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Patriarchs and Sluggers

Like anyone reading the Book of Genesis for the first time, I was amazed when I read as a child Chapter 5, which lists the lifespans of the Old Testament patriarchs. “Methuselah lived for nine hundred and sixty-nine years; then he died.” Similar figures were given for Adam, Seth, Mahalalel, Noah …

That passage of Genesis is the opposite of what we have accepted as common sense in the Western World, at least since the 1700s — that the world is constantly progressing and lifespans are getting longer.

The same is true for sports — records are constantly broken. Each Olympic Games brings new heroes who surpass the previous generations of athletes. Growing up, I used to watch baseball on our TV with my grandfather. Listening to his stories about the players of yesteryear between innings, I realized that baseball was closer to the Bible.

Contrary to other sports, baseball had its share of “Old Testament patriarchs” whose records weren’t meant to be broken. Ty Cobb’s .367 career batting average, for example, was out of the question. The same was true for Cy Young’s 511 victories, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s 59 wins in a single season.

The .400 hitter also seems to belong to another era. Ted Williams, in that regard, is “the last of the Old Testament patriarchs.” He hit .406 in 1941. Before that year, the magic number had been reached 26 times, but no player has done it since Williams. Well, nobody reaches nine hundred and sixty-nine years anymore, either.

Even Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season had a certain magical aura. Roger Maris needed six more games to break Ruth’s record. And Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa apparently needed more than six shots of steroids to reach Ruthian heights.

I remember listening to my grandfather talk about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson as a fallen angel. “Shoeless” Joe, my grandfather would explain, was banned forever from baseball heaven — the Hall of Fame. That is another similarity with the Catholic doctrine, I thought.

Baseball’s reverence for its history is unique. A Major Leaguer is always playing two games at once: one against the other team on the field, and another against the great names from the past. That constant presence of the old baseball patriarchs helped me grasp the Catholic concept of the communion of the saints — members of the church, dead or alive, who belong to the same community.

There is another concept that baseball helped me understand. Is salvation an individual enterprise or a community goal?

When I started reading about the different ideas of salvation, I thought of baseball.

On one hand, baseball is the most individualistic of team sports. Ninety percent of the game is a personal duel between the pitcher and the hitter. The rest of the players, except for the catcher, are mere spectators.

On the other hand, baseball is the least individualistic sport. In basketball you could give the ball to LeBron James or “Steph” Curry on each possession, but in baseball the best hitter has the same at-bats as the weakest hitter does. Salvation is both individual and communal.

Baseball also has superstitious tales — the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Billy Goat — that people share even though those stories are not “canonically” part of the game. Any of our priests could tell you “truths” that are commonly believed but that aren’t officially part of the faith.

Baseball gives you plenty on time — between innings, at-bats, pitches — to reflect on the game and think about life. It may not be a “Catholic” sport, but it can help you understand Catholicism.