Tonight [Tuesday] the 116th World Series begins, pitting our local Tampa Bay Rays against the Los Angeles Dodgers, all four to seven games to be played in isolation in Texas. I started watching the Series with devotion in 1957, viewing the New York Yankees-Milwaukee [now Atlanta] Braves play the full seven game limit and Lew Burdette pitch three victories in seven games. Had I started a year earlier, 1956, I could have seen Yankee Don Larsen’s perfect game, where he retired all 27 Brooklyn Dodger batters in a row. In my twenties I did see [and gnashed my teeth at] the worst bad luck any first baseman could experience--Bill Buckner’s error that cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series.
I have read my share of baseball books over the years. I discovered that before the late 1960’s baseball was not player friendly. Players could not negotiate with other teams under a Major League arrangement called “the reserve clause,” which meant that if you started your career with the St. Louis Browns, you had to stay with them till they traded you or you died. You had little leverage in salary negotiations. Perhaps best known to most Americans is the systematic exclusion of persons of color from major league rosters; not until 1959 did every team in the majors carry at least one person of color on its active roster. Moreover, a fair number of baseball players themselves over the past 115 years have not been “gentlemen” either. Pete Rose and the Chicago Black Sox, the antisocial behaviors of stars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, alcohol abuse which eventually killed Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, not to mention so many lesser-known players. Sexual mayhem on road trips.
But we still love the game, or at least care enough to put some World Series money down with our bookies. One reason, to be sure, is historical continuity. There are six current major league teams which have never won a World Series—and one of them [Tampa] is playing tonight. There is at least a 50-50 chance that the Rays will win their first World Series. It is no lie to say that in baseball you may always see something that has never happened before. Just last week, in the National League Pennant Series, the Braves ran themselves into a head-scratching double play. On the other hand, some of the greatest plays in history have occurred under the glare of international attention. My personal favorite was Derek Jeter’s amazing flip to home plate some years ago.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but organized baseball is a key to understanding the Church, or at least to our participation in the Church. All of the polling in recent times tells us that Catholics are not exactly rabid about going to Church every Sunday; there is similarity with baseball fans who also tend to shun portions of the season in attendance or on local TV, particularly in April. I am thinking back to a 2007 game in Camden Yards [Baltimore] during an NCEA convention there. I had wanted to see a young pitcher with Detroit, Justin Verlander. Young Justin had the good sense to come in out of the sleet in the seventh inning…and the game went on and on into extra inning. We lasted till the eleventh inning…and there sure were not many cars in the parking lot. But when the pennant chases and the weather heat up, the seats fill up, just as they do in Catholic Churches during Lent and Easter.
Church and Major League Baseball both have solemn code books. MLB has its frequently revised Rule Book, while Catholics depend upon the Code of Canon Law, which was revised only twice in the twentieth century [1917 and 1983]. But both institutions also have “local codes.” In baseball this would be the ballpark itself. At the beginning of a major league game the umpires go over the “ground rules” with each team captain. No two baseball parks are exactly alike. The most famous local twist to a park may be Boston’s Fenway Park, with its infamous “Green Monster” wall in left field. Teams have been known to bring fences closer to the batter to help the hitter, or further out to help the pitcher, though not during a game.
Along the same lines, Catholic bishops, the proprietors of their dioceses, can set laws and standards as they see fit and within universal Canon Law. For example, in 2001 Margaret and I never got to attend the Mass of the Feast of the Ascension. In Orlando, the bishops have transferred it to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which Church law permits. But we flew to Boston and discovered that there the Mass of Obligation for the Ascension was never changed from its dating of forty days after the Resurrection. Fortunately, we had dinner with a distinguished Boston College theologian who assured us that our souls were safe for the moment, anyway.
Catholics and baseball fans both celebrate their histories, though Catholics have been doing it longer. A few years ago, I hiked through a muddy meadow to come upon St. Brendan’s Well, on Valencia Island on the West Coast of Ireland. Legend has it that St. Brendan traveled to this site to baptize a dying pagan. The “well” is a small hole with a stone marker—no chapel or structure anywhere—and yet there were dozens of flowers and religious items left at the site by devout Catholic tourists. Catholics, particularly those troubled by our chaotic times, take a special comfort from the words of Jesus that he would always be with us, till the end of the world, and we mark the world today with sacred sites where people of like spirit can come together to celebrate a graced humanity. I grew up attending baseball games in Buffalo in the International League, and it always seemed that the folks seated around you were “your friends” at least for nine innings. A church and a ballpark are not so different in that sense. Just be nice in the parking lot!