Last weekend I went to the penultimate game in Yankee Stadium, and the next night watched the last game on television, complete with its post-game wake. Over nearly 20 years I’ve attended meetings there, letting a place and a culture become an almost religious part of my life. Its a Temple of baseball.
Yes, its a Temple. There is ceremony and ritual here. Familiar music that draws us in. An opening hymn and a 2-word prayer, “play ball.” The structure of our worship is laid out, sermons of bat and ball are delivered, interspersed by ritual shouts and ceremonies. When the time comes, we stand together, we clap and chant together, 50,000 strong. We even hold our breaths together, awaiting the resolution of a sermon. And in the end, Frank Sinatra sings the closing song, “Its up to you, New York, New York!”
Baseball often helps me remember days of my youth in suburban Washington, D.C., when my father, then a long-time Yankees fan, took my brother and I to RFK Stadium to see the Washington Senators play. We knew that the Senators were awful, and leading up to the game we swore we would be rooting for the other team.
[I don't think we realized then that the Senator's best player was Mormon. Later, he was also the only acknowledged Mormon baseball player (there have been more than 70, I estimate) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Trivia question: Who is he?]
Despite our intentions to root for the other team, we could never actually do it. Somehow, between the time we arrived at the stadium and the first few innings of play, we abandoned our intentions and were rooting for the home team, at one with the thousands of others in the stadium. We joined the ritual, participated in their worship, and became one with the congregation.
Every game I go to, I experience this same process. I’m drawn into the game. And not just because of what happens on the field. The rituals of the Stadium, the music played and the songs we sing, the chants and cheers we give and the reactions of 50,000 people to what happens on the field–all make us, in a very real sense, one with the other fans–one in purpose and one in hope, but a hope that is often dashed in failure. But even then, we remain one, and as one our hope is soon reborn.
Its an interesting process. I know I’m being drawn into this charade. After all, what exactly am I being loyal to? The players and managers change often enough–no one on the field is the same as when I first went to Yankee Stadium–that I’m not really loyal to them. If anything, its just the event, the feeling I get, the being part of 50,000, the unity.
Have I been manipulated? I don’t think so. I know what’s happening to me. And I actually want it to happen. I want to be part of this event, this something that is so much larger than me.
I don’t want to give the impression that I worship baseball, or the Yankees, or Yankee Stadium, or the other fans. Far from it. I don’t have season tickets nor do I purchase a ticket plan. Only rarely do I purchase tickets more than a few days ahead of a game. I don’t even watch on TV religiously or listen to every game on the radio. I’m more likely to just check the scores or skim through the game on fast forward.
Nor do I think this feeling is the same as what I get at the Temple or in Church. But there is a similarity: I feel drawn in. I want to be a part of the service, to participate, to be part of something that is so much larger than me. All this, and I don’t feel manipulated.
I don’t know at what point the feeling of unity becomes something manipulative. The history of religion clearly shows that it can. And how much I enjoy that feeling of being at one with 50,000 others makes it clear exactly how.