Both institutions are in decline, but both can still bring magic.
Slightly delayed by labor negotiations, another Major League Baseball season opens Thursday. While at the academy it is common to hear theses about sports as a popular religion, the most salient connection between religion and baseball is their increasingly tenuous status as honored institutions in the American life.
The nation’s faith and pastime, of course, have elements in common: both carry on the tradition to make sense of the present. Both are firmly grounded in physical reality but always point to the unseen, the improbable and even the impossible. Their inherent order is punctuated with moments of ecstasy.
For me, the baseball fandom even has a kind of scripture: Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary”Baseball” brought me back to the game many times over the years. The original nine episodes, which began dropping a month after the players’ strike that canceled this season’s World Series, marked my transition from player (Little League) to spectator. Baseball films of the era – from 1988’s “Bull Durham” to the mid-’90s “Angels in the Outfield” – emphasized the emotional and redeeming qualities of the game. Burns added a deep measure of story that gave my barely teenage self a new reverence for the game.
He also made it very clear that baseball’s greatest days were over.
Religion too, we are told, is in decline. Last year, Gallup reported that religious community membership in the United States fell below 50% for the first time in the polling company’s history. Children are less likely to be brought up religiously than in previous generations. Immigration may stem the decline somewhat, but the most devout age cohorts die.
To make itself more relevant, religion is tempted to evolve: contemporary music, relaxed sexual norms, easier alliance with this or that political party. But innovations intended to attract newcomers are seen by the old guard as impure, even heretical or just outdated.
Baseball’s struggles aren’t all that different. By any account of American popularity, market share, or cultural dominance, baseball appears to be in decline. While 25 million people used to tune in to watch a World Series game in 2003 on average, only 8 million watched in 2019. While all sports viewers have struggled lately, the NFL has drew more than 100 million to his title game this year. As with religion, immigrants and minorities will help: the growing number of Hispanic Americans, the most avid fans, will help, but the game’s popularity is unlikely to return.
Numerous rule changes were proposed and implemented, ostensibly to make games faster and more exciting: seven-inning doubles, a clock, starting extra innings with a runner at second base and, new for 2022, the use of the designated hitter in the National League. But older, die-hard fans often find these innovations to be downgrades of what makes baseball so special.
The reasons for baseball’s downfall, however, go deeper than these innovations, aimed at increasing media competition, can address. More than most sports, baseball depends on fathers teaching their sons, but with more broken families and more fatherless children than ever before, far fewer kids are playing baseball. Even in intact families, the younger, digitally native generation trusts its own superior knowledge of technology above any tradition of a game played outdoors with sticks and scraps of leather. But overall, the ties that have sustained baseball for more than 150 years are fading.
Baseball should rethink its evangelism strategy. The sport’s owners have too long relied on maintaining attendance for its own good, luring fans into their stadiums by resorting to fancy food courts as destinations other than their stated activities. They appealed to a bygone respect for institutions and their place in our personal and national history. (“The tradition is here. The memories wait,” the former NBC Game of the Week promo read.)
What people want today is not the glorification of an American past, but an indelible and enriching experience. From the perfect, dissipated March afternoons of spring training in Florida and Arizona to the unprecedented drama of October baseball, the sport spans the entire year. Americans can follow highlights from 15 games almost every day throughout a six-month regular season, played from coast to coast. The grueling 162-day schedule filled with cherished rivalries, dismal wounds, and triumphs of superstars and unlikely heroes unfolds in something like the eternal now.
In every game you can see something that has never happened before. Every sport has magic moments; baseball is basically enchanted.
While baseball’s obsession with statistics has been used to entrench its past heroes, data has remade the game: By integrating statistical analysis, teams have upended orthodoxies about pitching when to start and position players in clumsy defensive changes. These probability-fueled decisions frustrate elders but, unlike pitch clocks and designated hitters, they delve into the inner workings of the game, not trying to tamper with it.
Baseball is complex enough to confuse its most learned followers. When attention drifts or devotion fades, fans don’t come back because you found the right formula of distractions, but for a single moment of inspiration.
Religion and baseball are not substitutes for each other, but they follow parallel paths in American culture. I will be happy to root both to bring fulfillment and inspiration to a nation that could use a little joy, excellence and virtue right now.
After another long winter, it is fortunately time to say: Play ball!
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Fla. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)