Mark Richardson —
Every now and again one stumbles upon a book that addresses issues which have flitted through one’s mind throughout his/her life, but which have never solidified into one’s thought in any cohesive way. Such a book is John Sexton’s Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (2013). Mr. Sexton is the president of New York University and a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justices Brennan, Burger, and Blackmun. He is one of the few university presidents to teach a full course load, and one of the courses he offers is also called Baseball as a Road to God. He is a devout Catholic, and his premise is that the game of baseball displays many of the profound and complex elements that constitute religion. Upon delving into this wonderful book I first thought that the notion sounded sacrilegious, blasphemy if ever I heard it. But the more I read, the more I became enamored of the ideas Sexton was laying out. And as I read, I recognized many ideas that had occurred to me over the years without my ever having considered them in any depth or developing them any further.
Faith is the idea that is most central to the comparison of religion and baseball. This involves the abandonment of the idea that science alone can explain the unknown. Drawing a distinction between the unknown and the unknowable (the ineffable), Sexton pays due credence to science but rejects the either/or dichotomy of a choice between science and religion. His assertion is that “meaning can be found beyond what we can capture rationally, whether it is evoked by music, art, nature…or baseball.” The unknown is the realm of science; the ineffable, the realm of religion. He has woven together the magic of baseball and the intensity of religious perception.
Weaving story after story from the game into his analysis of faith, Sexton demonstrates that baseball can rise above a mere game between contestants to a spiritual experience on par with any that can be ascertained by religion. Baseball is rife with examples of inspiring stories of the seemingly impossible coming to pass, and of fans displaying both a faith in and an acceptance of the implausible that makes belief in the Adam’s rib creation story seem quite viable. Through the game we can touch the spiritual dimensions of life.
I don’t want to outline too many of the spiritual-baseball connections, because these are the real crux of the book, and to do so might spoil what lies ahead for a potential reader. But suffice it to say that these connections, when broached by the author, had me nodding my head and even exclaiming “YES, YES, YES” over and over again.
As I read further and further, it dawned on me that so many of the examples that Sexton was presenting were deeply ingrained in my own thinking. I had never framed them in these terms, and I had never systematized my thinking into such a neat paradigm. But I have long felt the spiritual pull of baseball, and I would guess that most other devoted fans have as well. I couldn’t help but thinking of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham, with the altar set up in her living room, worshiping at “the Church of Baseball.” Annie felt the spirituality of the game. She could have been one of Professor Sexton’s students. And if after completing the book one needs further convincing, just remember the first words in the Bible—In the big inning…