Are the Red Sox a Religion?

Johnny-Damon

With David Ortiz parading through the Back Bay with even more adulation than Jesus received on Palm Sunday, you have to wonder: have the Red Sox become a religion?

No less an expert than Johnny Gomes declared on national television that Fenway Park is a “cathedral.”  Let’s not forget that the bearded, over-tressed Johnny Damon (see photo above) was frequently compared to the Son of God.  And what are Curt Shilling’s bloody socks but the modern equivalent of pieces of the cross?  Indeed, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is itself an even bigger reliquary than anything in Italy.

It’s not just the Red Sox, of course.  The Packers’ are a civic religion in Green Bay, as are the Cowboys in Dallas, the Canadians in Montreal and the Futbol Club in Barcelona. Players sometimes make an explicit connection between religion and sports by ostentatiously pointing to heaven after a home run (but never after a strikeout.)  And of course many many fans have fervently prayed for a successful field goal, home run or foul shot — as if God takes sides in sporting contests (although since He moves in mysterious ways, who am I to say?)

Religious terms are frequently appropriated for sporting purposes.  The Red Sox were big on “redemption” this year.  In Christian theology, redemption is salvation from sin through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Somehow the idea that John Lackey redeemed himself from the sin of consuming fried chicken and beer in the locker room by winning Game Six doesn’t have the same weight. On the other hand, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy did point out that “New Englanders who went to Mass Wednesday noticed the final verse of the Gospel of Luke (13:22-30), which reads, ‘For behold, some are last who will be first . . . ‘’’

Unexpected sports developments are sometimes referred to as “miracles.”  The 1969 World Series winners were “The Miracle Mets.”  And when a batter makes a deliberate out to move along a runner that is known as a “sacrifice.”

Fans are sometimes buried in their team’s sports jerseys or have their fans surreptitiously sprinkle their ashes in their favorite sports venues (I can only imagine how many ashes are in the bullpen at Fenway Park).

For many people, sports satisfies a need that religion itself used to fulfill.  People who watch football on TV all Sunday are not that different from the 17th Century Pilgrims who spent their entire day of rest in church.  And the ecstatic experience that fans get when their team wins a key game is akin to the religious ecstasy that saints and devoted followers achieve through worship.

Handout photo of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio posing with a jersey from the San Lorenzo soccer club

This is not to say that all fans are using sports to fill their religious needs.  The Pope himself is a fan of the Saints of San Lorenzo in Argentina (that’s a soccer team, not a religious order).  Yet there does seem something sad about fans who ONLY worship sports.  As much as I love the Red Sox – and I love them a lot – I would never make the mistake of thinking they will quench any kind of spiritual thirst.

Sports are often a metaphor for life and I did learn a lot of about faith – and even more about doubt – by watching the Red Sox this season.

As all the world knows, the Red Sox had a terrible year in 2012.  It wasn’t just that they lost games, but that the players were surly and selfish while management seemed arrogant and heartless.  You can root for a losing team if they are nobly defeated, but to lose with a bunch of selfish players is soul-crushing.

Over the winter, the Sox redid the team and restocked it with guys with good attitudes, and unexpectedly started to win.  They became inextricably associated with the recovery from the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing, which took place just a mile from Fenway just after the annual Patriots Day game.   And while the memorial service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross  attended by President Obama was fine, the real healing began two days later at Fenway Park, when the Sox honored the victims and “first-responders” before the game – and then proceeded to defeat the Royals 4-3.

As the season wore on the Sox continued to win, including many come-from-behind victories, each of which seemed a miracle.  And yet  for the first time in ten years, the games were not sell-outs.  The most worthy team in a decade rarely sold out! To the fans, the lingering question was would they continue to win?  Were these flukes and statistical anomalies?  Would the law of averages take hold? Would the Sox experience a “regression to the mean” and sink to their natural level?

And here’s where the lesson about faith comes in.   I used to think that if I’d lived in Jesus’ time and seen Him perform His miracles it would be a lot easier to believe.   How much harder it seemed to have faith when you are relying on stories passed down 2,000 years.   Now I realize that I’m so naturally skeptical that if Jesus had raised Lazarus right in front of me I have demanded he do it again – and then again.

Even after the Red Sox had pulled off miracle after miracle this year, I still doubted.  They had seemed like a team of destiny ever since the Marathon bombing,  and they had never disappointed.  Yet how were we to believe that they’d go all the way?  Even after they achieved the best record in baseball and started to win play-off games with walk-off grand slams we always doubted they’d win it all.   After all, the other teams had the same faith in their teams.  Out of 30 teams only one could win and why should it be ours?

To be clear, I am definitely NOT saying I found God because the Red Sox won the World Series.  What I am saying is that the doubt a fan feels about his team’s chances – even in the face of evidence to the contrary – is related to the doubt a spiritual seeker can feel about God.  The happy fans are the ones who give themselves whole-heartedly to their teams and don’t despair even when they lose.  So too with the religious faithful.  I had spent too much time being skeptical about the Sox that I hadn’t enjoyed the season as much as I could have. And I have spent so much time worrying about whether Jesus really walked on water that I haven’t received the full benefits of faith.

In 2003, a team of documentarians followed the experiences of eight hard-core Red Sox fans through the entire season.  This was the tumultuous year when it finally seemed that the Sox would win it all, but were undone when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long and the Sox blew their chances against the hated Yankees.  Curiously, when the film came out the next spring, it was entitled “Still We Believe.”

What a concept. Still we believe.  “Still we believe” in the Red Sox even though they just broke our hearts! People of faith believe despite disappointments.  Why should it be easier to believe in the Red Sox than in God?  Can we still believe in God in a world with disease and natural disaster?  Maybe if we believe in our sports teams we can believe in a higher power.

Some other thoughts about the 2014 Sox:

  • The Beards – I finally succumbed to the beards, as ugly as they were.  I understand that it became a team bonding exercise, but it also had the effect of reducing the individuality of the players.  By focusing on the beards, it was harder to focus on one player alone because you could hardly tell them apart. Each player was giving up a bit of his ego and identity to blend with the team.  The best baseball teams are not a collection of superstars – they are just an integrated unit of consistently good players.  There were no batting title winners, home run kings, or Cy Young winners on the 2013 Sox. Instead, just a group of solid players who pulled for each other and the team.
  • The 2013 Sox are sometimes compared to the “idiots” on the 2004 team – the guys who finally won the World Series.  That’s not entirely right.  The better comparison is to the 2003 Sox.  That was the team who adopted the motto “Cowboy Up,” laughed at the video of Kevin Millar dancing to “Born in the USA”   and shaved their heads for team bonding purposes.  That’s the team that really should have broken the curse.  Nomar was still with the team and I still regret he was exiled when they finally won it the next year.
  • Even when the Sox win the World Series, I’m always sad to see the season end.  I probably watch 80 games a year on TV and there’s a huge void when the last game is played.  So let’s end on the famous Bart Giamatti quote: “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Amen!

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