I was baptized into a religion when I was five when my mom taught be how to play baseball. Basketball followed a few years later, and though I never played it, football completed the triad of my sports devotion. In addition to my Awana verses, I gradually memorized my ever growing baseball card collection. In addition to a quiet time, every morning began with Sportscenter. By middle school, I knew most players’ teams and stats by heart.

By geographic predestination, I should have been a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan. My first live Major League Baseball game was during the 1991 season when they went from worst to first and made it to the World Series. But my fandom was betrayed when they lost to the Minnesota Twins in Game 7. The betrayal went even deeper the following year when they lost in similar fashion to the Toronto Blue Jays. After these mountaintop and valley experiences, my allegiance moved around. But my love of the game remained.

As I grew older, I became more and more indoctrinated with baseball lore. I knew all the classic stories about all the great players. As a player myself through high school, I channeled some of those stories into action. Taking a page out of Ty Cobb’s playbook, I made sure my cleats were on the sharper side and would slide into bases with them raised lest I be easily tagged out–a certain a jerk move on my part. Maybe for the better, my playing time ended when I went to college, and with it my available time devoted to following sports.

By and large, American culture shows particular devotion to three major sports: baseball, basketball, and football. All three of these sports not only get extensive coverage on ESPN and primetime cable, they each also have their own network included in many cable packages.

As Craig Forney says, baseball, basketball, and football are the holy trinity of the American sports religion. Each of these sports is American in origin and reflect ideals that American society values. They each have different symbolic overtones and fill our calendar with religious celebrations. I would suggest instead of a pantheon of deities like ancient Greco-Roman culture, we have mascots. Instead of gladiators, we have athletes. And though the Greco-Roman world had stadiums, ours have become temples of sports devotion: prayers of petition and thanksgiving, praise, lament, sacrifice, and the list goes on.

Forney’s argument is particularly fascinating because he explores the connections between baseball, basketball, and football with American values and ideals. In his analysis, baseball is essentially eschatological in its depiction of games played leisurely under ideal conditions and without time constraints. The season gets underway just as spring arrives, and it fills the entire summer calendar. All three summer holidays (Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, Labor Day) feature extra festive baseball games. However, all of these pale in comparison with The World Series, which is the pinnacle of festivities.

For most of America, The World Series takes place as autumn comes into full swing, which is why it is also called The Fall Classic. Sure, there are rivalry weekends in college football and big NFL games on Sunday. But for at least the better part of a week, mainstream America’s attention is focused on who will triumph in the best of seven series of baseball’s finest.

To the casual fan, it might not be apparent how significant The World Series is in American culture and history. If you’re under 30, every World Series game you’ve seen live has been at night. This obscures the reality that it wasn’t until 1985, the last time the Royals were involved, that all World Series games were regularly scheduled at night. Prior to 1985, World Series games were during the day, which meant people watched them at work and school, or listened on the radio. It was a communal event, something you did with colleagues and classmates. The World Series interrupted life as usual during its 1-2 week occurrence. Now, every game since 1987 has happened at night, usually in primetime for the East Coast, and regularly scheduled TV shows are on hold for whichever network hosts.

Culturally, the World Series functions as a major festival in American civil religion. In the balance of our calendar, we have The Super Bowl as the prime winter festival, The NBA Finals mark the arrival of summer, and The World Series signify summer’s official end and a sign that winter is coming.

For many Americans, summer is a time of relaxation. We take vacations, unwind, cookout. We typically spend more time outside. During this time, baseball is in full swing and is a perfect reflection of the American ideal for leisure. It is predominantly played outdoors, and during idyllic weather and scenery. Baseball is a non-contact sport and players cordially interact with each other during the games.

Of the three major sports, baseball is the most international. It also presents equal opportunity for all players to play offense and defense, and as “everyman’s sport,” doesn’t require that athletes be in absolute peak physical condition. The bar for success is set low with players only needing to hit the ball 30% of the time to be consider good. There is no clock, and nothing is done in a hurry.

All of this is intensified during The World Series because the stakes are higher, but the nature of the sport remains unchanged. The Fall Classic signals the end of the ideal and the arrival of harsher conditions for most of the country. Since football depicts striving against the odds and overcoming obstacles, even through violence, it is the sport of choice during the fall and winter months. As many Americans strive against the weather, the business of school and work, the full calendars and long nights, the weekend offers a break. It’s an opportunity to watch others strive and succeed, inspiring us for another work week soon to come.

But for most of us, we long for a break that lasts more than a weekend. Baseball fills our summers with a vision of rest. The World Series is the twilight of that rest, and as a champion is crowned, we prepare for a season of work. Our desires for the ideal and longings for rest and relaxation will never be satisfied in a 12 month cycle. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Baseball offers a window into that world, and we celebrate it in earnest every Fall Classic we can.


4 Comments

  1. At age ten I thought that I was poised for athletic stardom. I was a starting softball pitcher and a starting basketball center (!), the latter being pretty funny to imagine now. I knew all the stats for the big three sports better than anyone I knew. My father, who had played in the high school line, rightly told me that he did not think that my bone structure was suited to football. That disappointment was followed by the fact that I did not grow much again until I was 15 and had by then fallen out of the loop of being coached toward stardom. This allowed me to focus on academic and oratorical progress, apparently destined for either politics or preaching. I admit that I still relive in my dreams “the thrill of victory and agony of defeat” in all those endeavors and more. But, in my waking moments, I am more inclined to be aware of the idolatries that have pursued me in all endeavors, athletic and oratorical. Sports, politics, and even preaching can no longer satisfy my deepest longings. Indeed nothing that I do or that any other human being can do can satisfy those longings. I still love to teach in person or in writing, but my heart’s deepest satisfaction is in seeing what God has done, is still doing, and will yet do. I still read the sports headlines and the occasional related human interest stories, but deep down I am most satisfied when what I read gives me glimpses of glory that is not of this world’s competitions. I long to see things that point ahead to a new heaven and new earth.

    Thanks, Nate, for helping connect the grown boys of fall to the eternal rest/shalom that even now breaks in upon us.

  2. Basketball, my friend, basketball is the most international. Just look at the origins of NBA players vs MLB ones. Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Pao Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Dikembe Mutombo…vs. a smattering from Japan and a handful of Latin American countries on the Caribbean.

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