The Yankees just won their 85th game of the season, which also happened to be the last game at the venerable Yankee Stadium. If you watched ESPN today, you could be forgiven if you thought that this was Game 7 of the World Series. For a sport that was once lampooned as being too prissy (Carlin’s masterpiece: Football vs Baseball) tonight’s festivities — even the whole season’s pomp and circumstance; from Opening Day to the All Star Game — has proven that baseball is the great equalizer.
Yes, baseball has its issues. But what religion doesn’t? What religion doesn’t have that fringe sector that clearly has no qualms about endangering itself while destroying innocence?
Yankee Stadium, as been said for the past 85 years, is (I guess, soon to be “was”) a house of worship. 81 times a year, with an additional 12 if we’re lucky, 50,000 members of a devoted congregation meet to pray to a higher being. Whether it goes by the name of Babe, Micky, Reggie, or Derek, the Yankee congregation convenes during the hottest time of the year to praise their worthiness. We meet at the Bat or at Stan’s and file with excitement into the “Cathedral of Sport”, smelling the hot dogs and standing in awe of the green grass that has carried the weight of 26 world championships. We sit in our pews; some bring binoculars to view the pulpit of the mound and the altar of the batter’s box, while others bring a small radio to listen to the Gospel According to Sterling.
The clergy come out of the dugout, lead by Mr.November, and the congregation rises and prays out loud, “Let’s Go Yankees.” We scan the the numbers of the retired Yankee saints, those who have paved the way for us to understand what tradition means. We need this. Time and again baseball’s clergy has distracted us in times of trouble, have cured our pains by their selfless devotion to the Pinstripes, and have supplied us with years of education of ourselves. We created baseball, but baseball saves us.
The roll call of the right field bleachers proclaims in a unified voice that we respect and admire the player; but more importantly, we worship the all-mighty Pinstripe. The connected NY. And yes, even the bat coming out of the top-hat.
When the voice of god, Bob Sheppard, announces, “Now batting, number 2, Derek Jeter, number 2” it’s hard to imagine anyone else on that public address system. The reason? Not because of the timbre of his voice, but because of what his eyes have seen. Since 1951, Sheppard has informed us of not just the player, but of stability. Of comfort. Of Home. And, since 9/11, of Freedom. He never suited up for a game, but he is an all time great.
This ritual that we call baseball happens in 32 ballparks around the country. It gets the dubious distinction of changing how we see Black and White. While it was great that a young Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play a ‘major league’ sport in 1947, it should have never taken that long. Baseball has always been the sport of the people. From WWI to WWII, baseball served as high-quality entertainment where Fathers and Sons bonded over hot summer nights rooting for Williams and DiMaggio; Mays and Mantle; Koufax and Gibson.
During Vietnam and Korea, American troops stationed 10,000 miles away from home brought familiarity to the DMZ line and the jungles of South East Asia. However, for my generation, baseball transcended sport and achieved its holy place in late September, 2001.
After the attacks of September 11, baseball became so much more than a game. Mike Piazza’s homerun was the start of a long healing process and in late October, baseball — the quintessential American past-time, snapped the nation out of 2 week coma. Especially in New York City.
We all know what happened. We had the Jeter Flip in Game 3 of the ALDS, where the Yankees came back from 2 down to win the Best of 5. Beating arguably the greatest regular season team ever, the Seattle Mariners in 5.
Then there was the drama of the World Series. The Baseball gods answered a city’s prayer in games 4 and 5. The stunning victory in Game 7 by Arizona is considered one of the best games of all time.
But the experience of it all — from attending the churches and temples like Fenway and Wrigley, to the ghosts of baseball’s saints that line Cooperstown — takes on a greater significance when we juxtapose the values of our nation with that of the value of baseball. Baseball teaches individualism while preaching teamwork. Every at bat, every pitch counts towards a greater sum. Isn’t that what America stands for? Doesn’t everything lead to an end; an end that we create? Think of the adage, “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” In a society that tries to swing for the fences, but is also adept at getting a piece of bat on the ball, we value the fundamentals of when life throws a curve ball. How we react. How we move forward. How we pick ourselves off the dirt after we’ve struck out. We may not hit many homeruns in life, but when we do, it feels so good. We try to replicate that feeling every time we walk into a stadium. We get to merge the game of baseball with the game of life.
I always think the main reason why we love baseball is not because of the homeruns or the brilliance of hitting a round object with another round object coming at you at 90 miles per hour, but because if you fail 70% of the time, you’re an idol. The congregation knows that most of us cannot become part of the clergy, but we’re ok with it because our idols, by definition of the game, almost always fail. We support them as much as they support us.
The closing of Yankee Stadium doesn’t mean that the religion is failing, that the congregation of the Yankees couldn’t work together to keep its hallowed halls open. It just means that the religion, as all religions do, is shifting. There will be a time, when? I don’t know, when Fenway and Wrigley will shut its doors. The last of the cathedrals remain a testament to the devotion of the congregation, but the invisible hand of the future is always pushing further away from the past.