On Faith: Baseball and religion

SportsBaseballJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeChicago CubsGreg MadduxSan Francisco Giants

I am pleased to respond to a special request from the features editor for a column timed with the start of the 2012 Major League Baseball season.

I want to begin with a favorite story about my beloved Chicago Cubs:

A 7-year-old Chicago boy challenged a court ruling over who should have custody of him.

The boy had been beaten by his parents, and the judge initially awarded custody to his aunt. The boy surprised the court when he proclaimed that his aunt beat him more than his parents, and he adamantly refused to live with her.

When the judge suggested that he live with his grandparents, the boy cried out that they also beat him. After considering the remainder of the immediate family and learning that domestic violence was apparently a way of life among them, the judge took the unprecedented step of allowing the boy to propose who should have custody of him.

And after two recesses to check legal references and confer with child welfare officials, the judge granted temporary custody to the Chicago Cubs, who the boy firmly believed were not capable of beating anyone.

Baseball and religion have much in common.

Both speak about following the right path and warn of consequences for straying.

Both are filled with rituals, ceremonies, and special days.

Both are governed by myriad rules. Both emphasize fundamentals: a player must learn to bunt, slide, and develop hand-eye coordination, just as religion instructs us to apply our faith to the basics of living.

Baseball and religion venerate tradition, emphasize community, and ascribe significance to special foods, be they peanuts and Cracker Jacks or matzah and latkes.

Umpires function like clergy, telling the player when he has transgressed the rules and meting out penance for sinners.

Pitcher Greg Maddux, a Chicago Cub for 10 years, used preparation and control to compensate for lack of an overpowering fast ball. Religion, too, teaches that we should not aspire to overpower others, but that the best accomplishments are won through self-control.

Both religion and baseball preach a simple philosophy.

Satchell Paige had a one-sentence rule of pitching: "Keep the ball away from the bat."

Religion teaches us to keep the person away from the sin.

Both emphasize practice. A player must practice in order to give his best on the field, and the believer must practice his faith to give his best in the game of life.

Religion would ascribe to Yankee great Lefty Gomez's explanation for his success on the mound as a way to succeed in the world: "Clean living and a fast outfield."

Of course, the goal of both baseball and religion is to "come home," the one to round the bases and return to where he started, and the other to return to his original home in heaven.

On Sept. 14, 1986, the San Francisco Giants inserted Bob Brenly, a catcher, at third base to replace their regular third baseman. In the fourth inning, Brenley made an error on a routine ground ball.

Four batters later, he kicked away another grounder. And then, while scrambling after the ball, he threw wildly past home plate in trying to get the runner there, committing two errors on the same play. A few minutes, later he muffed yet another play to allow a total of four unearned runs and to become the first player in the 20th century to hold the dubious record of four errors in one inning.

But in the fifth inning, Brenly hit a solo home run, and in the seventh, he hit a bases-loaded single to tie the score at 6-6. In the bottom of the ninth with two out and the count full, he smashed a massive home-run to win the game.

He was called "the Comeback Player of the Year in one game."

Brenley's score card for that day came to three hits and five at bats, two home runs, four errors, four runs allowed, and four runs driven in, including the game-winning run.

Life is a lot like Brenly's game, a mixture of hits and errors and the opportunity for future redemption. If something bad happens in the fourth inning wait for the fifth, and the seventh, and the ninth innings for something better to come around.

Yes, redemption awaits. Even for the Chicago Cubs!

MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.

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