A couple weeks ago Major League Baseball hosted their Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. The event was years in the making and it turned out to be a huge success. It created a great buzz around what has long been called America’s favorite pastime. The whole concept was linked to the sports fantasy movie from 1989 starring Kevin Costner, where a farmer from Iowa interacts with famous baseball players from the past. The MLB constructed an amazing new stadium next to the original field from the movie, and their production incorporated iconic imagery from the film.
This event was successful because it captured the nostalgia many feel for both the movie and the game of baseball. It displays the enduring power of things like tradition, community, and recreation. These themes run deep inside human beings and play an important role in the formation of culture. I must confess I am a bit of a lukewarm baseball fan, only watching every now and again. However, this event definitely captured my attention. What struck me most was the mystical quality of the entire production. If you didn’t see it, this video gives you a sense.
The original movie certainly had this mystical quality to it. There were mysterious interactions, awe and wonder, otherworldliness, providence, etc. The makers of this year's event doubled down on all this, especially Kevin Costner. I watched and listened to everything he was involved with. He wanted to display the reverence he feels for the movie and the game. In multiple interviews he refers to the themes as “biblical”, by which I think he means epic, timeless desires that run through all of life. These include: the father-son relationship, innocence & childhood, finding passion/purpose, and experiencing eternal life.
In addition, I have heard some good arguments as to why the sport of baseball is very “Catholic”. Here is what author George Weigel writes:
“Baseball is by far the most Catholic of the sports on which we lavish such attention and passion. Because it’s played without a clock, baseball is like the liturgy: a foretaste of the time-beyond-time, which is God’s time, which is eternity. Baseball is also spatially eschatological or infinite: in theory, a baseball field could extend forever—as center field in New York’s old Polo Grounds seemed to do, except when patrolled by a higher spirit in human form who made space (and Vic Wertz’s home run in the 1954 World Series) disappear: Willie Mays.
And let’s not forget baseball and Catholic social doctrine.The social doctrine has four foundational principles—human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Each of them may be found in baseball, a game played by communitarian individuals who live freedom for excellence such that personal achievement contributes to the general welfare through a well-ordered division of hierarchical responsibilities exercised in cooperative teamwork. (I once tried to explain this to Pope St. John Paul II—without success, alas.)”
Also, author John Allen Jr. made this list of nine, comparing baseball and Catholicism:
1. Both baseball and Catholicism venerate the past. Both have a Communion of Saints, all the way down to popular shrines and holy cards.
2. Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the Infield Fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)
3. Both have a keen sense of ritual, in which pace is critically important. (As a footnote, that’s why basketball is more akin to Pentecostalism; both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience.)
4. Both generate oceans of statistics, arcana, and lore. For entry-level examples, try: Who has the highest lifetime batting average, with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats? (Ty Cobb). Which popes had the longest and the shortest reigns? (Pius IX and Urban VII).
5. In both baseball and Catholicism, you can dip in and out, but for serious devotees the liturgy is a daily affair.
6. Both are global games which are especially big right now in Latin America. (Though I’m principally a Yankees fan, I live in Denver, where the Rockies’ starting rotation is composed of two pitchers from the Dominican Republic, a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and a guy from South Carolina. In a lot of dioceses, that’s not unlike the makeup of the presbyterate these days.)
7. Both baseball and Catholicism have been badly tainted by scandal, with the legacies of erstwhile superstars utterly ruined. Yet both have proved surprisingly resilient — perhaps demonstrating that the game is great enough to survive even the best efforts of those in charge at any given moment to ruin it.
8. Both have a complex farm system, and fans love to speculate about who the next hot commodity will be in “The Show.”
9. Both reward patience. If you’re the kind of person who needs immediate results, neither baseball nor Catholicism is really your game.
So, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a movie which closely ties together this sport and the divine. In one interview Costner says that the most impactful scene of the movie could be James Earl Jones’ speech “People Will Come”. In it there are several lines which describe something majestic:
“They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom.”
“For it is money they have and peace they lack.”
“And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces.”
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball… baseball has marked the time.”
“This field, this game -- it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
Now, it helps that James Earl Jones has the best voice in the history of the world! But also this speech points to something beyond just an earthly game. It points to the deepest longings of the human soul. The speech tells us what “dreams” are really on the field; they are about faith, divine intimacy, renewal, salvation, and restoration. Ultimately, they are dreams of Heaven. A place where we are loved by God and share His love with those closest to us.
These dreams are placed in us by an Eternal Father who desires a relationship with us. The path to Him has been opened to us by His Son. Our Father wants us to play, experience peace, and be in communion with Him. If we build a field in our lives which allows space for this to happen, He will certainly come.