Father Eric J. Banecker

I suppose you can really only fall in love with one baseball team in your life. For Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer,” it was the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. For others, it was the Murderer’s Row Yankees.

Here in Philadelphia, depending on your year of birth, you may have fallen in love with the Wiz Kids, the Luzinski/Schmidt/Carlton bunch from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the “throwbacks” of 1993, or the great Phillies teams of 2007-2011. That would be my team.

Other sports have dynasties, of course, but baseball, uniquely perhaps, has love affairs. Perhaps it’s the rhythm of the game. Rather than investing a few beer-soaked hours once a week, following a baseball team is a real commitment: 162 games (in a non-pandemic year!). Three hours per game. No time limits or shot clocks. All summer, outside, at a time of year when other commitments fade to the background.

The sounds of baseball – even bad baseball – have wafted from radios through backyard BBQs for decades. I vividly recall standing around a car with some friends, listening to the car’s radio as the Phillies clinched the 2008 Eastern Division title on the second-to-last day of the season.

And yet, it seems baseball is succumbing slowly, inexorably toward a new phase of its lifecycle. The pandemic has forced sweeping changes upon all aspects of society, some necessary to protect health and safety, and others that are shoehorned in for the sake of never letting a good crisis go to waste.

In baseball, that means the likely expansion of the designated hitter into the National League. This is unfortunate for several reasons. First of all, baseball is a defensive game. It’s the only game in which the ball is in the hands of the defense at all times. It is a game which rewards athletes who master multiple skills – like Greg Maddux, who could pitch, hit, and field his position (or that great pitcher Babe Ruth!).

By universalizing the DH, baseball has thus neatly capitulated to the contemporary tendency toward specialization. It’s the Henry Ford-ification of sport, the invasion of our de-humanizing work habits into our leisure.

The addition of the DH into the National League also finally eliminates the only surviving difference between the two leagues/conferences in any sport. From now on, all must be subsumed – without any mediating institution – into the directives of Major League Baseball, which, depending on your perspective, is either a monopoly or a cartel.

If it seems like I’m being a bit melodramatic, well, that’s how spurned lovers often feel when the object of their affection moves away, gets a new haircut, or finds someone new on match.com. But, to my original point, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much anyway. Maybe every baseball fan is given the privilege of one great team in their lives, one great team they can obsess about, read articles about, and – more importantly – share the experience of rooting for with others.

I was in high school just as the Phillies were building their great teams and was in college when they won the World Series, two NL pennants, and four division titles. It was the perfect time in my life to experience that. I went to dozens of games a season during those years. In some ways, perhaps I’m destined to compare baseball for the rest of my life to those years, the way my dad compares that team to the 1980 Phillies.

The purpose of our lives is not to chase after every available dollar, but to be faithful stewards of that which we have received from others. We often hear that we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Indeed, we do.

That does not mean that we should not seek to renew the institutions we inherit. Not at all. But authentic change – whether in the church or in American government or in police forces or in 4-H clubs – is meant precisely to preserve and strengthen the essential reason of the organization’s existence. We shall see whether baseball’s changes will accomplish this, or whether something fundamental about the game is slowly slipping away forever. I am pessimistic in this regard.

All I know is that in this year of sickness, death, tragedy, hardship, sadness, and anger, we could use baseball right now. Yet when we get it, will it only serve to depress us more with its difference? As that great lover of baseball Bart Giamatti once pointed out for us, baseball “breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

Better, I suppose, to have loved and lost.

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Father Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish, Broomall.