The First Church of Baseball

0503_baseball_cross.jpgOfficially starting last Sunday, but going full-swing this week, millions of people across the country will start going to church for the first time this year. Having taken a five-month sabbatical, they will finally return to worship at the altar of home plate. For the next seven months (hopefully) faithful congregants will participate in a variety of traditions from the opening hymn of the National Anthem to a eucharist of beer and peanuts to the closing hymn of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on a weekly (and almost daily) basis. They will clutch their rally towel rosaries and pray to Saints Willie, Jackie, or Babe for the chance to worship well into October. Though football might be overtaking all opponents as America’s favorite sport, there can be no doubt that baseball still lingers as America’s favorite pasttime. With full confidence that sports, perhaps the most popular (and most spiritually or religiously unexamined) aspect of popular culture, can push the spiritual envelope as well, I have included Susan Sarandon’s opening monologue from Bull Durham along with a short list, in no particular order, of the greatest, recent baseball films to commemorate the beginning of a new church year. Though Major League Baseball will be under fire throughout the seaon (and beyond) for the steroid issue, hopefully these films will remind us all of the reasons why we keep going to church.I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.

~Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon)

bulldurham.jpgBull Durham. Veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis is assigned to the Class A Durham Bulls to handle the team’s star rookie, wild pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh. Annie Savoy, one of the team groupies, romances both players, creating a comic love triangle. Obviously, this is the comedic entry here, but laced, no doubt, with its own brand of spirituality, thanks in part to Annie’s monologue that opens the film.

field-of-dreams.jpgField of Dreams. At the beginning of perhpas the most spiritual sports film, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella says, “Until I heard the voice, I had never done anything crazy.” The voice tells him, first, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray interprets this message as an instruction to build a baseball field on his farm, upon which appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. When the voices continue, Ray seeks out a reclusive author to help him understand the meaning of the messages and the purpose for his field. The reclusive author, Terrance Mann, has another wonderful monologue about baseball: “The one constant throughout all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. […] Baseball has marked time. This field, this game, is part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good, and it could be again.” This modern Noah’s Ark story shows that sometimes we have to walk seemingly crazy paths to right injustices or to atone for our shortcomings. Field of Dreams also encourages us to look for the brief moments in our lives that might just be glimpses of heaven on earth, even when we think, “It’s just Iowa.”

7b_1_sbol.JPGThe Natural. One of the more star-studded baseball films reveals the mythical and magical nature of America’s pasttime. An unknown middle-aged batter named Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) with a mysterious past appears out of nowhere to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league. With the aid of a bat cut from a lightning struck tree, Hobbs finally experiences the fame he should have had earlier when, as a promising young pitcher, his life is unexpectedly altered by a beautiful temptress. I am reluctant to identify Jesus/Christ figures in contemporary cinema, but it’s difficult to ignore the parallels here.

14m.jpg61*. Summer, 1961: Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle are on pace to break the most hallowed record in all of sports, Babe Ruth’s single-season 60 home runs. Not surprisingly, the media has turned Maris into the villain. The whole world seems to stand opposed to Maris and his trek to break the home run record. Fans cheer Mantle, his teammate, but jeer Maris. The commissioner of baseball announces that Ruth’s record stands unless it’s broken within 154 games. Any record set after 154 games of the new 162-game schedule will have an asterisk. The film follows these heroes, on and off the field, tracking their friendship, the stresses on Maris, and his desire to break the record and leave the game in peace. 61* does a fantastic job of chronicling teammate relationships and the less glamarous aspects of life in the pros. Along with The Natural, this film reveals the seedier side of sports media. Its portrayal of Maris’ strong-willed, soft-spoken pursuit of the title, however, reminds us all of what true greatness is, a quality that seems to be in short supply on the field today.