Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Opening Day: The Spectacle of Sport as Religious Festival

by Adam Metz 

I was one strike away from seeing a no-hitter for the first time, but, in the end, the game didn't count. It was April 6, 2007 in Cleveland, OH - Opening Day for my Cleveland Indians who were taking on the Seattle Mariners. My wife was about eight-months pregnant with our second child so we splurged on parking right across the street from the stadium. Our son was two years old and bundled up in his Ohio State winter coat, and an unusual spring snowstorm blew in off the coast of Lake Erie. It was colder than any football game I had ever been to. But it was tradition - our third consecutive trip to Opening Day, and so we made the most of it.

Adam Metz, son, baseball, snow, Cleveland Indians, cute kidPaul Byrd was on the mound for the Indians, and through four and two-third innings, he had not surrendered a single hit. The snow was really coming down hard by this time, but Byrd had two strikes against the batter, meaning if he could get him out, and if the game had to be canceled, it would go down as a victory for the Indians who had scored in the previous inning. (In Major League Baseball, the losing team must have batted five innings for a game to be considered official). Busy trying to stay warm, Byrd's flirtation with a no-hitter was nearly lost on all of us in the fact that we were getting covered by the repeated snow squalls piling up on our ball caps. However, with two strikes, and the snow becoming nearly a whiteout, we all stood knowing that if Byrd could get this out, there was a good chance victory was ours! 

And then the unthinkable happened . . . Lou Piniella, manager of the Mariners, took a slow jaunt to talk to the umpire, and the next thing we knew, the umpires were calling the players off of the field. With one strike standing between us and an official game, Piniella had forced the hands of the umpire, and the game was never completed. None of the statistics from that game ever counted. Byrd's no-hitter wasn't meant to be. Neither was our Opening Day tradition that year. The next day, we were half way to Cleveland before we found out that the makeup game scheduled for that day was cancelled too. They ended up opening their home schedule in Milwaukee, WI. 

This year, Cleveland's home opener is on Monday, April 8, our family has our tickets, and by the way this spring has begun, I wouldn't say that another April snowstorm is out of the question. This will be our ninth straight Opening Day in Cleveland. All three of our kids have been there every year which probably sounds . . . weird. I guess it is. 

But there's something special about Opening Day. Even though six years ago we froze our butt off, it still summons images of spring and warmer weather. When you have winters like we do in Ohio, you need that optimism. It also makes me think that, just maybe, this is our year! Optimism abounds, not just with the weather, but thinking about the team's success. Do you know the Indians haven't won a World Series since 1954? So why not 2013? 

Reds, Cincinnati, Opening Day, pageantry, flag, crowd, stadium
Opening Day is our first time to look at the new off-season signings, the rookies, and to see if some of the older players can keep their momentum going from last year. It's our family's annual festival . . . our pilgrimage. A few years ago, when our kids started school, we faced a dilemma: whether or not we should allow them to miss school for the sake of the tradition. In the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, Joseph Price has an interesting article where he compares the Super Bowl to a religious festival. I think that Opening Day has become our family's religious festival - so we decided that the tradition superseded school. 

We don't worship the Indians or anything (I've even come to terms with how politically incorrect their team name is), but I'm realizing that our sporting events and traditions appeal to us at a religious level. In those parts of the Book of Leviticus we always skip over when we're doing a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year program, the Mosaic Law prescribes the festivals that Israel is to celebrates: the Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, etc. What seems to have taken their place in our culture is the spectacle of the sporting events. Our rhythm of life largely follows the ebbs and flows of these events. 

Spring brings March Madness and a kind of first fruits celebration alongside the opening of the baseball season; the NBA and NHL Finals usher in the summer and a kind of Feast of Trumpets; the MLB All Star game still remains a summer Sabbath (one of my favorite fun facts it that the day before and the day after the All Star game - are the only days of the entire year when there isn't a major league baseball, basketball, hockey, or football game being played); the start to college and professional football season is a kind of Day of a Atonement where all the aggression on the football field bears witness to our sinful nature; and the Super Bowl remains chief of the festivals - a kind of New Year's celebration. 

sacred, secular, road sign, split, divideIt's unfortunate that we've created this dichotomy between the sacred and secular when it seems like so much of our world is a complex matrix of both. Sports may be the chief example. Sin is as prevalent in sports as it is anywhere else in our culture, but there is much there that is good as well. This Opening Day, my family will make our annual pilgrimage to a baseball game in Cleveland and we'll have baseball on our minds. But that's not all we'll have on our minds. Stanley Hauerwas offers a thought on the magnitude of the game of baseball: "It is not surprising that we will learn much about ourselves as Christians - what it means for us to survive as well as flourish as God's people - by attending to the relationship among our faith, baseball, and God." 

This year, Opening Day comes just on the heels of Easter. This year, our family will reflect on the renewal taking place in nature, the optimism of a clean slate for a new season, and hopefully convey to our kids that the message of Easter - of resurrection and life always being more powerful than crucifixion and death, is a message that finds relevancy even in baseball. Progressive Field isn't church . . . but I am convinced that there is much to be learned about God there. And so, Ms. Campese and Ms. Sheppard, you will just have to excuse our children from class that day, we have something important to teach them.

Adam is the minister of the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, OH where he lives with his wife Mary Beth and their three children: Clark, Clementine, and Cecilia. He is nearing completion of his Doctorate of Ministry at Fuller Seminary. His first love is working with teenagers, and he is trying as hard as possible to keep from growing up. You can find more of his writing at Theological Vacillation and  you can follow him on Twitter @CrasslyYours.

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