On Oct. 4, the Baltimore Orioles will take the field at Camden Yards against the Toronto Blue Jays and, win or lose, complete their 12th losing season in a row—which, for losing streaks, puts my beloved Birds in roughly the same category as the 10th century papacy under the Ottonian emperors. It was not always so; ample evidence for that admittedly counterintuitive claim is provided by a fine volume, The Orioles Encyclopedia, compiled by Mike Gesker (who works for Catholic Relief Services) and published recently by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Books like The Orioles Encyclopedia, and the love lavished on them by authors, editors, and readers, make an important theological point, to which I shall avert in a moment. First, permit a brief a trip down memory lane.
Hard as it may be to believe, after these last dozen years of futility, the Baltimore Orioles were the most successful team in the major leagues from the late 1950s through the early 1980s: more successful than the Yankees, Dodgers, or Cardinals; more successful than anyone. They played in a rough-hewn old ballpark, Memorial Stadium, the splinters from whose wooden benches will likely be found in the bottom of my coffin someday; they played for a “middle market” city that, truth to tell, was coming unglued even as the Birds won six American League titles and three World Series between 1966 and 1983; the franchise was always on the brink of financial disaster. But the Orioles scouted wisely, built from within, traded shrewdly, emphasized pitching and defense, and won more games than anyone over a quarter-century. Like Job, they enjoyed an ample share of the world’s goods, and then lost it all—or, better, threw it away by abandoning the “Oriole Way,” cheating on the farm system, and lusting for the fleshpots of the free agent market (see “Davis, Glenn” and “Belle, Albert”).
As Mr. Gesker writes in his Orioles Encyclopedia, “Looking back at the championship year of 1983 from the vantage point of 2009, it’s startling to imagine the amount of money a bettor would have won if, while the champagne was still flowing in the Birds’ clubhouse, he proposed that the Orioles would not return to the World Series before the Boston Red Sox (twice) and the Chicago White Sox were crowned World Champions, and as two, yet-to-be-conceived expansion teams (Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks), and the Cleveland Indians, would appear in two World Series…You can bet the fortune gained would have made Bill Gates look like a pauper.”
Beyond the superstars—the Bradys and T.O.’s and Mosses, the Manning brothers, Big Ben, and the occasional defensive wizard like Ed Reed, Brian Urlacher, and Troy Polamalu—football is a rather anonymous game. Baseball, by contrast, is strikingly personal. The hard drive of my memory may need a good cleaning, but, in reading through Mr. Gesker’s encyclopedia, I was amazed at the hundreds of names I fondly recognized, from Jerry Adair to George Zuverink. And therein, I suggest, lies the theological lesson for the day.
Secular modernity teaches us that we can only come to know and honor universal truths by stripping ourselves of our particularities. Precisely the opposite is true, as baseball demonstrates. No one comes to know and love “baseball.” We come to know and love a particular team, composed of particular players. Through them, we come to love the game itself. That truth has applications in the spiritual life. John Paul II was frequently criticized for being “too Polish,” usually by people who thought that cherishing a particular place was an obstacle to embracing the complex worlds-within-worlds of the universal Church, much less the whole world of humanity. Yet it was precisely his Polish experience that prepared Karol Wojtyla to become a universally beloved embodiment of paternity to an astonishing variety of people.
We learn to know what is abstract and universal through what is concrete and particular. We learn to love the big things through first loving the little things. There is no path to a broad empathy and sympathy that does not run through the person just in front of us.