The Religious Power of Baseball

Obama Cuba

Sean O’Neil starts his piece on the sacredness of baseball with Barack Obama’s comments in Cuba about the so-called national pastime.

I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.

O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality  Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team.  Here is a taste:

When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.

Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.