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Posted: 10/18/2013
Baseball and the Mystery of Faith
Anything Spiritual in Pittsburgh?
PNC Park
PNC Park, from Across the Allegheny

In the interest of full disclosure: The stimulus for this reflection came from John Sexton's book, Baseball As A Road To God. (More about this book in Resources below.)

This past August, my cousin Tim, son Alan, and I met in Pittsburgh for our sixth annual "Three Stooges at the Pirates" baseball vacation. (I shared about this annual event in the previous Reflection.) The rituals we've generated over the years of these vacations begin to let our days take on a spiritual nature.

The topic of spirituality could fill many Reflections, but I am thinking of spirituality as taking the time to see and sense some deeper (perhaps unexplainable) meaning in events, often in the ordinary stuff of life. A close friend said he was not a religious person. I accepted his personal assessment, but knowing how he thought deeply about things and many of the meaning-of-life conversations we had over the years, I added, "But, you are a spiritual guy." Being religious and being spiritual may be related, but I don't think they are the same. (Perhaps, in some cases, it seems religion can stifle a spiritual nature. But, that's stuff for another Reflection!) In a fascinating book, The Spirituality of Imperfection,The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (p. 32), by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham; Bantam Books the authors give a useful, concise description of spirituality:

Spirituality is discovered beyond immediate perceptions. Thus founded in a contrast with immediate perceptions, spirituality always involves both an affirmation -- "Yes, there is something here" -- and a rejection -- "But there is more to it than meets the eye."

At Trinity Cathedral
Noon Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral
Tim, Fr Don, Keith, Alan

A recent ritual (in its second year, so I guess it qualifies as a ritual) is being part of a noon Eucharist service at Trinity Cathedral downtown Pittsburgh. Reciting the familiar words in an away-from-home place, and partaking of the spiritual food with a small, diverse body of those wandering in from downtown made it easy to connect the spiritual in the religious.

But, I had just finished reading John Sexton's, Baseball as a Road to God and our baseball vacation began to take on previously unrealized spiritual dimensions. (Sexton emphasizes the title is A Road, not The Road.) A much deeper read than I expected (but I should have anticipated it: the author is the president of New York University!), Sexton shows that through baseball we can better experience the spiritual dimensions of our lives. Others have likened baseball to religion with examples such as striving to reach "home," three strikes and three outs representing the trinity, staying in the baselines, and such simplified connections. But, Sexton goes deep into the essence of the game and how it might give us ways to better understand our faith. In Pittsburgh this summer with the resurgent Pirates, Sexton's thoughts became more than the words on his pages. (If baseball is not a significant interest, Sexton's thoughts and my illustrations might as easily apply to other passions: music, other sports, drama, and maybe even bird-watching.)

Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente

For me, there is a name that is synonymous with the Pirates: Roberto Clemente. I grew up about 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh and became a Pirate fan when Clemente was in his beginning years with the Bucs (nickname of the Pirates -- from buccaneers).

Part of spirituality is telling stories that convey our attachment to our experiences. A highlight of my youth was the time, only a week or so after getting my driver's license, that I woke my dad around noon (he had worked midnight shift at the steel mill) and asked if I could take the car and drive to Pittsburgh for a night game. Still mostly asleep, he mumbled "OK", and a gang of us piled in the car before my dad could think clearly and took off for Pittsburgh and Forbes Field where we would cheer, "Beat 'Em Bucs" and "Arriba, Roberto!" Naive hick boys in the big city, toting sacks of sandwiches and standing first in line to get the best of the cheap seats, and getting lost in a questionable part of town on the way home: The stuff of teenage legends! (Stories we still tell each summer. Probably like the early Israelites handing down the story of God parting the Red Sea for their escape from the charging Egyptians. Well, maybe there is an order of magnitude problem here with my analogy, but legends do feed the spirituality of our lives.)

Spirituality is also expressing the deeper meaning of things through rituals. Pittsburgh is a city of bridges. The exact number depends on the type of report, but with over 720 bridges, most people agree that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any place in America -- second in the world only to Venice, Italy. To a baseball fan, the most important is the Sixth Street Bridge over the Allegheny River -- but no one calls it that. It is the Roberto Clemente Bridge.The Clemente bridge is one of three parallel bridges called The Three Sisters, the others being the Rachel Carson Bridge and the Andy Warhol Bridge. The Three Sisters are self-anchored suspension bridges and are significant because they are the only trio of nearly identical bridges -- as well as the first self-anchored suspension spans -- built in the United States. This bridge is not only a sacred place for Pirate fans, but the site of of a special ritual.

Clemente Bridge

Game days, the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic, and fans walk the bridge from the downtown side over to PNC Park. Greeting the faithful on the PNC side is -- you guessed it -- a giant statue of "The Great One", Roberto Clemente. Walking to the games this year, I sensed what Sexton was talking about in his baseball book. People seemed to "know" that this was more than a walk to the park. No one rushed; not a hushed atmosphere, but you could sense that fans were experiencing something more than meets the eye. When I walked, I experienced images of my childhood heroes: Bill Mazeroski (who grew up across the Ohio River from where we lived), manager Danny Murtaugh, fork-ball closer Elroy Face, ones I had only heard about before my time like Honus Wagner, and those after my Pirate days such as Willie Stargel. ... And, of course, Roberto!

I suggested to my stooge companions that the city should post plaques along the bridge marking Pirate milestones, much like a Stations of the Cross, as the bridge walk takes on a sense of a pilgrimage. Obviously, not the magnitude or significance of the pilgrimage my friend Jeff completed this summer, the over-500 mile Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), but still the bridge walk feels like a pilgrimage.

Throughout Baseball as a Road to God, Sexton uses a term that helps us understand the meaning in experiences like walking-the-Clemente-Bridge, of hearing God speak in the rustling of the breeze, or knowing that Christ is actually with us in the Eucharist. The term is the ineffable. The ineffable is that which we cannot define even though we can experience it. We can "know" it even though we may not know it in the usual quantitative, scientific sense.

The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.
The ineffable is not just an easy cop-out for that which we don't want to put the time and energy into trying to explain or understand. "Oh, I don't understand ... I just believe and accept." Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it well: "By the ineffable we do not mean the unknown as such; things unknown today may be known a thousand years from now. By the ineffable we mean that aspect of reality, which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind."As quoted in the earlier referenced Baseball as a Road to God, page 7. (There is more about "ineffable" in the FAQs -- key events in my life -- on this website.)

PNC Park
PNC Park from Upper Deck

A baseball park, much like a church or cathedral, can take on the sense of being a "sacred space." It doesn't happen to everyone, or in all parks (or in all churches), or at all times; but in that sacred space, the fan or believer can be transported beyond the ordinary, to an experience we know is real ... but we cannot explain or put into words. I am sure my cousin Tim, who holds a Pirates season ticket considers PNC park a sacred space. When I see the green grass (real grass), the white lines, and the smoothed base paths, that spectacular view, and especially the game that goes on there, I, too, have this sense of being in a sacred space.

And baseball, like church, is done in community, whether at the ballpark or fans gathered at a local watering hole.

"But if baseball is a secular institution that sometimes displays the elements of the classic religions, it is not just because it attracts committed (even fanatic) fans as religions attract ardent believers. ... It is that baseball has the capacity to elevate and transform, that it has a power to bring people together in expanding levels of relationships: parent and child, neighbor and friend, community and city, state and the nation. On some majestic summer days, the many who assemble are one.""Community" in Baseball as a Road to God, page 177.

And more than 30,000 fans, rise as one after the top half of the seventh inning, and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The experience evokes an unexplainable sense of community much as does the full congregation and choir proclaiming boldly in the processional hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God!" (For a special sense of baseball community, see the reference to the "Raise the Colours" rally video below.)

Sexton wrote his book not because baseball is the road to God, perhaps not even a road to God. But, he says he wanted to "awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science. We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply. ...We can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally. Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun."

I share this Reflection because Sexton's book and the baseball experience in Pittsburgh has made me more aware of the reality of the experienced but unexplainable in life ... a help in experiencing God in Ordinary Time. On my first Sunday back in church after the baseball vacation, the ritual of our worship service took on deeper meaning. I have no idea what the new meaning was, but when the priest held high the bread and the wine during the singing of the doxology, I knew something special was happening.

Anything spiritual in Pittsburgh? A small community together partaking of the bread and wine at the cathedral; the rich and poor sporting Pirate jerseys on the streets downtown; the cheering and waving of the Jolly Roger at two walk-off wins; and the faithful on the pilgrimage across the Clemente Bridge. Arriba! Arriba! ... Amen.

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Resources Related To this Reflection

Rally video played on Jumbotron if game goes to bottom of 9th.
YouTube 4-min. bio of Roberto Clemente
Baseball as a Road to God cover John Sexton's Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. (
Clemente cover Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss' Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero. (
Richard Heffner (host of The Open Mind) interview with John Sexton about the book. (28 min.)
Bill Moyers (the JOURNAL) interview with John Sexton, his general views on religion, life, and baseball. (30 min.)

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