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Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The (shock horror!) baseball heretic

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 01, 2011

Readers sometimes question why we link to columns by John Allen, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter. The Reporter, our friends remind us, is a hotbed of theological dissidence. Why should we trust a reporter whose outlet is so often at odds with the teachings of the Church?

It’s a good question, but there is a good and simple answer: John Allen is the best English-speaking reporter in the field of Catholic journalism. He knows his field well, is personally acquainted with many of the key players, and works hard to report accurately. His analysis is balanced and fair. If he has slipped any heresy into his columns, I have not detected it.

Until now. Today, in an otherwise excellent column that touches on several different issues, Allen falls into grave error in his treatment of baseball.

But then, what can one expect? As he confesses in this column, Allen himself is a Yankees fan. Any such grave character flaw is likely to produce errors in thinking—diabolical disorientation, you know—and the results are evident in Allen’s handling of an important issue of baseball morality.

But wait. Today is a happy day: Opening Day. Before delving into the heretical thoughts of a misguided Yankees fan, let’s pause to savor the moment.

In many different sorts of rituals, there is a pregnant pause before the real action begins: a moment when everyone is excited, expectant, and yet still uncertain. A moment when anything is possible, as the action is about to begin.

At a concert, that moment occurs after the orchestra has tuned, when the conductor raises his baton, and there is complete silence in the hall. At a wedding it is when the bridesmaids have come down the aisle, and the congregation stands and turns, waiting for the bride’s appearance. In baseball it is after the warm-up tosses, when the umpire points to the pitcher and shouts: “Play ball!”

Ah, those beautiful words! They are, admittedly, not as powerful, not as momentous as “Let there be light!” The umpire does not create the game, after all. Still, within the confines of this little diamond-shaped world, the umpire’s words announce the beginning of a new drama. And on Opening Day, for a baseball fan who has suffered through the privation of a long winter, those words unlock an infinite number of exciting possibilities.

How painful, then, on a wonderful day like today, to discover that a journalist whose work I admire is a baseball heretic. Nevertheless it is my painful duty to set our readers on guard against his error.

Give the poor man credit. His column, listing the nine (of course, 9) reasons why baseball is like Catholicism, has its moments. Like this:

Both feature obscure rules that make sense only to initiates. (Think the Infield Fly rule for baseball fans and the Pauline privilege for Catholics.)

Almost equally nice is his comparison of basketball to Pentecostalism: “both are breathless affairs premised largely on ecstatic experience.”

Alas, when Allen turns his attention to the designated-hitter rule, his powers of analysis desert him completely:

Famously, the National League does not permit the designated hitter, reflecting a sort of fundamentalist Puritanism. It’s not the way the game was originally played, and no power on earth has the authority to add or subtract to scripture. The American League, however, has adopted the designated hitter, striking a balance between scripture and tradition. The designated hitter rule, in fact, is arguably an athletic analogue of what Pope Benedict XVI talks about as a “hermeneutics of continuity,” of reform without rupture.

This is nonsense. Worse, this is baseball heresy. The case against the designated-hitter rule has nothing to do with the written rules—the scriptures, if you will—of baseball. The requirement that a pitcher should take his turn at bat is based on an accurate understanding of the essence of the game. In his column Allen shows himself to be a fan of the game, yet sadly ignorant of its essence.

Anyone who has spent hours on sandlots as a child (that is to say, any normal red-blooded American boy) knows that the desire for a chance at bat--the insistence on having your “ups”—is embedded in the very soul of a young ballplayer. There is a natural justice, too, in the knowledge that the opposing pitcher will come to bat eventually. (That can be catalogued under the heading of retributive justice, I think.) The rule that every player bats is not an arbitrary rule, then: not a creation of positive law, enacted by human authority, subject to change. It is the Natural Law. A direct and intentional violation of the natural law, such as the designated-hitter rule, can never be justified.

A Protestant American, unfamiliar with Catholic traditions, might be forgiven for a failure to appreciate the force of natural law. A European Catholic, unfamiliar with the intrinsic logic of baseball, might be forgiven for failing to recognize how the natural law would apply here. But John Allen is both a Catholic and an American; for him there is no excuse.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Apr. 12, 2011 10:11 AM ET USA

    I've always been partial to NL-style pitchers batting, double-switching, bunting, small ball, etc. I've also come to observe that the DH is little more than a welfare program for slow, overweight, older sluggers who never could or can no longer play a field position. Plus, in the steroid era, the DH satiated the pink hats who "dig the long ball". Those days, God willing, are over. Time to get rid of the DH.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 06, 2011 10:32 PM ET USA

    As a Pirate fan, I remind all of you emphatically that we are still enjoined by Jesus to "teach ye all nations" that the DH is an abomination without parallel, never contemplated by Our Lord when he began it all in Genesis 1, "In the big inning."

  • Posted by: sparch - Apr. 04, 2011 10:01 AM ET USA

    Being a White sox fan,the designated hitter makes perfect sense in comparing baseball to Catholisim. We all need those who, from the communion of saints, will step up to the plate for us and pray for us as we attend the business of the Lord. Some need more prayers than others.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Apr. 02, 2011 4:41 PM ET USA

    Defender, he could also support the Padres.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Apr. 02, 2011 8:28 AM ET USA

    Yes, having the pitcher hit enables retributive justice: If I'm going to plunk a guy, I'd better remember that I'll be stepping into that box later and could get plunked in return! The DH takes that away. On the other hand, Phil, are you asking that we erase David Ortiz from history? Or merely that he should have played first base? What is in store on the Judgment Day for someone who has allegiances to New York's Evil Empire and the National Catholic Reporter? I can hardly think of it!

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Apr. 02, 2011 12:58 AM ET USA

    Ahhhh, yes. This put a smile on my face. And as far as the DH rule goes, you are 100% correct. What player doesn't want the chance to bat? It's the best part of the game. Pitching is exciting, but nothing compared to taking pitches. Entire leagues rise up around this principle. Slow-pitch softball. The DH is the Martin Luther of baseball. Well, sort of, but I am sure you get the analogy.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 02, 2011 12:56 AM ET USA

    If he was a really good Catholic, he'd have to be an Angel or a Cardinal fan, but alas....

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Apr. 01, 2011 9:48 PM ET USA

    What about asking that other well-known Catholic baseball fan, George Weigel, to arbitrate this issue? Or, at least, to mediate between the two sides. (For the record, I am in Phil's camp.)