Seeking Faith and Baseball
Ballplayers, Fallibility and Finding God
“Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. It is not merely a physical development then. Sport, rightly understood, is an occupation of the whole man, and while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth and helps man to achieve that end to which all others must be subservient, the service and praise of his Creator.” Pope Pius XII, Sport at the Service of the Spirit, July 29, 1945.tt
We forget about the human side of ball players as we focus on salary contracts and what happens between the chalk lines. Sometimes the human fallibility is displayed, through tragedy via Roberto Clemente’s sacrifice or through shortcomings - a player’s all too human weakness of an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etcetera.
This is a game, where every performance, every player, every position is inundated with statistics from every conceivable angle. There is no escape from being human, imperfect, being error free and reaching the human goal of the inhuman and God-like perfection.
“Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often—those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.” Francis T. Vincent, Jr., Former Commissioner of Baseball
As it takes years to develop major league level skill and maturity, the stress factors must be unbearable. From temptations of abundance, coming with very generous salaries and public appraisals, adorations, ordinary human weakness enlarges the self to something greater, something that places the self, the ego, above and beyond invincibility, beyond the rules of society. Success in the game, be it Pete Rose and gambling or drug and alcohol addictions or the use of performing enhancing drugs or any player facing retirement and obsolescence at thirty-five, we all need spiritual grounding in all our endeavors reminding the self of our limitations in an unlimited universe. Something to remind the self of our humanness, the earthliness of our faults, the consistency of our incompleteness and absolutism of our temporary bodies our temporary uniqueness, our non-invincibility. From dust to dust. Too many - like Lenny Dykstra – may fail to get life’s bearings in time and go to the underside of our culture. (See my article “Baseball and Mental Health”, October 11, 2012.)
Spirituality can grow with failure if one lets the spirit in. For all those involved with the game, there is Baseball Chapel (www.baseballchapel.org ) - an internationally recognized organization/ministry for both Major and Minor League Baseball. Their mission is to bring encouragement to people in the world of professional baseball through the Gospel so that some may become followers of Jesus Christ and see deeply committed players use their platform to influence people around the world.
They officially began when Detroit Sportswriter, Watson Spoelstra, approached Bowie Kuhn in 1973. Prior to that, in the 60’s, players from the Cubs and Twins had initiated services for road trips at hotels. However as far back as 1956 the first seed might have planted with Clyde King and the minor and major league teams he managed. Kuhn approved and services now moved to ballparks beginning with the playoffs. By 1975, chapel programs existed within every team. By 1978, continued growth established and resulted in Chapel programs in the minor leagues, with winter ball in Latin America and today, Japan.
“Spirituality teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with
Today, 210 teams, all major and minor leagues (and some independent league teams) have Chapel programs.
Approximately 3,000 players, coaches, managers, trainers, office staff and other team personnel, umpires and members of the media participate/attend each week. The Chapel is responsible for the appointment and oversight of team chapel leaders (over 500 volunteers) and 8 full-time staff members conducting the daily ministry operations. Baseball Chapel does not seek nor provide access to the media protecting privacy of all participants.
For Catholic and of course all Christians there’s also Catholic Athlete’s for Christ ( www.catholicathletesforchrist.org ). Started in 2006 by Ray McKenna with assistance from 5 time Kanas City All Star, Mike Sweeney. The nonprofit organization started serving players in Major League Baseball, then expanded to the National Football League and other professional sports. Today, participants also include Olympic and collegiate athletes, and, most recently, high-school athletes.
Their goal, “is to provide an integrated network of sports oriented clergy and lay people to serve Catholic athletes, coaches and staff in the practice of their faith and to utilize the unique platform given to them to reach the world for Jesus Christ and His Church.” Their vision includes “providing solid Catholic role models, organize retreats, days of reflection, reverse the moral crisis in sports today and to work with other Catholic organizations and leadership.
There are a number of books focusing on Baseball and Spirituality. These include Jeremy Affledt, To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball. “Details Affledt’s transformation from an arrogant, self-centered military brat to a fully committed follower of Christ.”
Rob Rains. Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith that Drives the St. Louis Cardinals. “In a book that’s equal parts faith and baseball, offers an exclusive look at life inside the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse with recurring spiritual themes throughout are following God’s will, seeing the big picture, dealing with adversity, using one’s God-given abilities, and living out the Christian life in both words and actions.”
John Sexton & others. Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. “Sexton (President, New York University) shares some of his insights in this elegant meditation on the ways in which baseball evokes the essence of religion. Sexton explores parallels between baseball and religion across topics such as sacred space and time, faith and doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners, community, and nostalgia. Baseball, like religion, ‘can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world.’”
Glenn Slaby is married and has one son. A former account with an MBA, he is a freelancer with The Westchester Guardian, writes part-time, and struggles with mental illness, yet works at the New Rochelle Public Library and at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison, New York.