Meditation on Opening Day

Published April 2, 1998

The Catholic Difference

Until the philistines in charge started imitating the NBA and filling the ballparks with rock-‘n’-roll between innings, baseball taught one of the lost arts of this televisual age: the craft of storytelling. When my sainted grandfather Weigel first began taking me to old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1958 or thereabouts, yarning between innings was as much a part of the game as…well, as another Orioles’ power-outage at a critical moment in the contest. In the spirit of 1 Corinthians 15, I duly passed this oral tradition on to my own children when they were old enough to enter the sanctuary; my two daughters are now adept baseball yarners, and no doubt their younger brother will follow suit in due course.

Baseball stories are usually embellished in the telling, although we of the orthodox persuasion consider it bad form to stretch a tale beyond any ascertainable connection to the truth. But some baseball stories are too good to be true in their own right; no adjectival, adverbial, nominal, or verbal assistance is required.

For example:

Dr. Fritz Rothschild is a distinguished Jewish philosopher, a longtime member of the faculty of New York’s Jewish Theology Seminary of America, the editor of Jewish Perspectives on Christianity (an important contribution to the Jewish-Christian dialogue), and, I am happy to confess, a friend. When he first came to America he was wholly ignorant of the national pastime, as Europeans tend to be. Like most immigrants he was curious to learn the mores of his new home, and remembers how startled he was when he started looking around the subways and piecing together the telegraphic English on the back, or sports, page of the New York tabloids. “I thought, this must be the most educated population in the world. People were reading newspapers with big headlines, ‘Another Homer’ and ‘Raschi Does It Again.’ This was impressive: people reading about the classics and the greatest of Talmudists on the subway?”

In due course, Dr. Rothschild had explained to him the diminutive of “home run” and the vital statistics of the other Raschi, Vic, the Springfield Rifle, a fearsome headhunter on the New York Yankees pitching staff in the late Forties.

Then consider this:

A baseball has 216 slightly-raised red cotton stitches.

In the complete, fifteen decade rosary, there are 159 Hail Mary’s, 18 Our Father’s, 18 Glory Be’s, 3 Apostles’ Creeds, 3 Hail, Holy Queen’s, and 15 mysteries. Total: 216 prayers and meditations.

This is not an accident.

Alas, many baseball stories today are about How Things Used To Be before the philistines took over. As I contemplate another season of begging, borrowing or scalping tickets to Baltimore’s Camden Yards (three million seats having been sold six weeks before Opening Day), my mind turns to the days when baseball wasn’t an “entertainment experience;” when you simply decided to go to the park of a sweltering summer evening, bought a ticket (box seats for $3.00), got a $.25 popcorn, and settled down for the game.

(Experienced souls also bought a newspaper to sit on, thus avoiding the splinters in the plank seats. The choice of newspaper was an infallible indicator of class in the Baltimore of the late Fifties. Shift workers at Sparrows Point and the Bethlehem Steel dry docks sat on the News-Post. We were incorrigibly middle class and sat on the Evening Sun, the bible of the Baltimore bourgeoisie since time immemorial.)

There were no mascots, no cavalry charges over the loudspeakers in the middle of an important at-bat, no Golden Oldies between innings. And you weren’t in danger of getting your eye put out by a broker’s cellular phone antenna, an aberration buried deep in the womb of the microchip future.

No, you went for baseball, and the story-telling that went with it, and, in my case, learned instruction from my grandparent in the finer points of the pastime. It was hot and humid; the sodas were often flat and the popcorn usually stale; the bathrooms would have fit comfortably in the Tower of London during the reign of Elizabeth I; Walt Dropo struck out.

But it was baseball the way it was, and is, supposed to be. I miss it.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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