Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Baseball as a Road to God by John Sexton

John Sexton is in the news a lot lately, and not for some good things.

While I have a variety of opinions on the globalization (and commercialization) of American higher education and the use (and abuse) of adjuncts and graduate assistants as teachers at the university level, those thoughts will have to wait.

Sexton's tome should not be confused with light reading. While plenty of baseball books probe the spiritual side of our attachment to the national pastime (for me, most memorably in the recently departed Richard Ben Cramer's Joe Dimaggio and in Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer), Sexton probes the history of humanities spiritual quests through the lens of baseball.

From Aristotle to Sarte, the citations and reference points come thick and fast. My background is in literature, and while I've spent a fair amount of time with the deconstructionists, most of Sexton's arguments were too heavy for me to consider them enjoyable.

I had an especially challenging time with Sexton's personal allegiances: a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who became a Los Angeles Dodgers fan when his family moved to Southern California who became a Yankee fan while raising his son to love baseball back in New York City. My trouble wasn't Sexton's shifting loyalties (while I am first a Yankee fan, my National League attention has shifted from the Expos/Nationals to the Marlins to the Braves and back to the Nationals again), but with the argument Sexton built around those loyalties, an argument that speaks to his core purpose.

Is there a spiritual reason we love baseball? Do the intricacies of the game connect us to something ineffable that we find lacking in modern life?

Before reading Sexton's book, I would have said perhaps for some but not for me. Having read Baseball as a Road to God, my answer remains the same.

I love baseball for many reasons, but not (I think) because it connects me to the unknown. The game surprises me, delights and mystifies and confuses and disappoints and enthralls me. But always in a way that pushes me to know more: how could that have happened? what were the chances?

And Sexton seems to dislike or at least feel disappointed in fans like me. The magic of the ballpark is not unique for me. I can find the same feelings on a summer night at the lakeshore with the breeze blowing in, or gathered around a table with friends in the heart of winter, or in my seat at a theatre. Maybe I am not fan enough- but I sincerely doubt it.

To paraphrase Art Hill's I Don't Care if I Never Come Back:
With those who can only enjoy baseball in one way I can only sympathize. I do not resent them. I am even willing to concede that many of them are physically clean, good to their mothers and in favor of world peace. But while the game is on, I can't think of anything to say to them.

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