We usually associate the word “liturgy” with religious services. More liturgical denominations, like the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, have as part of their services complex rituals that are difficult for the uninitiated to explain or follow. But as writers such as James K.A. Smith and Tish Harrison Warren have pointed out, liturgies can be anything that we do in a ritualized way, whether going to school or making a sandwich.
In this broader definition of liturgy, baseball must be the most liturgical sport. Its liturgies have been sorely missed in the spring of 2020, as coronavirus shut down all sports for months.
Baseball begins with a series of processions: the fans into the stadium, the teams onto the field, the singing of national anthems and the ceremonial throwing of the first pitch by one of 81 special guests each team has to select for a normal season. There is even the ritual exchange of lineup cards (temporarily abandoned this year) by the team managers at home plate.
When the game begins, the liturgies continue. Pitchers have their own weird rituals, some private (game day playlist, game day diet, game day socks) and some public (the hat adjustment, the visit to the rosin bag, or in some rather extreme cases, talking to the baseball). Batters, likewise, have their rituals that can seem obsessive (Royals great Mike Sweeney was famous for retightening his batting gloves between every pitch). And catchers trash-talking hitters is a ritual as old as baseball itself.
The players defend these liturgies as little ways to help them maintain focus, stay in a groove, and perform consistently over a long season. But the sum of all of them is a ball game, surely the most liturgical event in sport, and perhaps in life if you aren’t a high-church attender.
An important late game liturgy is the seventh inning stretch, ritualized by a secular hymn, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and often a second one, “God Bless America.” And each team has its own home-grown liturgies during the game, whether a t-shirt launch, relish race, or kiss cam.
Why are these liturgies important? Smith and Warren would argue that liturgies shape us, whether we realize it or not. So baseball players are certainly shaped by their rituals, and fans, to some degree, are, too, by theirs. Imagine how strange it would be to go to a ball game and not sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” (As may well happen if we even get to attend a ball game in 2020). And baseball’s liturgies provide structure, reassurance, constancy and comfort, things that have been in very short supply in this most unusual year.
I for one would be very grateful to see Mike Sweeney step out of the batter’s box to retighten his batting gloves right now.