The Church of Baseball

This weekend, a small kerfuffle commenced over two symbols carved into the dirt on the back of Busch Stadium’s pitching mound. One was the number six, placed there in honor of Stan “The Man” Musial who died on January 19th at the age of 92. The other was a cross. It’s appearance shouldn’t be surprising since the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the most openly Christian teams in all of professional sports. Fifteen or so players as well as head coach Mike Matheny are believers, and their faith was the subject of a new book written just this year.


However, “One fan, Michael Vines, said he was ‘shocked’ when he saw the ‘inappropriate’ images because he said Busch Stadium is ‘a place of hallowed ground not just for Christians, but for Cardinal fans of all religions, including none at all.'” A series of phone calls followed his complaint, and in the end, the Cardinals’ GM, John Mozeliak, ordered that both symbols be removed. The cross for obvious reasons and the 6 because, according to reports, someone said “it looked suspiciously like a Jesus fish.” Le sigh. And the first day the symbols weren’t there was on Christian Family Day. The irony of it all is positively delightful.

So….wait. A book discussing the team’s faith and an entire day devoted to Christians (one that has been advertised for months beforehand) is kosher. And it’s okey dokey to accept money from believers who attend the game, but the symbols on the back of a mound must be nixed toot sweet? Call me crazy, but that seems a skosh hypocritical. It’s like the scene in Casablanca where Captain Louis Rennalt attempts to appear shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s Café American….and then collecting his winnings before closing the place down at the Nazi’s behest.


Bill McClellan, a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote an op-ed this weekend titled “Uneasy feelings about the cross on Busch Stadium mound” in which he states, “I look at photos of that cross etched on the mound and I get the same sort of uneasy feeling I get when I hear the phrase ‘homeland security.’ It used to be ‘national security.’ Why did ‘national’ morph into ‘homeland’? It happened about the same time politicians started wearing American flag lapel pins.”


He goes on, equating the feeling to the same slick nausea that churns in his gut when he thinks of terrorism, the NSA surveillance program, and George Orwell. And he closes this gem of fallacious writing by saying, “The tribute to Musial seems harmless. Not so the cross. Does religion need to be that prominent in a baseball game? I’m not pretending it’s a big deal. But still, I have an uneasy feeling about a cross etched on the mound.”

So, in his mind, the cross poses the same threat to America’s security as enemies both foreign and domestic. But that’s quite a stretch, especially considering the fact he praised this year’s team by saying they’re, “the nicest Cardinals team I can recall. At least, the players appear nice from a distance.” Also, if he’s so concerned about the dystopian world in Orwell’s 1984, shouldn’t he be defending the placement of the cross on the field (and the freedom that allows it to be there) rather than supporting the “Big Brother” decision to have it removed? I sometimes wonder if the kneejerk reaction to anything that remotely smacks of Christianity doesn’t keep some folks in our country from thinking the matter through clearly.

And let’s be serious here for a moment. Both Mr. Vines and Mr. McClellan are forgetting something true baseball fans understand—If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Cardinals currently have the best record in baseball (53 and 34) and are, as I type this, beating the snot out of the Houston Astros 8-1. The starting rotation is rock solid; the lineup is hitting like gangbusters. Five men were selected to participate in the 2013 All-Star Game, and every player on the team is happy and honored to be a part of an historic and well-respected franchise. In other words, they’re like “Me and Mrs. Jones”—they got a good thing going on. So quit gnashing your teeth and enjoy the second half of the season, dudes.

I am a Christian who also happens to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I’m thrilled that I can root for a team of stand-up men who play the game skillfully and serve God both on and off the field. I would love nothing more than a religious symbol on every base and Scripture written on the walls of the dugout. However, even if I only believed in “The Church of Baseball,” I would still support the cross and 6 on the mound. Why? Because they’re Hippocratic; they do no harm. A true fan supports whatever gets the game in the “W” column as opposed to the “L” and worries more about team morale than its iconography.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reaction to this situation and all the people who have weighed in thus far. Can we even have a legitimate debate about religion again in this country anymore? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Sweet Game of Youth

From our fascination with the mythical Fountain of Youth to a desire for the latest anti-wrinkle treatment that renders our faces incapable of expressing emotions, it’s not hard to see that we’re a culture obsessed with staying young.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I didn’t give it much thought; I just shoved the topic into the corner of my mind as unceremoniously as I did the clothing I was too lazy to fold up and put away. However, now that my hair is changing color of its own free will and I’m running into more people who think Hall and Oates is a brand of organic grains, I’ve been confronted with the brutal truth that time soldiers on whether I want it to or not. (It also doesn’t help that I’ll be turning 34 in less than two weeks, but I digress.)

But I have found that there is a source of eternal renewal. Like the trees outside my home, it comes to a glorious finish of color and pageantry in autumn, lies dormant like a bear in winter, and returns afresh and anew every spring. I’m not talking about a garden full of flowers or a flock of migratory birds. No, it’s something altogether more beautiful and majestic than than either of those things.

I’m talking about baseball, the most glorious of all sports. The game that leaves me each November only to return as faithfully as a well-chucked boomerang.

I spent a good deal of time wallowing joyfully in Opening Weekend, which was as rejuvenating as a dip in one of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pits. I’ll be the first to admit I’m blessed because, last year, my team did the improbable (and hacked off a good number of fans and sports writers around the nation) by winning the World Series in grand fashion.

Yes, for an entire year, I get to relive that series that no one, and I mean NO ONE, thought we’d win. Game six alone was like that “Pit of Despair” machine in The Princess Bride; it took two years off my life and left me in a laughing, crying puddle on the floor. But man, was it worth it.

David Freese, hometown hero!
Motte closes the door on the Rangers.

However, that confetti-drenched moment doesn’t matter now because it’s 2012, and everyone is in the running once again. Every team from the billion dollar juggernauts like the Yankees to squads like the Astros that are in a rebuilding year has the exact same chance of grabbing the brass ring like we did in 2011. Do some teams stand a better chance? Sure. But it’s never guaranteed. That’s the beautiful thing about baseball. The season is long enough that any number of X-Factors can change the make-up of a division or even a league. There is no clock. There are no time-outs. Very little is up to official review (and may it stay that way). One lucky catch or hanging breaking ball can have a huge effect on momentum, and the later it happens in the season, the wackier the run to the playoffs gets. Every one of the “Boys of Summer” is reborn in the spring and given the chance to once again prove his mettle and emerge victorious.


I also relish the re-boot each season gives me and my family. We couldn’t go this year because we’re so poor we make church mice look like Rockefellers, but we usually get to travel down to Florida and savor the game in its purest form—Spring Training. Like the players, we observe more than a few rituals during this brief sabbatical. For instance, one Teppanyaki meal must be shared per trip, autographs must be sought, and we must spend at least one hour before the gates open on the back fields watching the players warm up and perform drills.

Once we’re inside the park for the first game, we always climb the stairs simultaneously so we get to see the most beautiful sight in the world—the geometric spectacle of grass that is a baseball field–together. Sometimes, we say a few words, but more often than not we stand there in silence enjoying the sight like it was the first time. On a side note, I actually get to games early so I can watch the field crew groom it. I’m not lying. Watching them dampen the infield and sketch out the dimensions of the batter’s box is better than Zoloft.

Likewise, there are things we eschew in the name of purity. For example, we never show up late or leave early. We never participate in “The Wave.” And we never ever ever get up in the middle of an inning. Decorum demands these things, and we’re sticklers for it. I won’t even wear a pink jersey; it’s my team’s colors or nothing.

Me in the visitor's dugout at Turner Field during this year's open house.

This sport has united three generations of my family. It’s something–like brown eyes and a penchant for peskiness–that we all share. I remember watching Ozzie Smith’s back flips in rapt fascination, falling asleep listening to Jack Buck calling games on the radio, and spending time with my grandfather learning how to keep a scorecard.

It’s as much a part of who I am as the language I speak and the places I’ve lived in my three decades on this planet. To call it “a game” is both true and somehow trivializing in my mind. But, truth be told, that’s what it is…a game. It’s the same one I grew up watching on television, and while many things in my world have changed, very little about it has. Sure, the powers that be try to “keep it interesting” by adding designated hitters or a second wildcard team, but at its root it’s still comprised of nine innings and twenty-seven outs that each team is given to do the most with. There is still the poetry of the double play and the thrill of the suicide squeeze to enjoy. There are still hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks to feast on, foul balls to catch, and stretches to perform to organ music in the middle of the seventh. I swear, it’s like the Elysian Fields the Greeks once imagined.

I love the game for its beauty and grace, the absolutely perfect timing it requires for a hitter to put a tapered piece of wood on a diminutive leather ball and for a fielder to arrest that same ball mid-flight. I love it because of men like Dizzy Dean, Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter—aptly named players who were characters in their own right—and the unique language we’ve all learned to speak where a cement mixer can become a frozen rope or can of corn that leads a team to hang a bagel. I love it because of quirky things like the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Sausage Race, and Chief Noc-A-Homa.

But most of all, I love its timelessness and how it temporarily helps me forget how quickly the years pass. Each season, I can still feel the way I did when I was eight and walked into Busch Stadium for the first time, my mouth agape and a new pennant clenched in my sweaty fist.

Me and my favorite teammate!