February: a cold and snowy season. An old Jesuit once told me, “February is the longest month.” But good news! Pitchers and catchers are reporting to Florida. Once again, spring training begins! Prediction: Phillies win World Series 2021!
OK, some ideas can sound crazy, but like the little kid in “Angels in the Outfield” kept saying, “It could happen.” Sidenote, that story was written by a Jesuit priest in Scranton in the 1940s. The 1951 black and white version got remade with Danny Glover in the 1994.
As baseball begins, we celebrate Black History Month. Remember the greatness of Jackie Robinson. Ken Burns’ “Baseball” honors Robinson’s dignity, courage, fortitude and tenacity. A star athlete in four sports at UCLA, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army. At Fort Hood, Texas, he refused to sit in the back of a segregated bus and was court-martialed but eventually exonerated. He began playing for the Dodgers in 1947. He was 28.
Maybe his maturity helped him endure horrible racist taunts (the Phillies’ racist insults were the worst). Imagine what records he would hold if he had begun in the majors when he was 21. Without Jackie Robinson, the civil rights movement might never have happened. He strongly supported the cause.
We also mourn the death of Hank Aaron, the greatest home run hitter of all time. In 1974, he hit number 715, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714. At the time, many did not know of the horrific racial slurs and death threats directed at him as he approached Ruth’s mark. The pressure and pain of those death threats directed at him, his family and even sports writers who admired him, marked Aaron for life. Still, he bore it all with courage and grace.
His 755 homers is the true home run record. He’s the all-time leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856). Only two players have more hits than Aaron’s 3,371, and only 32 players overall have 3,000 hits. Only six players have 3,000 hits and over 500 home runs.
For Catholics, it is interesting to note that in 1959, after a few years in the majors, Aaron and his family joined the Catholic Church. Father Michael Sablica’s witness as an early pioneer for racial justice in Milwaukee attracted Aaron. In his locker, Hammerin’ Hank kept a copy of “The Imitation of Christ,” the classic spiritual book by Thomas a Kempis. He also liked Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s “The Life of Christ.”
As we move into Lent and prepare to relive the passion and resurrection of Our Lord, and as we continue to suffer through COVID-19, let’s learn lessons from baseball. George Carlin famously compared baseball to football. Football is filled with military metaphors: throw the bomb; crush your opponent, get into the end zone. Baseball is played in a park, and the point of it all is to get home.
Baseball is a game of numerous small tasks, all contributing to the game and all on display for all to see. Our service as disciples of Jesus is seen by God. The very Eucharist we celebrate is highly marked by various roles, and each much contribute to the act of worship.
The Easter triduum is the Super Bowl and World Series all rolled into one. In some ways, it is the real March Madness, a three-day culmination of the 40 days of Lent. Like the long baseball season, Lent prepares us to encounter the Lord on Easter Sunday. The weeks afterward are like the parades and parties in Philly after the 2008 World Series.
Founded in 1883, the Phillies have won it all twice. Only two times in 137 years. Lent is a time of repentance, a metanoia, a change of thinking. To be a Phillies fan is to incarnate the reality of hope triumphing over experience, to turn from sins, like the sin of racism, and be saved.
The cross demonstrates that life will triumph over death, that our hopes for justice, for a new heaven and a new earth, will be fulfilled (2 Pt 3:13). As the little kid in “Angels in the Outfield” said, it not only “could happen.” It already has happened.
Jesuit Father Malloy is director of mission integration at Cristo Rey High School in Baltimore.
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