About Corazon

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Baseball Should Replace Religion (Or at the Very Least, What Baseball Could Teach Religion)

I am a huge baseball fan.  In my opinion, there is nothing better than spending a summer's day with family and friends at the ballpark.  Just thinking about the game causes my senses to come alive. The sight of an immaculately manicured diamond, the smell of hotdogs and nachos sailing through the air, the sound of the umpire calling balls and strikes behind the plate, and, of course, the spiritual experience of joining 40,000 other fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." 

The reason I love baseball so much is simple.  More than any other sport, baseball celebrates what is perhaps the most fundamental component of the human experience: failure. The mortal deficiencies and limitations of even the game's greatest athletes are revealed on the diamond for the whole world to see. Statistics...endless statistics...accumulated over a 162-game season (a larger sample size than any other professional sport) calculate in a scientific and mathematical way the indisputable faults and shortcomings of every player. The simple fact that the game’s greatest heroes, enshrined forever in Cooperstown (the Baseball Hall of Fame), were only able to get on base 30-40% of the time reveals this truth. Or the fact that only 23 pitchers in the game’s 100+ year history (over 200,000 games played), have thrown the illustrious “perfect game” serves to illustrate how baseball is ultimately a celebration of human imperfection.

Of course, we as humans aren't surprised when we discover the flaws of humanity.  We are all intrinsically aware of our own imperfection and the imperfection of all that is man-made.  Our science, our history, our customs, our creations all contain more than one or two mistakes.  Perhaps this is why we are able to collectively smile when he read the words of Alexander Pope who aptly wrote, "To err is human," or when we see a fellow being, in the wake of his/her own blunder, proclaim "I'm only human."

And though humanity is regularly able to accept the constant collective gaffes of our specie, there is one arena in which many make the silly assumption that absolute perfection can be found.  I speak of the arena we call religion.  For so many, even in the advanced 21st century, religion is that safe and certain place where everything makes perfect sense.  Religion is that strange and exotic locale where scripture, doctrine, leaders, beliefs, creeds, sermons, prophecies, revelations, disciples, fanatics, martyrs, and everything/everyone in between is finally made as flawless and pure as a game winning home run!

And speaking of home runs...

It is, in my estimation, appropriate that we juxtapose the seemingly "perfect" world of religion to the obvious human frailty we find in baseball.  Or put in another (perhaps blasphemous) way, I believe it is appropriate that we make a religion out of baseball.  After all, it seems to me that baseball better captures the true human experience than does religion.  But since it is unlikely that we as a society will choose to worship together at Yankee Stadium or Wrigley field, or partake of the sacrament that is peanuts and Cracker Jacks, perhaps baseball could simply provide a few pointers to the world of religion.

Here now, I give to the world the 9 “innings” (or suggestions) that religion can and should borrow from baseball.  I give them within the context of the Mormon faith, since that is my chosen religion, but these “innings” work equally well with any faith tradition.   

First Inning: Cheer for Your Team, but Don't Become "THAT FAN"

I love the Pittsburgh Pirates!  Ever since I was a kid I have cheered for my Bucs, even when the team endured sixteen consecutive losing seasons.  Hey, that's what a true fan does!  In recent years, however, my Pirates have been one of the best teams in all of baseball. The 2015 season was one of their best in franchise history.  Perhaps that is why it was so hard to see them lose the wild card playoff game to the Cubs. 

Such is the case with being a sports fan.  Rarely does your team ever win it all.  You must learn to be content with coming in second, or third, or dead last.  It's quite common that larger market teams with deeper pockets (the Red Sox, Dodgers or those evil Yankees) find themselves at the top of the standings more often than smaller market teams.  It's a reality all baseball fans must accept. 

In addition, any well adjusted fan knows the value of cheering for other teams. As a Colorado native, my family has embraced the Rockies, even though their 2015 campaign was unremarkable. Despite their losing ways, attending Rockies games was an absolute joy for my family.  By appreciating other teams, one is able to gain a greater appreciation of the game itself.  It's the annoying, jackass fan who refuses to ever see the good in any other team. 

The same can be said of the "game" of religion. 

When it comes to religion my team is Mormonism, and like the Pirates, Mormons are a "small market" franchise.  We simply aren't that big.  Nevertheless, Mormonism has been the team of my fathers for several generations and it has served my family quite well.  It is good to be proud of your religion and to cheer it on towards victory.  Being passionate about one's faith is a good thing. 

The problem, however, arises when member(s) of a particular religious "team" succumb to the delusion that their team is best.  Sadly, I have known many Mormons, who insist that we as a church never lose a game, never miss a play, and always emerge as champions in every possible way. They believe that the only REAL game in town is the Mormon game. They refuse to recognize the solid play of other teams who, in many cases, have made plays and earned wins that Mormonism couldn't even dream of.  In reality, Mormonism is a small market team and we rarely win the pennant.    

This flaw, of course, is not unique to Mormonism.  All religious teams have fans who insist that their team is best.  This is unfortunate because it causes us to lose sight of the game as a whole. As I mentioned above, the Colorado Rockies had a terrible season, yet it was easily the most enjoyable year of baseball my family has ever experienced.  Sometimes the love of the game should come before loyalty to a team.      

Second Inning: Recognize the Talent on Other Teams

My family attended a lot of baseball games last year. We were fortunate enough to see a number of exciting MLB players to include Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Sonny Gray, Nolan Arenado, Andrew McCutchen and many others. Right now, the talent pool in baseball is higher than it has been in decades.

When I was a kid, I used to play a computer game called "Major League Manager."  The game included rosters of teams going all the way back to baseball's inception.  At first, I would pick one team (usually the Pirates) and try my best to lead them to the World Series.  Sadly I failed more than I succeeded.  As a result, I eventually decided to cheat by "forcing" other teams to make ridiculous trades that benefited my team.  I finally emerged with a dream team that went on to win all 162 games and easily cruise to a World Series championship.

But something unexpected happened.  The game became boring.  After all, it was easy to win when my roster included Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Johnny Bench and every other great player.  Eventually I went back to the old way and even challenged myself to lead a crappy team as far as I could. 

In the world of religion, we are sometimes persuaded to believe that our team's players are superior to those of any other team.  Our "dream team" can and should dominate every season, every game, every inning and every at bat.  We never lose.  The thought of fielding a roster that doesn't include the best players at every position is simply absurd.

Doesn't this perspective also seem boring?

Sometimes other teams have better rosters.  As a Mormon, I will happily concede that I wish my team had a Pope Francis, a Dalai Lama, a Malala Yousafzai or even a Joel Osteen.  This isn't to say that I dislike the Mormon roster.  I'm simply saying that I appreciate the talent (and yes, in many ways it's superior talent) that exists outside of Mormonism.  Sometimes we can be too blinded by the "Prophet, Seer and Revelator" titles to believe that any team could possibly have better players.  It is good that we recognize the talent all around us and that we cheer for them when they succeed.  Your team is not always going to have the league MVP.   

Third Inning: Your Team is Going to Lose

As I said at the beginning of this post, the greatest players in the history of baseball failed more than they succeeded.  My dad’s baseball hero growing up was none other than Mickey Mantle.  In his 18-year career, Mantle managed to hit 536 home runs, earn 3 MVP awards and win 7 World Series titles.  With accolades like this, one could easily forget that Mantle also struck out 1710 times and hit below .300 in nearly half of the seasons he played.  Simply put, even the very best to ever play this game failed, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

It's hard to admit failure, especially when the implications are connected to our relationship with the divine.  Reality, however, makes things plain to us.  If we are being honest, all of us will admit that every single religious tradition on earth has, on multiple occasions, struck out when the game was on the line.  In my own faith, I can think of several examples when leaders failed to make the right decision and thus lost the game.  Refusing to grant Black members the priesthood until 1978 was a massive blunder for the Mormon faith.  Try as we might to justify the reason for this idiotic delay (14 years after Civil Rights legislation), the fact remains that racist policies got in the way of our being able to see the ball clearly.  As a result, we as a church struck out and lost the game.  I could go on and provide multiple examples of where my faith (and every faith for that matter) has struck out but you get my point.  We all need to admit where we have gone wrong in our respective faith traditions.  Failing to do so will only result in more losses. The greatest teams/players learn from their past mistakes.    

Fourth Inning: Scandals Will Abound

In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were the premiere team in all of baseball.  Their roster included the likes of Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte (whose knuckleball was considered devastating even by today’s standards) and the great Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Together, the White Sox went on to dominate the American League and were favorites to win the World Series.  Fate, however, had different plans, as eight White Sox players conspired to intentionally throw the World Series in what became known as the “Black Sox Scandal.”  Almost a century later, dozens of elite players, to include the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens would tarnish the game by using performance enhancing drugs.  As a result, the “Steroid Era” of baseball saw some of the game’s most cherished records tainted with disgrace. 

People make mistakes.  Sometimes we make massive mistakes.  Even the best of us when faced with tribulation or greed will succumb to temptation.  Sometimes those who allegedly speak for God have made such blunders.  King David, the Apostle Peter and Jonah of the Bible certainly come to mind.  In my own faith tradition, scandals such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre or even the controversial practice of polygamy have raised legitimate concerns and questions.   

Scandal is, oftentimes, the undoing of a person’s faith.  After the Black Sox Scandal, baseball experienced a substantial loss in fan support.  The same can be said about the steroid era or the 1994 player strike. In the wake of those scandals, however, baseball saw some of its greatest heroes rise up to save the game and remind us all of why we loved the sport to begin with.  After the disgrace of the Black Sox we saw the rise of Babe Ruth, who changed the game forever.  In addition, fans who had grown tired of billionaire owners arguing with millionaire players during the 1994 strike had their faith renewed by the relentless play of Cal Ripken, whose streak of 2,632 consecutive games played reinvigorated the "never say die" American mentality.

Religious leaders, like baseball owners and players, sometimes create scandal.  They become entitled, egotistical and lose touch with their "fans."  Hey, they're human too.  It was Moses' hubris that prevented him from being able to enter the Promised Land, just as Judas Iscariot's betrayal (and subsequent guilt) of Jesus caused him to commit suicide.  But in the wake of those scandals the world was given Joshua and the Apostle Paul!  Scandals, like the darkness before the dawn, sometimes appear hopeless, but new light is always around the bend.    

Fifth Inning: Cherish Your Shrines, Your Customs and Your Rituals

Baseball is nothing if not beautiful.  There is symmetry to the game that isn’t found in any other sport. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, it is a “sacred” experience when you first walk into a ballpark.  Some of my fondest memories of my children include seeing the awe and wonder on their little faces as they first gazed upon the beauty and majesty of Coors Field.  Every single Major League ballpark is a veritable temple meant to honor the game’s special status as America’s pastime.  The uniqueness of each stadium is a tribute to that team and city’s history and culture.  For example, Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, captures the state’s rugged “purple mountains majesty” in the same way that At&T Park honors the breathtaking beauty of the San Francisco Bay area.     

Baseball is also saturated in custom and ritual.  Players, coaches, fans and umpires all recognize the silly superstitions, funny customs and distinctive traditions that all make the game what it is today.  Whether it be fans sporting their rally caps, players dressed in their “lucky socks” or a team’s unique tradition during the seventh inning stretch, every true baseball fan recognizes the importance of the game’s many rituals.   

The world of religion is no different.  Every faith has its customs, traditions, holidays, and ritual practices.  They are to be celebrated, not laughed to scorn.  Sure, they are the imperfect human representation of a spiritual idea, and as such may seem strange or awkward, but ultimately they are the pillars of that faith’s ballpark.  Mormonism would be a shallow shell without its temples, sacraments and ordinances, just as Fenway Park would lose its distinctiveness without the “Green Monster.” Ritual is how we make the ordinary extraordinary. 

Sixth Inning: Play (and More Importantly, Love) Your Position

When I was a child and first began to play little league baseball, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of either Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher to ever play, or Honus Wagner, the “Flying Dutchman” shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In short, I wanted to play either catcher or shortstop.  There was only one problem: I am left-handed.  When my coach informed me that virtually all in-field positions (with the exception of first base, third base on occasion and pitcher) are typically manned with right-handed players my heart sank.  Never once was I given the opportunity to play catcher or shortstop.  Instead, being the only lefty on my team, my coach decided to make me a pitcher.  After all, we southpaws can be hard to read.  Long story short, my coach’s foresight changed forever my perception of the game.  Lefties may not get the opportunity to play shortstop or catcher, but we do make for crafty pitchers!  And it has been quality pitching that I admire most about baseball.  Whether I’m watching a Clayton Kershaw curveball, an Ardolis Chapman fastball (106 mph, by the way) or a David Price slider (all of whom are lefty pitchers), it is the hurlers on the mound that I admire most.

Each of us possesses special gifts and talents that allow us to play certain positions in life. Some people have a natural sensitivity to matters of faith and spirit, while others take a more cerebral approach.  Some people are natural born leaders while others like to quietly serve on the sidelines. Regardless of the gifts/talents we have been given, it is critical that we learn to love that particular "position."      

Seventh Inning: Celebrate Those Glory Moments

Baseball is unique because the pace and rhythm of the game allow for conversation, reflection and down time.  This is why so many who detest the game label it as being boring (even though they are dead-ass wrong).  But when special moments occur in professional sports, none are more celebrated or remembered than those glory moments found in baseball.  Images of Bill Mazeroski's magical 9th inning home run in the 1960 World Series (especially for us Pirates fans), Lou Gehrig's 1939 farewell speech, or the moment when a Black man wearing the #42 trotted out to First Base for the Dodgers, are images that endure for every generation of baseball fans.  For example, here is one baseball memory that I will not soon forget:



I saw this live and will never forget it.  A man, born with only one hand, achieving something very few would ever consider possible...a NO-HITTER!!! 

But for all the glory moments baseball has to offer, the fact of the matter is most at bats end in an out, most games go down in the books as unremarkable and most players will never come close to the Hall of Fame. For all its glory and hype, baseball can be a relatively uneventful game.    

Such is the game of life.  Most days are "average," most encounters are "typical" and most moments are "mundane."  We tend to mark our lives by those rare and special occasions when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. 

One of the holiest moments within the Mormon faith occurs when a new temple is being dedicated.  Temples have a central role to play in Mormonism, so the dedication of a new temple is anything but ordinary.  In fact, Mormon history records the dedication of the Kirtland Temple (the first temple ever dedicated by early Mormons) as being a Pentecostal moment in which witnesses reported angels allegedly appearing, heavenly choirs singing and rushing of winds filling the halls of the new temple.  A few years later, the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated, with many of the same witnesses attending that event as well.  Their reports, however, were quite different from the Kirtland account.  Witnesses to the Nauvoo dedication reported.......NOTHING!  No angels, no choirs, seemingly no divine intervention of any kind.

There is something to be learned from this.  All of us crave the Kirtland experience but usually end up receiving the Nauvoo moments.  We'd all love to attend a no-hitter or game 7 of the World Series, but we usually end up attending an average ball game. It is rare when we are able to play witness to the miraculous, which is why we must learn to cherish them when they do occur.    

Ladies and gentlemen, the 7th INNING STRETCH!!!!!




Eighth Inning: Support Your Teammates

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers made history by adding a new first basemen to their roster.  His name: Jackie Robinson.  As we all know, it was Robinson who managed to break the ugly color barrier that had stained baseball for nearly a century.  What many don't know is that Robinson faced terrible persecution and hostility from fans, players and even teammates.  

But one man, whose family history was saturated with racist beliefs towards Blacks, chose to stand with Robinson.  Dodgers star shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, became a vocal supporter and friend of Jackie Robinson. In fact, Reese later claimed that the first time he met Robinson was also the first time he had ever shaken hands with a Black man. The two men became life-long friends and helped to pave the way for the desegregation of baseball. 

All of us have prejudices and biases of one form or another.  They are inevitable and sometimes very hard to recognize and then remove from our lives.  In the Mormon faith, prejudice is, unfortunately, all too common, even amongst the very best of members. Sometimes we can be far too judgemental of those who don't fit what we consider to be the typical "Mormon mold."  Everyone from single parents, new converts not dressed in a suit and tie and even [GASP] Democrats are sometimes marginalized in our congregations.  This is terribly unfortunate because a church's greatest strength (like that of a baseball team) is to be had in the unity found in the "clubhouse."  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you can't stand behind your teammates you are destined to fall apart.  Or as Jesus reminds us, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine."

Ninth Inning: Enjoy the Game!
   
Ultimately baseball is just a game.  There isn't much about it that is philosophical or of intrinsic value to humanity.  Those lucky enough to play the game professionally make ridiculous amounts of money simply because they can throw, catch and hit better than the rest of us.  But baseball doesn't feed the hungry, liberate the captive or educate the illiterate.  It's just a game.

Sometimes we can feel the same way in our own respective lives.  We each go to work, raise children, attend school/church, and do our best each and every day.  But our efforts don't typically feed the hungry, liberate the captive or educate the illiterate.  With 7 billion of us on the Earth, we can easily feel like a very tiny fish in an extremely large pond.

And though it is great when we or others are able to help make humanity better, sometimes we forget that the biggest changes come because of the smallest of efforts.  The most profound verse that I have ever read from the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 2:25, which states very simply, "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy."  In other words, the purpose of our life is to find happiness.  Of course, this doesn't mean that our pursuit of happiness should come at the cost of helping others.  But what it does mean is happiness is readily available to us because of the grace of God.  For whatever else God may be, ultimately God is happiness, and this is PRECISELY what makes baseball so great.  Perhaps this is the greatest lesson baseball can teach religion.  After all the doctrine, scripture, preaching, etc., the real question is, "Does your religion make you happy?"  If so, all of the problems and doubts can be damned!

It was Adam's (and Eve's) FAILURE that allowed joy to enter the world, and it is baseball's magnification of human failure that makes it the greatest game ever invented. Without our failures, we humans would be boring, predictable and without that joy God wants for us.  This is why baseball ultimately deserves to be considered a religion.  Nothing on earth better captures our imperfections and constant struggles.  Here's hoping my religion, and all religions, will accept baseball and its lessons, which are sometimes the greatest of sermons.       

As Sister Wynona Carr reminds us, "Life is a Ball Game."   

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