WASHINGTON — The obligations of religious toleration and pluralism require all who care not a bit about baseball to accept that Opening Day is more than the beginning of a sports season. It is a great religious festival.
It can’t be an accident that baseball always starts around the time of both Easter and Passover and thus “elicits a sense of renewal.” For the faithful, it means that “the long dark nights of winter are over” and “the slate is clean.” All teams, the exalted and lowly alike, “are tied at zero wins and zero losses.” This, in turn, means that the fervent cry “Wait’ll next year” becomes “prologue, replaced by hope.”
If you sneer at these spiritual metaphors, John Sexton, the president of New York University and a scholar of religion, offers a sermon you should hear. His new book, from which these quotations are drawn, is “Baseball as a Road to God.” The national pastime, he rightly insists, provides an excellent window onto the sacred, even as all that is good and holy helps you to understand baseball.
Sexton has taught a seminar on this subject for more than a decade, and his co-authors were two participants, Thomas Oliphant, the retired Boston Globe writer whose column I still miss, and Peter J. Schwartz, a former reporter for Forbes. Together, they have assembled some of baseball’s best-known tales (”the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” otherwise known as Bobby Thompson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” for the New York Giants) as well as lesser-known episodes that illustrate Sexton’s themes, including “blessings and curses.”
Which raises my only strong objection to Sexton’s account: As a convert to the Church of the New York Yankees from the more soulful tradition of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sexton badly misreads those of us who have kept faith with the allegedly cursed Boston Red Sox. He accuses most of us, even after our historic triumphs of 2004 and 2007, of having “an incapacity to choose hope over despair.”