Saturday, July 21, 2012

I attend a religious service

Interesting rituals pervade the ritualized combat ... of baseball.

Take me out to the ball game,

Oh, take me out to the ball game! America's pastime is not only one of the most refined and elegant sports, but the home of endless rituals and symbolism. It could be viewed as the center of our civic religion, with politics a peripheral and grubby afterthought. And it is better than typical religions- a living ritual enacting the competitive spirit that truly characterizes American existence, enclosed within a lovingly maintained structure of rules, decorum, and tradition. Thankfully, my town recently acquired a ultra-minor professional baseball team, which is a joy to watch.

Ball games have a long history in the Americas as sacred events. Bats were even used in some prehistoric cases. In our modern game, the leading actor (i.e. the pitcher) stands on a central mound, reminiscent, if only in a small way, of the religious mounds of pre-Columbian America. This lonely figure faces the most trying test, from which he (or she!) will emerge either a hero, or defeated by Lilliputians sent up to hit against him. Surrounding him is a perfect square, the number four being highly significant in many cultures and mythologies, not to mention in nature generally. The opposing players seek to circumambulate the square, a common religious action, and while typically mark of respect, in this case it is an act of power over rival priests. It is a passion play of sorts, though the outcome is open rather than closed.

Take me out with the crowd;

We begin with communal singing- the national anthem, hands over hearts. Then it is on to chanting, clapping, stomping, waving, dancing, all in a re-ligio... sense of communal connectedness. An invisible being announces the service, keeping everyone onboard with a narration of key events and rituals. In between the enactment of the heroic contest in the main drama, spectators and miscellaneous notables come on to the field to take cameo turns, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, running races and other contests, winning boons, honoring aged or fallen heros. Altar boys, er bat boys, run out one of the priestly tools- the pitcher's rosin bag, and serve the heros unstintingly through the game. The seventh inning stretch brings on the classic baseball song in chorus.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,

Then it is on to communal eating of characteristic tribal foods. The heart of Americana- hot dogs, corn dogs, peanuts, chili, ice cream. I guess nachos count as well- the mingling of native corn with the newcomer's dairy. Healthy? No. Spiritually nourishing? You bet. While no one makes claims of transubstantiation for these foods, they make and evoke memories of unusual strength.

I don't care if I never get back.

The admission gate marks a sacred threshold, entrance to the outer precincts of the progressively more sacred central field, square, and mound. Time is suspended, as baseball does not run on a clock, but finishes whenever the ritual drama has run its course by its own arcane rules. Nor does the accumulating score lead relentlessly to the final fate. It ain't over till it's over, to use the classic maxim, as pitching breakdowns can lead to dramatic changes late in the game.

Let me root, root, root for the home team,

While in many sports, each team has its partisan section cheering it on, (soccer hooliganism comes to mind), in baseball it is more customary for all the spectators to root for the home team only, at least in the sort of minor league game portrayed here. While this may be impolite to the visiting team, it creates a civically unified atmosphere.

The Greeks made athletic festivals central to their culture, as have many others. It was a form of divination, showing whom the gods favored, and whom not. Sport was one way to express and strengthen the civic cult, as well as to transcend it, in the setting of pan-Hellenic games, even though they didn't quite get around to replacing war with sport.

If they don't win, it's a shame.

These days, the rules- i.e. moral concepts of fairness and popular legitimacy- matter far more than theories of divine favor. As a civic religion, it imbues a fundamentally secular activity with many of the narratives and spiritual archetypes embedded in human nature.

The rules of baseball are just a little more sacred and tradition-bound than those of other sports. Thus the steroid scandal hit baseball particularly shamefully, though far, far more damaging derelictions happened elsewhere in the culture, as our leaders (one of whom had helped run a baseball team, oddly enough) started a gratuitous war, showered money on the well-to-do, and raped the poor, greedy, & unsophisticated with predatory loans, making way for the current economic crisis. Baseball itself became ever more besotted with corporate advertising, corporate stadiums, and a fixation on money generally. Rituals like baseball are inescapably connected with the trends afoot elsewhere in the culture. Demons can not be exorcised by ritual alone, but only by taking the lessons of the ritual- fairness, integrity, diligence, persistence, respect- into our wider lives.

For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,

The high priest and the low priest are having a stylized game of catch, with the all-white sacred ball. (I'm not going to get into Freudian theories about the bats, balls, gloves, etc.!). Does the batting team of priests from the competing civitas have the power to interrupt this golden line? If not, the pitcher has achieved a perfect game. If the batters do get hits, can the fielding team prevent the ball from touching the mundane earth? If not, can the fielders at least prevent the ball from escaping the sacred precincts, inner and outer?

Which team has greater occult powers, exhibited through their skill and luck? The trip around the square marks the stations of this passion play, with home the ultimate goal, just as it was for Dorothy. An umpire, of yet another priestly class, maintains the balls, discarding those sullied by contact with the earth. He also lovingly sweeps home plate back to its pristine condition and validates the golden line drawn between pitcher and catcher.

At the old ball game.

Who gets to play the hero? This is far more than a question of skill. The players represent their civic tribes, and represent the archetypal hero with occult powers. This is why breaking the color line in baseball was far more significant than it was in other sports, as baseball was and remains more civically identified and more archetypally powerful than sports like basketball and football.

One reason is that baseball has very little physical contact. The ball is the central mediator- between players and between teams. Even tag-outs are made through the glove, with the ball couched within, or at its most direct, with the ball directly held in the hand outstretched. Even in the extremis of the bean ball, the ball still mediates, showing its dark power. However, the bean ball is a serious breach of decorum, both violating the golden line and bespeaking a loss of control/power by the pitching team- a descent from civilized rules (i.e. sacred ritual) into barbarity.

It is hard to leave- to break the spell of the sacred service, space, actors, and drama. But it wouldn't be sacred if there weren't mundane life to provide a backdrop.

  • Another author investigates the diamond way.
  • Basketball is an OK game too: American ballet, to baseball's mystical drama.
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  • "Worst states for business" are the best states for people.
  • Is corruption becoming unstoppable? Does money have to ruin all public functions?
  • Tom Coburn- standing up to the terrorists, a little.
  • Law of the sea.. further unworthiness of the Republican party.
  • This is the soul, which we can not remove.
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  • Economics quote of the week, by Bill Mitchell, speaking of stagnation in the US, as well as the nature of intergenerational responsibilities.. are they real or are they financial?:
"The pro-cyclical government cutbacks have introduced a vicious circle of income loss, saving loss, wealth destruction, continuing real estate crisis, loss of state and local revenue, further cutbacks according to the application of their inappropriate fiscal rules (balanced budget amendments). 
The pro-cyclical nature of state and local government employment is one of the principle reasons the US recession has endured and will ensure the long-term damage to that nation’s vitality and ability to provide high quality services to its people. 
The reasoning in the public debate about the future consequences of government budget deficits is wrong-headed. The capacity of the US to provide for an ageing society amidst the long-term decline in its industry doesn’t depend on cutting in to public spending now – which is patently causing law and order to deteriorate, the standard of public education and health to slip. 
Exactly the opposite response is required. Schools need to be revitalised. Communities need to be sure the streets are safe so that businesses will have an incentive to invest. People need to be mentally and physically well."
  • Economics bonus graph of the week: Krugman on middle class stagnation:

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I am a baseball lover and I have always seen a clear parallel between sport and religion (and the arts as well).

    The rules may seem arbitrary, but they are constructed to enhance the human drama - so in a way, they are seeking a kind of objective truth.

    And there are literalists, who care way more about the rules than the goal of the rules - and there are those who think it's nothing but trying to hit a ball.

    Good stuff!

    Basketball as ballet? Sure! I have always though of it as jazz (the music, not the style of dance necessarily....) ;)