Baseball and God. Go Cubs Go.

Over the past year, when I am flying from here to there, I sometimes read “Baseball as the Road to God“, by John Sexton (president of NYU since 2001) based upon a course Sexton had taught for more than a decade.

On the night before opening day, the end of a baseball fan’s version of Advent, John Sexton entered his classroom at New York University to speak of Joe DiMaggio. He came to speak, too, of Ernest Hemingway and Gay Talese, of Lord Krishna and a sacred tree in the Amazon, and what he called ‘this notion of touching the ineffable’. Around Dr. Sexton sat 18 undergraduates, some religious and some not, some bleacher diehards and some not, all of them enrolled in a course titled Baseball as a Road to God. It is the sort of course in which the teaching assistants go by the angelic designation Celestials and discussion sections are named for Derek Jeter and Willie Mays among other diamond luminaries. (Samuel Freedman, ‘Baseball Has Its Worshippers, And at N.Y.U., You Get Credit’ New York Times)

The book is divided into nine innings.

  • Chapter 1: First Inning – Sacred Space and Time
  • Chapter 2: Second Inning – Faith
  • Chapter 3: Third Inning – Doubt
  • Chapter 4: Fourth Inning – Conversion
  • Chapter 5: Fifth Inning – Miracles
  • Chapter 6: Sixth Inning – Blessings and Curses
  • Chapter 7: Seventh Inning – Saints and Sinners
  • Chapter 8: Eight Inning – Community
  • Chapter 9: Ninth Inning – Nostalgia (And the Myth of the Eternal Return)
  • Chapter 10: The Clubhouse

I am on my way to Tampa to spend the week with my folks, and started reading chapter six “Blessings and Curses”. It now totally makes sense why I am a Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs fan. And it’s not exactly what I had always thought. For the most part, I learned how to read before I could really speak English. Because I was so painfully shy, it made sense. I could get lost in a book without worrying about another kid who could speak English make fun of me for not being able to.

My favourite books were comic books and books about sports, more specifically books about baseball. And that’s when my love of baseball really began. As I made my way through the books, I fell more and more in love with the exploits of the Brooklyn Dodgers (of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider) and later when they moved to Los Angeles (of the greatest pitcher of all time Sandy Koufax) and the exploits of the Boston Red Sox (of the greatest hitter who ever lived Ted Williams). And I didn’t like the New York (and later San Francisco) Giants and I hated the New York Yankees. I hated that they always won. And that my teams always lost. Because the book I first read was about the World Series, it didn’t dawn on me that an entire season had been played leading up to the events of each chapter that chronicled the series for that year. Time is not a concept that I could wrap my head around as a little boy. In their losses, I identified with my teams, not realizing how powerfully good many of those teams were at the time. On TV, I would root for my teams’ current stars – specifically Steve Garvey & Dusty Baker of the Dodgers and Fred Lynn & Carlton Fisk & Yaz of the Red Sox, and later Fernando & Pedro & Orel & Gibson for the Dodgers and Clemens (before he juiced) & Rice & Dewey of the Bosox.

I can still remember it, like it was yesterday, a much younger version of myself sat in my family room with my kid brother when he was just a kid, and my dad, when he was just a little older than I am now, sitting in front of the TV in October 1988. I prayed the biggest prayer I could muster for God to help Kirk Gibson and to help the (Los Angeles) Dodgers win Game 1 of the World Series against the powerful Oakland A’s. I promised I would never ask anything of Him ever again; I just wanted that win. I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. Turned out God listened to me – and every other Dodgers fans praying – at that very moment. The Dodgers won in epic fashion as a hobbled Gibson hit one of the most famous home runs in MLB history to win the game, his only at bat the entire series, which ultimately led to the Dodgers winning the title.

In the early 1950s, a young John Sexton also prayed similar prayers for our beloved (Brooklyn) Dodgers.

“Being a kid and a Dodgers fan in that golden era was to be part of something larger than one’s self. This is the essence of Saint Paul’s trinity of blessedness—faith, hope, and love. Of course, Cal Abrams should have been held at third base, and, of course, Ralph Branca should not have entered the game, let alone thrown Thomson the same fastball in almost the same location twice; but we never stopped praying for Cal, for Ralph, for Gil, and for the Dodgers. Faith, hope, and love. Wait’ll next year.”

Flash forward from my childhood to adulthood after college at Purdue and moving to Chicago, ten years would pass when I finally became a Cubs fan. Or so I thought.

“Three stand out, involving teams whose identities are deeply tied to how they and their fans have dealt with accursedness and epic adversity—the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox, and the Chicago Cubs. What matters, as it turns out, is not so much the story behind the curse as the way the teams, towns, and fans handle it. Those reactions run the gamut, from the defiant persistence of hope to the cynical scapegoating of despair to the almost cheerful acceptance of disappointment. Hope, despair, or resignation. The reaction to accursedness is key; and that reaction, in the end, shapes the blessing when and if it comes, and determines its effect.”

Dodgers fan always hoped for next year. Red Sox fans always despaired for this year and next, a victim to their curse. And Cubs fans had resigned themselves to the fact such was their lot in life.

Apparently, I was destined to love the Cubs. What I didn’t realize in my love of the Dodgers and of the Red Sox, was that I was drawn to their “curse”, that they could get to the very pinnacle of the highest mountain – that winning the World Series was just within their grasp – but by some epic fashion, they would lose. With each crushing defeat, hope was born, died, and reborn, that next year would be the year.

For the Brooklyn Dodgers, that year was 1955. (For me, it was also 1981 and 1988.) For the Boston Red Sox, it was 2004.

For the Cubs?

2016, of course.

Go Cubs Go.

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