Baseball was never Jorge Bergoglio’s game. Like millions of children in Latin America then as now, the boy who would one day become Pope Francis grew up playing soccer with improvised balls made of rags. By his own account he was never very good. Yet throughout his papacy he has used sports as a metaphor for Christian life and held up the virtues proper to them—selflessness, teamwork, discipline—as worthy of cultivation by the faithful and all people of goodwill.
One Catholic journalist has even suggested that Francis’ scattered comments could be put together to form an encyclical of sorts. At any rate magisterial intervention in baseball is long overdue. Fresh heresies such as the new extra-innings rule crop up each year, and more-established ones (the Donatism of those who oppose the designated hitter, for example) maintain their stubborn hold over much of the faithful.
I would like to read what the pope has to say about baseball, but the game also has a theological significance, one that is never more obvious than on Opening Day.
I have never found the day especially pleasurable. Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, with which it frequently overlaps, baseball seems inappropriate during Lent. March Madness is an essentially penitential affair, a series of physical and spiritual trials interrupted by familiar rhythms, not unlike the experience of a novice in a monastery. Opening Day, meanwhile, brings with it an irruption of promise for even the most hopeless teams that is more suitable for Easter.
It is no accident, as the former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti observed, that baseball arrives, like Easter, in the spring. We are given a glimpse of the answer to a question nearly as old as our species: Why is there such a thing as death, and is it possible for us somehow to escape it?
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