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On Failure: Baseball's Theology of Redemption

Boston vs. New York Polo Grounds 1912.jpeg

In a chapter on games and cultural rhetoric, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write about the symbolism and cultural significance of soccer. They posit "Soccer, like all games, embodies cultural meaning."(516) Invoking Sutton-Smith's understanding of rhetoric, they articulate the discursive meaning making of game play; with signification both depending on and informing the culture in which the games are played. They continue:

Another way of saying that games reflect cultural values is that games are social contexts for cultural learning. This means that games are one place where the values of a society are embodied and passed on. Although games do clearly reflect cultural values and ideologies, they do not merely play a passive role. Games also help to instill or fortify a culture's value system. (516)

Religion scholars and social anthropologists conceive of religious ritual in a similar way. While necessarily specific to the cultures and communities that practice them, rituals are meaningful, often symbolic activities that reflect and inform the values and ideologies of the community of practitioners. Religious rituals apply dogma to practice, often instantiating abstract principles or ideas in objects or actions. Rituals serve as portals to the divine, experiential access points rife with meaning. Without delving into the complexities of sacrality, and acknowledging that there are myriad nuances to religious life that invite the separation of sacred ritual from profane experience, for the sake of this piece I would like to accept that religious ritual and sport have similarities in the domain of cultural rhetoric and meaning making.

I consider baseball as I consume it. More so as spectator than player, I am, from April to October, immersed in the culture and experiences of Major League Baseball proper and the game of baseball in general. Working in the field of game studies, it is no surprise then that I am often wondering about the game I love so much, questioning how its formal properties and context inform the game as such.

Recently I have been interested in how repeated failure in the game of baseball, established through the formal properties of the game and understood by a community of parishioners, invigorates a common Western rhetoric of redemption. Additionally, we might ask how a community of baseball understands this redemption theology through the ritualistic performance of the game played.

Baseball is a game composed largely of failure. Ted Williams had the most successful hitting season in the games history batting .406 in 1941, failing in almost 60% of his 456 at bats. Christy Matthewson, one of the greatest pitchers ever still allowed 2.13 runs for every nine innings he pitched, winning 67% of his games. These players were exceptional. In 2010 all the pitchers in Major League baseball averaged 4.08 runs per nine innings while batters hit .257 over the year, meaning all hitters failed 3 out of 4 times they hit. Naturally the sophistication of the game allows for degrees of success even in these failures. It is understood, however, that the game of baseball is very hard to play.

The rules of baseball mandate repetitive failure. Largely a defensive game, each at bat has nine players on one team working together to stop one player from succeeding in scoring, by controlling a small ball in a very large field of play. Even in the repeated one on one conflict, pitchers hold a tremendous advantage over the batter. Only in baseball does the defensive player control the ball, and therefor has the advantage of knowing what they are going to attempt to throw as a pitch. Only the defense may handle the ball, the offense forced to attempt a crude bludgeoning of it with a club. The violent nature of offense in baseball demands further investigation, but for our sakes here it is enough to recognize that to win one must score runs, and to score runs one must overcome severely difficult circumstances and repeated failure.

Out of constant failure emerged a rhetoric of redemption in baseball. A long game, usually played in long seasons, batters will often get 4-5 at bats in a game and at the professional level as many as 500+ at bats over the course of the season. Baseball is a game of second, and third and fourth chances. Many of the mythologized histories in the American game are about redemption.

Take for example the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940's and 1950's. Known for their vociferous and loyal fans, the Dodgers won five pennants from 1941-1953, only to lose in each World Series to the dominant, Bronx based New York Yankees. The slogan "Wait 'til next year!" became a cry of solidarity for the Dodger faithful, expressing both the pitiful frustration of repeated failure, and the pride of a communal misery. Similar circumstances emerged in cities all over America where teams suffer droughts and unique patterns of failure: Boston's curse, Chicago's goat, The Curse of Captain Grant, all circumstances and mythologies that created communal bonds in misery and in the promise of redemption. Baseball players invoke this promise regularly, eagerly anticipating the next opportunity even as the stale wind of a strike out silences a crowd. Baseball players are taught to yearn for those redemptive moments, to strive for them as a road map to excellence. To succeed in baseball, you must fail often, for all do. You must be ready for the next chance, for the shot at redemption and salvation.

andreadelverrocchio_thebaptismofchrist.jpeg Redemption and salvation are central themes in Western Judeo-Christian, and Judeo-Muslim theology. Notions of atonement, baptism, repentance, salvation, sacraments, and Christ's salvific grace helped shaped the course of Western religion and culture for millennia. The values emerging from these rich religious histories permeate America's dominant cultural rhetoric, even as the country expands, and populates, absorbing more diverse cultures and heritages. Redemption is a core value in American culture, and the foundation of a common meta-narrative of achievement in the face of adversity. Americans esteem achievement in the face of adversity in the highest light, regarding such narratives as more valuable than success through support, or out of luxury.* We might argue that a twist in this common narrative emerges when the cause of adversity is of one's own making.

It would be no great leap to suggest that a long history of redemption narratives in Western culture has effected the creation and culture around the game of baseball. It would seem too that baseball's unique resonance in American culture may in fact be connected to the thematic symbolism of its play. Sure other countries in Asia and Latin America have embraced the sport in their own way, however their cultural relationship to the game is different that that in America. Though perhaps no longer the most popular, baseball remains America's past-time; a ritualistic performance that permeates and tints the very fabric of the nation's cultural narrative.

*It is of course important to note that cultural rhetoric and meta-narratives have a complicated relationship to cultural practice, and I do not intend to suggest my own valuation of these common themes. If you want to know, go ahead and ask me.

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