Back when I was a student at Northwest University, a professor of Christian Thought had the class read an excerpt from John Sexton’s book Baseball As a Road to God to understand how sports can and at times lead people to God. The game of baseball has deep-rooted features associated with life and the journey many Christians take on the road to God. Yet two years later I would pick this book up again after reading Lou Piniella’s autobiography.
Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game grew out of John Sexton’s courses tough at New York University. It all started when a fellow student told him how silly people are for thinking baseball is life. This sparked a challenge to see what makes baseball so true to life and how the game is one of the roads to God. Little did Sexton knew, it would become one of the most popular courses among students.
In this four part series I will go through what I learned about the game of baseball as a road to God, and how it has made me look at baseball differently all because of John Sexton’s book.
The Knothole Gang:
The knothole gangs came about as professional ballparks were first being built with wooden fences. Kids without the price of a seat would find that the wooden fences surrounding the parks provided spy holes to watch the games for free. These holes were created when knots in the wood popped out. Naturally, gangs of kids gathered around the knotholes.
Baseball evokes in the life of it’s faithful features associated with life; faith, doubt, conversion, blessing, curses, miracles, saints and sinners, and community. In Sextion’s book, baseball is really the physical representation of the road to God played out before an audience.
How is this sport closest to the road of God you ask? It is a superficial similarity between baseball and religion. Sextion spells it out:
- Ballpark is a church
- Ballgame is a mass (Sextion is Catholic)
- Three strikes to an out
- Three outs to an inning
- Three holy trinities (baseball diamonds)
- Nine positions on a field
- Nine innings to a game
- Nine muses in Greek mythology.
To the outsider peeking through the knothole of a ballpark fence they see a game, but if look closely, there is a complex sacred dance playing out in all corners of the ballpark.
1st Inning: Sacred Space & Sacred Time
Unity in time and space in the nature of the show.John Updike (Unity In Life
Sexton starts off the road to God at the first inning, the inning where baseball moves beyond ordinary space, time, in the flow of feelings and images. Baseball in full context is “constructed stage beast three folds of Dante’s rose (heaven, hell, and purgatory).” Remember the knothole? Looking through it, does it look like a game of chess or ballet or both? Baseball is a combination of both. When looks like nothing is going on choose a player and watch the reaction. The game ebbs and flows like water. A sacred water flow coming from within the deepest recess of a player.
The sacred space of the ballpark is similar to a sacred place like a church. Sexton notes that a day at a ballpark summons an inner self-conjured as one moves through the entrance to the park. Crossing the threshold separates the profane world outside the sacred world lies inside the gates. Most people find a state of being, a transformation evoking a deep and meaningful connection to something within the ballpark. A stadium a church. The bleachers are the pews. The intersection between our world and the transcendent world, the connection between ordinary from spiritual dimensions.
Baseball operates out of ordinary time-timeless in it’s essence. Sitting in the seats, what do you notice?
- Length of an inning or game is not set by a clock.
- Time is not linear (simple: past, present, and future)
Time is cyclical building towards certain quintessential moments in baseball game according to Sexton. This same cyclical building mirrors religious times: liturgical. The time marked by ritual and ceremony. The liturgical time of baseball is the season from opening day to World Series. But it goes further than this. According to Sexton, it all starts before opening day with Easter/Passover (spring training) where there is a sense of renewal and the “wait until next year”, the prolong replaced with hope. Opening day with pomp and circumstance of something wonderful can and will happen (the beginning). The great time of the season (midseason), and the holy of holy days in baseball, the World Series. The World Series according to baseball lore, is the holiest of days where baseball stories become memories passed down to the next generation.
Yet Sexton notes, during this time overwhelming occurs throughout the ballpark. As you sit in the seat watching the game, notice the crowd around you. The cheering crowd wells up and carries you along as a powerful wave. In this wave, there is a solid foundation supported, and riding this wave carries you along. There is meaning to life in this powerful feeling of waves, just as this powerful wave moves through worshipers during Sunday morning service. Baseball creates and lives the cyclical repetitive liturgy and sacramental time of religion.
Over millennia such sacramental moments have been a part of human’s efforts to touch the deepest place of existence.John Sexton
This time exists within the realm of baseball fields, parks and stadiums. Each field holds the greatest show, the greatest game, a journey, a road each person takes in life, all within nine innings.
Baseball is more than a game. It’s like life played out on a field.Juliana Hatfield
Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond the Game, by John Sexton
Note: Safeco Field is now T-Mobile Field as of 2019.