Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
While I hope that this column sometimes challenges those who read it, I never intend to cause controversy. Some of the words that follow may be hard to read, but I reiterate that my intention is not to be polemical or provocative. Here goes:
As a lifelong devotee of the National League, I am slowly softening on the idea of the designated hitter. The experimental use of the DH in the abbreviated 2020 season gave me a different perspective, and while I am not yet entirely convinced (there is something about the possibility of a pitcher making the opposing pitcher look bad – offensively or defensively – that is just too attractive to my sensibilities), I better understand the arguments in favor. I am less convinced of some of the other proposed rule changes or modifications, though, as many of them seem to be trying to alter the game of baseball to make it more palatable for wide consumption, which, I believe, always dilutes a good thing too much and makes it a sad, empty version of what it ought to be. I may be waxing too philosophical here, but baseball is not a game played (or watched) for pure consumption. Rather, it is a game played for itself. When baseball is unapologetic about what it is, the game is at its best. It is not soccer, basketball, football, hockey, tennis, the Olympics, or anything else. Baseball is baseball, and needs to be televised as baseball, played as baseball, loved as baseball.
In many ways, baseball is a Catholic sport, at least metaphysically. It is a game with no clock and can theoretically go on forever (the concept of a tie being still anathema in most baseball settings, thank God). It depends both on personal accomplishment and communal effort. Failure is expected and forgiven, such that even those who fail often are considered great. The pace of the game allows for conversation and fellowship, while the strategy of the game demands serious reflection. The rules can seem arcane, yet when they are followed the game can be played with a joyful abandon. The sport is played all over the world, and in each place where it is found, it is flavored by the local culture. While the language spoken on the field and in the dugout may vary, the sport itself has a language all its own. It is timeless and unchanging, yet new developments are always happening which enrich and enhance the sport, and when those developments go awry, there is an authority that can decisively move the game and the whole sport forward, honoring the past while looking ahead to a brighter future. And in the end, the greatest hope in baseball is to come home.
With the explosion of the sports entertainment industry has come a demand for professional leagues to market their product to a bigger and bigger audience. The pre-game pageantry of the NFL and the player-centered focus of the NBA, to name just two examples, hook viewers even before the games begin. In the main, professional organizations remain true to their sports, and while fans might hold loyalty to teams in multiple sports, few are looking for the NFL to try to be more like professional tennis, or for NBA games to more closely resemble hockey. Each of these sports has its own focus, ethos, culture, ritual, rules, and purpose. Each is best enjoyed when it is true to itself. It is for this reason that I worry about the MLB trying to be more like other leagues. In the attempt, they risk altering the game of baseball itself, and thus diluting it too much.
If organized baseball is running the risk of changing too much in the hope of finding more fans, rather than finding more fans by presenting itself for what it is – let baseball be baseball and show people the beauty of the game, I say! – I think we can draw an analogy to the life of the Church. We often see a tendency in the life of the Catholic Church to encourage changes to practice or rules so that the Church might be more palatable. “If only X, Y, or Z would happen, then more young/old/marginalized/poor/rich/uncertain/liberal/conservative/cat people/dog people/men/women would want to be Catholic or practice the Catholic faith more,” goes the argument. But if we look at our actual results from various changes, or at the results achieved by various other denominations around us, we see that thinking a particular modification or change is the answer rarely accomplishes the goal. Instead we find an impoverished understanding of the Gospel and a difficulty appreciating the faith for what it is. On the other hand, when Catholicism is lived out for what it is, a robust sacramental economy that embraces cultures and languages, fosters community, serves the vulnerable and needy, and proclaims the name of Jesus to the world, people are undeniably attracted to it.
During Lent we reflected on the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith, is the law of our lives. This weekend as we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, we celebrate a mystery decidedly unapologetic for what it is. Jesus proclaims in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink, and that failure to eat His Body and drink His Blood means a lack of life within. When people walk away because the saying is hard, our Lord does not change His tune. Just so, the Church has never stopped proclaiming that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Church has never stopped placing the Eucharist and the Eucharistic celebration (the Mass) at the center of the spiritual life. Indeed, it was for this reason that the Second Vatican Council reminded the Church that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian faith. Honoring the great sacrament of the Eucharist in this feast, we are doing something distinctively and unapologetically Catholic.
The fact of the Eucharist – Jesus is truly, sacramentally present for us to consume, truly, sacramentally present for us in the Tabernacle to visit – is stubborn in its refusal to be anything else. Though various things surrounding the Eucharist have changed over time, some for the good and some for ill, what the Eucharist is remains. Baseball stubbornly remains what it is. Though rules, equipment, and comportment may have changed over time, the game remains in its essence unchanged. That is part of the beauty. To someone who does not understand the game, it is something to be passed by without much thought. But to one who understands and loves the game, it is a treasure to be reverenced. The Eucharist, unapologetic though it may be, is to all appearances a simple thing. To one who does not understand, the ceremony and reverence surrounding it may seem odd. But to those who know, the Eucharist is an unending source of meditation and grace. To those who are open, the reverence and ceremony become an invitation to know more, and the Eucharist becomes a source of life and blessing. Before we try to change things, let us appreciate what is, and so see more clearly and with greater reverence the gift that lies before us, whether on a grass diamond, or presented to us at the altar rail.