Baseball season is nearly upon us (Spring Training, at least). I have become an avid Red Sox fan, and a fan of the sport as well over the years, and I want to blog about it here. But it's not really the game itself that interests me so much; though I naturally want the Red Sox to do well, winning to me isn't everything. I care more about the periphery of the experience; the intangibles; the hidden things that make me care so much about it. What follows is a basic theory of why I like baseball so much, and why I think fandom is a religious experience.
We humans are a spiritual people, even those so-called secular among us. I suppose I am a bit of an anomaly in this country, being both extremely religious and non-Christian. It's true, though: I've often found it easier to relate to the Jesus freaks and Christian Impact kids when I was at UNH than ordinary humanists, despite my love for science and technology. My conundrum was tempered by the presence of a large Baha'i community here in Portsmouth (Baha'i is a religion like Christianity or Islam that came out of Persia in the 19th century and represented a major reform and liberalization of Islam and the other Abrahamic religions of the time. It has both an intellectual and a liberal tradition). But periodically, I do get those yearnings to be around people like me -- other Buddhists, other practitioners. While Portsmouth is my home in many ways, one of its main deficiencies is a lack of even a small Buddhist community. There have been times when I've found it very difficult to relate to others around me. Having a girlfriend and fiancée who is also a fellow practitioner is a bonus, but still lacks that sense of community that comes with religion.
Luckily, there is an alternative. For you see, New England has a state religion. I am referring of course to the Boston Red Sox.
As go the Red Sox, so go a lot of things around here. In 2004, after the Red Sox won the pennant over the Yankees and later the World Series, when I was living just north of here in the city of Dover, New Hampshire, it wasn't uncommon for total strangers to walk up and high-five each other. Conversations spontaneously erupted. People we'd never met before were our best friends. For a few days (or weeks), a garish hodgepodge of transplanted people, bars, and college students had become a true community. I'll never forget it.
This wasn't my first experience with the spiritual properties of professional sports, however. Earlier, in 2003, I had registered online with a forum for baseball fans. I was no stranger to internet forums; I had recently left an anime-oriented forum where I was quite popular. This came at a time when I had few friends outside of the internet, and most of them were as introverted as me. The Red Sox boards proved to be very different, and yet very much the same. These were not people like me. There were former school bullies, old men, working class stiffs, and decidedly few intellectuals. But in our own way, we were more of a community than the anime forum. Dissent was not only tolerated, it was welcomed. There was no competing of personalities for dominance. We were there because we all had one very specific thing in common, and we were all passionate about it. I made friends with whom I initially thought I had nothing else in common but the Red Sox, and yet because of that magic thread between us, suddenly we were able to relate to one another about just about anything. I'm still in touch with one of them, and I feel like there's every bit as much respect between us as there can be between two people, despite the fact that we inhabit seemingly very different worlds.
Most social discord I've ever seen in life, whether on an individual or national scale, boils down to a fear of people unlike oneself. It's a vicious cycle. We're afraid of people who aren't like us, so we can't relate to them, so we never meet them, and because we're never exposed to them, we can dehumanize and demonize them and then fear them all the more. How many times have any of us done that to someone we didn't like? Religion in the modern age becomes a means of relating to one another; a method of implicit trust when we have no other way of knowing whether people are our enemies or our friends, whether it's Buddhism, Evangelical Christianity, or Major League Baseball. I don't buy that humans can act like solitary creatures. We're just not wired that way. I get lonely when I feel isolated. And we humans are creative creatures who'll do anything to make that connection.
I used to wonder about places filled with people from other places, like the town of Dover was to me; like cities like Phoenix and Dallas and Atlanta seem like to me, too. Joel Garreau writes in his fabulous book Edge City about the phenomenon: there could be so little holding these places together, that a church or a sports team is all a community has. Sociologist and author N.J. Demerath calls institutions like the Red Sox "Civil Religions": just another word for trying to find community and our place in the world when we're lost. I used to be bewildered and frightened by Christian fundamentalists and megachurches, and the movement we call conservatism. I could never understand why anyone would so willingly pray and vote against their own self-interests. Put in this context, it seems to make perfect sense. While you or I may not agree with what they believe and what they do, it does humanize them in a way that all-to-often, I think everyone fails to do. And if you want to effect change in a community, that's always the first step. Hopefully other people will see it that way too.