DOH!

    BTW, I am a Clevelander so I can make this kind of joke. Anyone else try and you’ll see quickly that we fail hard in the virtue of charity. I remind you of the behavior of the Browns’ dawgpound!

  24. amenamen says:

    W.P. Kinsella must be Catholic

    His baseball novel, “Shoeless Joe,” was the basis for the movie, “Field of Dreams.” It is Catholic in virtually every respect, with a little room for artistic license. Watch the movie with a Catholic mind you can see the Church in it everywhere. It is practically a catechism. Saints, purgatory, penance, mystics, miracles, guardian angels, redemption, family life. Even a building project.

  25. PghCath says:

    As I’m reading the Old Testament this Lent, I’ve come to see the hand of God in the Pirates’ struggles. Just as the Israelites were punished with the Babylonian Captivity for worshiping the golden calf and other acts of idolatry, the Pirates are being punished for stealing Louis Bierbauer from the Philadelphia A’s in the 1890s. In that the Babylonian Captivity lasted around 60s years, I remain hopeful that my children will see a winning season from the Pirates.

    The Israel analogy doesn’t hold water completely, however: everyone in Pittsburgh knows that the Steelers are God’s chosen team.

    It goes without saying that Leviticus a la 2011 would regard the designated hitter as an abomination. The same goes for World Series games that start after 8 Eastern and Red Sox-Yankees games that last 4 hours.

    amenamen: I wouldn’t be surprised if WP Kinsella is Catholic, but I was shocked to learn he is Canadian. Who would have thought a Canadian could write so beautifully about baseball?

  26. Peggy R says:

    Go Cardinals! Nice to see STL’s love of baseball noted by Mr. Allen. Our kids have been upset in the past when I forgot to dress them in red or Cardinal jerseys on opening day. They call it “Cardinal Nation” here. I understand Abp. Carlson has been indoctrinated into the Cards since his arrival. I think Abp. Dolan, from STL, is in a tough place in NYC. I’ll pray for him ;^D

    We’re set to go the new stadium for the first time–now that the kids are older–next month with in-laws from Oz.

    As an economist, I am fascinated with the new market-based pricing the Cardinals have employed, first used (I think I read) by the Padres. I understand other teams are using it too.

  27. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Will D., ESPECIALLY discussing baseball is enjoyable. And who said, “statistics are the lifeblood of baseball?” I think it was Joe Garagiola.

    Remember the smell of bubble gum and that cornstarch on new baseball cards? My mom threw away my baseball cards inherited from my big brother, aargh! I had a Whitey Ford and a Danny Murtaugh! And Luis Tiant’s rookie card. Granny Hamner? But they are enshrined in my memory (until I get Alzheimer’s).

  28. APX says:

    Who would have thought a Canadian could write so beautifully about baseball?
    *GASP!* Kinsella has actually written several novels and short stories revolving around baseball.

    Baseball’s actually kinda a big deal over here. A number of major league players actually graduated from the high school baseball academy in the town less than an hour from me. Almost everyone grew up playing baseball either formally or informally. Unless of course, you were a girl. There were no baseball teams for girls, only softball teams.

    It does seem to be somewhat of a Catholic sport, being that most Catholic families have enough kids to make up their own baseball teams.

  29. samgr says:

    Baseball not global? Not Catholic? Check out the Italian Baseball League: http: //

  30. samgr says:

    Sorry, here’s the one-click version:

  31. Dr. Eric says:

    Does Raymond Cardinal Burke count as a St. Louis Cardinal? (Only half joking.) Or does he count as a Roman Cardinal?

    Go Cards!

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Albert Puhols will count as one next year.

  32. Baseball is the Lord’s game. After all, the first words of the Bible are “In the big inning…”

  33. Jason C. says:

    Pitchers batting = Teenage girls altar serving

  34. Jason C. says:

    BTW, Baseball is America to me. If someone asked me to show them America, I’d take them to a baseball game. It’s got the good and bad: greed, loyalty, hope, imperialist nation building, people speaking Spanish, obscene wealth (Yankees) and abject poverty (Kansas City Royals), and pleasant summer nights.

  35. SemiSpook says:

    I have to echo PghCath’s sentiments on the Buccos. I was alive for the Family, but have no recollection of it. I must sadly admit that I went to the same high school as Stan Belinda, who was involved in that fiasco of the last batter in the ’92 NCLS (we all know now that it was more on Barry Bonds’ head for not hustling than it was for Stan not trying to get the batter out, and what really hurt was that Sid Bream was the winning run for Atlanta). It’s been all downhill ever since. Even though I live closer to Baltimore, I am a vocal supporter of the Washington Nationals, because I was raised on NL ball, and thankful that I grew up in a place where that was the only “game” in town.

    That saddens me that Mr. Allen mixed up the two leagues. Nothing Protestant about a pitcher batting. Especially when your favorite team’s pitching staff traditionally has a decent combined average. :-)

  36. Denis says:

    And if you don’t cheer for John Allen’s favorite team, you’re a Taliban Catholic!

  37. Random Friar says:

    I would add that there are minor league stadiums where what should be the solemn rite of baseball is punctuated by silly interruptions, like giant sausages racing. We Catholics have giant puppets.

  38. Random Friar says:

    Full, conscious and active participation means paying attention to what’s really important.

  39. Joker Phinn says:

    Balderdash! It was the schismatics, led by the arch-heretic Ban Johnson (e.g. baseball’s Martin Luther) who lured many of the faithful away from the true game. Real baseball began in the ‘dead-ball era’. The Reformation began with a chubby orphan from Baltimore called ‘The Babe’. If there be any ‘Protestant’ baseballers, they reside in the ‘Junior Circuit’.

  40. muckemdanno says:

    The DH is as protestant as you get. It’s adding an extra sacrament like talking in tongues.

    There are seven sacraments, no more no less. NOT EIGHT.

    There are TEN players in an American League game, there are NINE players in a Baseball game.

  41. Peggy R says:

    Speaking of Catholic Cardinals, Get Religion covers an article about David Eckstein and other Catholics on the Cardinals team…but wait, Eckstein is now a Padre. Appropriate, no?

  42. Eric says:

    Pitchers batting = Teenage girls altar serving

    OK I would suggest Father that you now close the comments. This is getting vicious.

    I would suggest.

    Hitters not playing the field = Communism

    The similarities are obvious.

  43. John Nolan says:

    Baseball is simply a grown-up version of a children’s game called rounders. In its timelessness (spread out over five days), its subtelty, its arcane language and its essential rituals, the game that most closely resembles the Catholic liturgy is cricket. Do you know of a Catholic poet who wrote about baseball in the way that Francis Thompson did about cricket in “At Lord’s”?

    “And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost;
    And I look through my tears at a soundless-clapping host,
    As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
    To and fro:-
    O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago! “

  44. Supertradmum says:

    Cricket is to sport what Catholicism is to religion.

    Firstly, it is universal.
    Secondly, it is disciplined, with rules and regulations which need to be studied only in prayer and contemplation in order to understand such concepts as LBWs.
    Thirdly, all men are treated alike, either as batsman, bowlers or fielders, in true sportsmenship and gentlemanly behavior before God and humankind.
    Fourthly, the umpire, like the hierarchy has the last word in the play and all must obey him. Only heretics follow the instant reply in test matches.
    Fiftly, those who are initiated must go through a period of faith and hope, until knowledge supplants waiting for understanding. Usually this takes either one year of limited overs, or three five day test matches. Then, one may read Wisden’s and learn more in a period of deep meditation.
    Six, Cricket is a culture, not merely a game. It inspires one to higher goals, such as breaking Tendulkar’s records, or eating strawberries and cream with champange in 40 degree weather, wearing summer clothes and not admitting to being cold.
    Seven, Cricket inspires duty, as waiting for your partner batsman to settle in instead of being a “hotdog” and trying for runs. The virtue of Patience is learned early on and inspires other virtues, such as not cursing, clapping for the opposition, and obeying the umpire (see above).
    Eight, the culture of Cricket is passed on in the home. Parents inspire their children to duty and grace through the summer game, allowing these children to explore their own God-given talents of either score-keeper, batsmen, bowler, or fielder, without prejudice.
    Nine, the culture of Cricket demands that one accept the Tridentine white garb or the test matches, as well as the Novus Ordo pajama wear of the world cups or limited overs games. If respectfully done, even the pajama Cricket inspires hope and peace. However, one hopes that some day the International Cricket Cricket admits that the only true Cricket is played in whites.
    Ten, the sacred books must be read and passed on. The traditions surrounding the game are manifold and demand duty based on love.
    Eleven, Those who love Cricket will be changed into martys for the game, including sitting until the umpire decides if decreased light has stopped play ( a game which can only be played in the light and not in the darkness is truly sublime) and waiting for the rain to stop so that a few more innings may be accomplished. Again, faith , hope and love become daily habits of virtue.
    Twelve, the game is surrounded by many traditions, too many to list here, which enables the initiate to become more enculturated over a period of time. Such things as listening to the commentators as they discuss birds flying over buses on the St. John’s Road, or discuss the ties of the Out for a Duck Club, or the contents of a luncheon box in India, all contribute to this enculturation, which determines one view of life.
    Lastly, the center of Cricket activity is Lord’s. Baseball has nothing like the religious contents of Cricket.

  45. Supertradmum says:

    read Council instead of second Cricket in number Nine-respectfully the ICC

  46. I contest. Jousting is more Catholic- the codes and rules are miles long and has its own ancient traditions (with a small t). Scriptures talk all the time about swinging swords, shields and what not around. Same with the Church fathers. It is a legitimate development according to Cardinal Newman’s theory. Never ever read of any Christians swinging bats around of any sort in Scripture or Church history. That is a prime example of modernism as well as historical anachronism. Besides its only a few hundred years old- the protestants who created baseball and football.

  47. John Nolan says:

    Supertradmum, your post is one of the best I have ever read and deserves to be published in the Catholic Herald, not to mention Wisden. The equation of test and county cricket with the EF and the limited-overs game with the OF is pure genius. I am in awe of you.

  48. Supertradmum says:

    John Nolan,
    Thanks. I love cricket and have seen the great Imran Khan and David Gower in my match-going days. Ah, the sound of the ball centered on bat….I should have included that in a religious rubrics section.

  49. Kavi says:

    Jousting, seriously?

    Cricket, Catholicism, and Baseball all have another thing in common – Europeans are pretty useless.

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