DIONNE: A sense of renewal arrives with Opening Day
Published: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
It can't be an accident that baseball always starts around the time of both Easter and Passover and thus “elicits a sense of renewal.” For the faithful, it means that “the long dark nights of winter are over” and “the slate is clean.” All teams, the exalted and lowly alike, “are tied at zero wins and zero losses.” This, in turn, means that the fervent cry “Wait'll next year” becomes “prologue, replaced by hope.” If you sneer at these spiritual metaphors, John Sexton, the president of New York University and a scholar of religion, offers a sermon you should hear. His new book, from which these quotations are drawn, is “Baseball as a Road to God.” The national pastime, he rightly insists, provides an excellent window onto the sacred, even as all that is good and holy helps you to understand baseball.
Sexton has taught a seminar on this subject for more than a decade, and his co-authors were two participants, Thomas Oliphant, the retired Boston Globe writer whose column I still miss, and Peter J. Schwartz, a former reporter for Forbes. Together, they have assembled some of baseball's best-known tales (
Beneath the yarns and the data, Sexton has a serious and controversial point to make. He rejects “scientism” and insists that there is another realm of knowing that is spiritual and religious.
Many would insist that “science captures or will capture all there is to know in any sense of the word,” he writes, and then he boldly declares: “I do not believe this.” There is, he says, “something that is plainly unknowable, ineffable, no matter how hard we try to figure it out.” I'm with Sexton, and I think he is very shrewd in encouraging non-believers to try to understand the religious sensibility by focusing on baseball's moments of “wonder, awe, hope, passion, heroism and community” and, especially, of “faith and doubt.”
My hunch is that professional baseball writers get impatient with intellectuals and columnists who tread on their territory. Compare, for example, Sexton's other-worldly approach to the hard-nosed opening of “Francona,” the new book by former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and the Boston Globe's celebrated sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy: “A baseball life is a life of interminable bus trips, tobacco spit, sunflower seeds, rain delays, day-night doubleheaders and storytelling. There's a lot of standing in the outfield, shagging fly balls, and swapping lies.” But Sexton has that covered. Baseball's central calling to us, he concludes, is “to live slow and notice.” Opening Day encourages us every year to seek a path to serenity, and transcendence.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post.
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