The Great Unity

September 26, 2008 | 32 comments
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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.

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32 Responses to The Great Unity

  1. Bill on September 26, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    You must be talking about the great Harmon Killebrew.

  2. Bill on September 26, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    There are 286 members of the hall of fame, 228 of whom were players.

  3. CJ on September 26, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Wow, I felt like I was reading a post written by myself. I was at that same game on Saturday (flew up from and back to DC sameday), watched the final game on TV from my hotel room in CA, grew up a Yankee fan b/c of my dad, grew up in suburban DC, and actually chatted explicitly w/ friends at the game bout how Yankee Stadium is indeed a temple–a temple of men, but about the nearest manmade analogue to the temples of God in my life.

    I appreciate your analogy, and now see the roll call, 7th-inning stretch, chants, and Sinatra at the end as true rituals.I must say, though, that I never found myself rooting for the Orioles at the end when I was a kid (although I did feel somewhat momentarily swayed during a visit to Fenway a few weeks ago).

    There’s definitely an element of “getting caught up” in the group’s collective psychological momentum in both baseball and religion, and I think we’d be naïve to deny that it plays a role in the Church. I do find, though, that I (as most, I assume) personally feel more forced to believe and follow out of pure/personal spiritual knowledge when outside the geographical Yankee Stadium of the Intermountain West. I appreciate that phenomenon, even if at times it makes things harder.

    I don’t have any great ideas as to how we can discern w/ precision between our own genuine belief and the persuasuve power of the group, though–and am not sure what that would tell us, since I feel the scriptures seemingly approve of that power, when operative in the right form and amount.

    (Sent from my BlackBerry, so aplolgies for grammatical and punctuation mistakes.)

  4. Mark B. on September 26, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    I can’t help but think of Lehi’s dream, with that great gulf, the East River, filthy, separating the land where the strait and narrow path leads to the tree of life, from the island full of great and spacious buildings and from the mainland interloper–what on earth is a piece of the mainland doing masquerading as part of New York City?–the Bronx, home of the greatest and spacious-est building of them all, with all those people eating and drinking and making merry and pointing fingers of scorn at those partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, and now figuratively (9 games out–three to play–what’s your magic number??) and literally (before next opening day) that great and spacious building will fall, and great will be the fall thereof. Great! indeed.

    Sorry for the threadjack, Kent, but I really do hate the Yankees! And have since the 1962 World Series. I had just turned 8, the age of accountability, and realized that I had to choose the forces of good in their eternal struggle against the forces of evil.

    But, your post does show how easy it is to fall into sin if we expose ourselves to the world and justify our actions with the old refrain: everybody’s doing it.

    Well, I’ve been to the very gates of hell themselves, from the centerfield bleachers to the field level boxes on the third baseline, but I’ve never once succumbed to any peer pressure to root for that home team. I’d sooner cheer for Lucifer and the fallen one-third.

  5. queuno on September 26, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    [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?]

    Harmon Killebrew, but I always heard of him as a Twin, not a Senator, I guess.

    But I’ll consider Memorial Stadium, and now the Jake, as the true temples of baseball (without the championships).

  6. Bill on September 26, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    In 1961 the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. At the same time a new expansion team called the Senators began play in Washington. That team moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972.

  7. queuno on September 26, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    That team moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972.

    And in a roundabout way, if the Senators wouldn’t have moved to Texas, there would never have been a Dubya…

    (And a local radio station calls The House That Dubya Built “The Temple”…)

  8. MattG on September 26, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Interesting, I was thinking the same thing about attending concerts the other day. There’s an interesting thing that happens when you get in a group that large and are all united in enjoyment of something, be it baseball or U2. I’m not sure if it’s the exhilaration of sort of losing your individuality to a massive sea of humanity, or a primal herd mentality, or if it’s some metaphysical connection between spiritual brothers and sisters. Take your pick, I suppose. But it is even more special when your favorite team spanks the d**n Yankees back from whence they came, I have to agree with Mark on that point!

  9. Greg Call on September 26, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Very eloquent words. All I can add is, Yankees suck.

    LETS GO METS!!!

  10. MattG on September 26, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Yankees = Manchester United = Great and Abominable Church

  11. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Bill (1 & 2), wins the trivia contest. I must say that I didn’t expect him to be identified quite that fast.

    At least Harmon acknowledges his Mormon roots, even though, as I understand it, he doesn’t grace LDS meetinghouses (or any other for that matter) on Sundays.

    The other “Mormon” in the Hall of Fame doesn’t acknowledge the religion, even though he was (according to the reports I’ve received) baptized as a teen and was active for a couple of years.

    Anyone want to guess who the other Mormon in the Hall of Fame is?

  12. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    CJ (3), we are brothers in a strange gospel. I have to admit, though, that I’m looking forward to the new Temple here.

    What ward and stake in suburban Maryland? (Did I ask you this already?)

    I agree that the scriptures do approve of the power of groups to influence members for the better. And General Authorities today also seem ready to use this influence.

    A part of this may simply be the role of a culture. Its simply not possible to have a group of people without having some kind of culture, IMO, and that culture is going to influence the group. This leaves us with deciding what kind of culture to have and what kind of influence we will feel. A “neutral” culture that doesn’t influence in any way simply isn’t possible (and, I don’t think it is desirable either).

    This reminds me a bit of my mission, where i saw many LDS missionaries arrive but somehow never leave Utah or the U.S. IMO, they missed one major advantage of an LDS mission for missionaries–letting the local culture and people influence you for the better.

  13. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Mark B (4): You have erred in one factual aspect of your metaphor, I think–the East River, as you no doubt know, doesn’t run by Yankee Stadium, its the Bronx River that passes between the stadium and Manhattan, the East River is miles away.

    Of course, I also think that other aspects of your metaphor are wrong, but those aspects are matters of opinion.

    But, since we are old friends, I will admit one thing for you: Willie Mays was my favorite player growing up, and I think even today it could be argued that he was the best all-around player ever. If the Giants were still here in Zion, I’d probably be a Giants fan.

    And, for the rest of this season anyway, my cheer will have to be “Let’s Go Mets!”

  14. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    queuno & Bill (6, 7 & 8):

    When I attended the Senators games it was about 1970 — so it was the Senators that became the Texas Rangers that I saw. Killebrew went on to play for the Twins later.

  15. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    MattG (10): What does that mean for the L.A. Galaxy? Is there a kind of transferance that goes with superstars?

    But the real question here is, how true does this sentiment remain when you are in that team’s stadium watching them play as the home team in front of a capacity crowd?

    I’m sure that its possible to retain your beliefs. But how does it feel?

    Is it like a Mormon going to a meeting of the Jehova’s Witnesses or something?

  16. Richard Sopp on September 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Your post reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago sitting at the Oakland Coliseum watching an inter-league game between my beloved Dodgers and the As. As I sat there with my sons, I could look out through a gap in the bleachers where a large American flag was flying and see the Oakland Temple on the hill in the background. I thought of how all of the things that meant the most to me were represented at the same time: my God, my family, my country and baseball. It was a great moment.

    Go Dodgers! (And I am so glad the Yankees and their $207 million payroll missed the playoffs.)

  17. Mark B. on September 26, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Kent,

    I feel bad about correcting your attempt at correction, especially since you were kind about the whole thing and didn’t go ballistic about my anti-Yankees rant.

    I’ll grant you your point about the East River. It ends at Hellgate, a most appropriate name, I must say, since what lies beyond is the Bronx, the hated home of . . . .

    That fetid body of water that separates Manhattan from the Bronx is not the Bronx River, of course, but the Harlem River. The Bronx River runs past the Zoo and then empties into Long Island Sound, across which play the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of all true New York baseball fans, the New York Mets.

    With the long-silent Greg Call, I raise my voice in the chant sublime: Let’s Go Mets!

  18. MattG on September 26, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Kent,

    That’s an interesting point. I actually have not yet experienced attending a game for my team (Seattle Mariners, cue mocking) in another team’s stadium, so I would be interested to see how I would fare in that situation. I think it would indeed be hard not be caught up in the fervor. I suppose this is one reason pep rallies and political rallies work so well to galvanize people to a cause, for good or bad. I think it actually would also be interesting as an experiment to attend the JW conference that they hold each year (in either Shea or Yankee stadium, I can’t remember) as an active Mormon and test this dynamic. As for the LA Galaxy, I think their acquisition of Beckham clearly demonstrates that they are also learning the secret oaths and ways of these secret combinations. Great will be the fall thereof, indeed! By the way, I think Becks realized he was getting past his prime and just wanted to live in LA. All the talk of “bolstering American soccer” is a front.

  19. Left Field on September 26, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    I was told that Dennis Eckersley was LDS. Someone I knew in a previous ward said that he had a family member who had once dated him.

  20. Steve Evans on September 26, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Amen Mark B.

  21. CJ on September 26, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Kent,

    Suburban VA, actually. I’m in Alexandria now. And yes, we share a rare connection–almost astoundingly rare when you consider attending the same game and having similar metaphorical impressions. I got a program and kept score so I could save the scorecard and my ticket for the wall of my future den/study/office. Great way to end our last game, too.

    Great point about missionaries (and others) who leave an area where the Church is strong and resist learning about and familiarizing themselves with other cultures. I have a feeling I’ll always be perplexed regarding what level of cultural inertia is a good thing (as endorsed by the scriptures) and at what point it predominates over individual testimony and personal motivation. I’m not sure an answer is coming anytime soon. Then again, if any of you have one, feel free to share.

  22. Left Field on September 26, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    I remember with fondness the trip I took some years ago from my (then) home in Detroit. I attended the Chicago Temple in the morning, went to Milwaukee to watch the Orioles and Brewers in the afternoon (extra innings), and then took in a White Sox game at Comiskey in the evening.

    I have faithfully cheered my Orioles in Memorial Stadium, Camden Yards, Tiger Stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium, Skydome, Arlington Stadium, the Ballpark in Arlington, and Fenway Park. I can’t say that I ever had any inclination to be unfaithful.

    I must say however, that I am very pleased to see the Yankees continue their streak of no world championships in the 21st Century. All in all, it’s been a fine century so far. It’s often been a fantasy of mine to see a wrecking ball taken to Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, the fantasy has been partially tainted by the fact that they’re building a new stadium. I’ve been to several games in Yankee Stadium and I’ve always taken great pleasure at seeing thousands of Yankee fans stand up, face the flag, salute, and sing a song about Baltimore.

  23. Kent Larsen on September 26, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    MarkB (17): OOPS. I stand corrected. I really knew better.

    BUT, I should take issue with the description of the Harlem river as fetid. Its not the Gowanus canal. I’m willing to swim in it, and I still see plenty of fishing in it (although I understand the Harlem and Hudson are both off limits for eating fish, courtesy of General Electric’s upstream plants – hundreds of miles upstream, IIRC).

    While I’m not a resident of the Bronx, I do have to defend it a little, given that my daughter is now attending Bronx Science. There they save no breath in reminding everyone that Bronx Science has produced more Nobel Laureates than any other high school in the world.

    I suppose that means that Nobel Laureates are more likely to be Yankees fans than fans of any other team [GRIN].

  24. Kent Larsen on September 27, 2008 at 12:07 am

    Left Field has won trivia question #2. Eck was indeed baptized into the Church as a youth.

    Anyone interested in a third trivia question?

    The first Mormon to play in the Major Leagues stepped on the field in 1923 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A couple years later, he was also the first Mormon to play in the World Series. Anyone know who it was?

  25. Jon W on September 27, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Well I have attended RFK to watch the Giants choke against the Nats a couple of years ago, that was very temple like in how simple a mid week day game can feel. The smell, the look even in a Football stadium.

    My favourite haunt for a number of years was the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) stadium in Toronto where the Blue Jays played before the Skydome. I think I attended a number of games over the three years I lived there and the whole feel of the place was something, whether it was the cold wind off of Lake Ontario, the Snow in April and late September, the occasional rain delay that lasts for hours to the point you give up and then they start the game… sigh.

    I watched the Yankees, the Tigers and many others play there, even watched the Expos as well. It was so fun, the fans were great most games and part of the entertainment during the opening day in 1986.

    While I have attended Football and Hockey games before and since their are few things I remember with fondness as much as those old Blue Jays games.

    Though for me Hockey is now that symbol, the difference is the price of tickets is insane for hockey compared to baseball. (Worst seat still will cost you 48 bucks for example) So we have not attended quite as often.

  26. Kent Larsen on September 27, 2008 at 12:21 am

    CJ (21):

    Be sure and let me know the next time you come up.

    I agree that the level at which cultural intertia becomes manipulative is almost unknowable. But since there isn’t likely to be just one culture (I’m convinced we will see multiple Mormon subcultures around the world). So it doesn’t make sense to me to avoid getting to know other cultures.

  27. Left Field on September 27, 2008 at 12:38 am

    You’ve got me stumped with Question 3. I could probably poke around on the internet and find the answer, but that wouldn’t be sporting.

    With all this talk of the Senators, I am reminded that I recently visited the site of Griffith Stadium. A hospital is on the site now, but some of the houses that occupied the famous right angle projection in center field are still there. I also recently visited the sites of Ebbets Field and League Park.

  28. DavidH on September 27, 2008 at 1:38 am

    I am among those who grew up as a devout and believing member of the Church of New York Mets, but left it as a young single adult to affiliate with the Church of the New York Yankees (“CNYY”)(even though I had been taught and believed in my youth and knew in my heart that the CNYY was the Great and Abominable).

    I am thinking about posting my story on the RFM board (Recovery from Mets-ism). For all I know Tal B. or Steve B. were raised in the Mets-org (or “morg” for short) too before they wisened up.

  29. Kent Larsen on September 27, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    DavidH (28) LOL!

    Conversion between churches of any time is as you describe. No matter who has the truth, there is a lot of name calling and recriminations about the religion (or team) the person came from or that friends or family went to.

  30. Kent Larsen on September 27, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Even those that aren’t Orioles fans may be interested in this:

    JEREMY GUTHRIE, pitcher for Baltimore Orioles
    Sunday, September 28, 7:00 pm

    Jeremy Guthrie, will take time from baseball to speak at the
    Washington DC Temple Visitors’ Center. He graduated as valedictorian
    of his class in Ashland, Oregon, where he was MVP of baseball,
    football and basketball. He played baseball at BYU for a year before
    going on a mission to Spain. On his return, he transferred to
    Stanford, where he was named collegiate All American twice. Married
    to the former Jenny Williams, they are the parents of two.

  31. CGN on September 27, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    A die-hard Sox fan, the only other pro baseball jersey that I own is a throwback Harmon Killebrew Twins number. Heck of a player.

  32. queuno on September 29, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    King Kaufman has a great article this morning:

    http://www.salon.com/sports/daily/feature/2008/09/29/mets/

    Money quotes:

    With New York dispatched, those of us without direct ties can root for the next set of big, rich teams to have their hats handed to them. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox are all there for our schadenfreude enjoyment. Three weeks from now, if everything works out deliciously, their fans will be mocking, wondering, “Who wants to see a Brewers-Tampa Bay Rays World Series?”

    The Brewers and Rays, that’s who.

    and

    It’s always nice to see a big-money, big-market team that you don’t root for get clobbered. Nobody ever fits that bill better than whatever New York team is taking the field in whatever sport, provided you don’t root for that team. What red-blooded American non-New Yorker doesn’t love to see a New York team take it in the shorts from time to time?

    That’s not a knock on New York. Great city, love the knishes. But having roots and friends and great memories in a place shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying that most wonderful underdog moment, hearing the largest possible group of people shut up.