NYU class worships at the temple of baseball
Published: April 25, 2012 12:36PM
Updated: April 25, 2012 12:35PM

New York • On the night before opening day, the end of a baseball fan’s version of Advent, John Sexton entered his classroom at New York University to speak of Joe DiMaggio. He came to speak, too, of Ernest Hemingway and Gay Talese, of Lord Krishna and a sacred tree in the Amazon, and what he called “this notion of touching the ineffable.”

Around Sexton sat 18 undergraduates, some religious and some not, some bleacher die-hards and some not, all of them enrolled in a course titled “Baseball as a Road to God.” It is the sort of course in which the teaching assistants go by the angelic designation “Celestials” and discussion sections are named for Derek Jeter and Willie Mays among other diamond luminaries.

As the president of NYU, Sexton could certainly teach any course he wanted. And as the former dean of its law school and a clerk to a U.S. chief justice, he might have been expected to hold forth on jurisprudence. However, as a child of Brooklyn, as a scholar whose academic robe bears No. 42 in homage to Jackie Robinson, and as a practicing Catholic with a doctorate in religion, Sexton has for more than a dozen years chosen baseball and God as his professorial focus.

“The real idea of the course,” he put it in a recent interview, “is to develop heightened sensitivity and a noticing capacity. So baseball’s not ‘the’ road to God. For most of us, it isn’t ‘a’ road to God. But it’s a way to notice, to cause us to live more slowly and to watch more keenly and thereby to discover the specialness of our life and our being, and, for some of us, something more than our being.”

Sexton’s own baseball career peaked as an all-star catcher in the B’nai B’rith Little League in the Rockaways — “Billy Ryan and I broke the religion line; we were the first two goyim” — and included being in a third-floor classroom in high school when a teenage Joe Torre broke the window with a home run from an adjacent ball field. During the passing decades, Sexton adapted to the Dodgers’ departure from Brooklyn by joining his son in rooting for the New York Yankees. Whether such a transfer of devotion constitutes heresy is a question, perhaps, for the magisterium.

The springtime class had its genesis in the challenge of a skeptic. In the 1998-99 school year, an NYU law student presented himself to Sexton to say, “I understand you’re a real baseball fan, and I don’t get it.” Sexton, invoking the words of his own long-ago mentor at Brooklyn Prep, replied: “Then you are among the great unwashed. But there is hope for your soul.”

By means of evangelism, Sexton oversaw an independent-study project for the law student, assigning him 10 books about baseball and theology. Word of mouth around campus led more students to ask for a similar tutorial. Sexton instead devised an entire class and made it available to undergraduates.

The core of his original reading list — The Sacred and the Profane, by the religion historian Mircea Eliade — remains central to the class all these years later. Eliade’s essential insight, at least for Sexton’s purposes, is his concept of hierophany, meaning the manifestation of the sacred in the world. So, just as much as Stonehenge or the Kaaba or the Western Wall or St. Peter’s Basilica, baseball in Sextonian teaching affords such a locus for faith.

And the metaphor of baseball as religion, in Sexton’s hands, is a long way from the cornball claptrap about stadiums being “green cathedrals.” Over the current semester, the students are reading and discussing the work of theologians and cultural historians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Novak, Robert N. Bellah and Johan Huizinga alongside novels and reportage by literary chroniclers of baseball like Robert Coover, W.P. Kinsella and Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Sexton is distilling his own ruminations into a book, Baseball as a Road to God, which will be published in early 2013.)

When the class met on the night before opening day this year, Sexton took out the intellectual version of a fungo bat to knock questions around the room: Was the fisherman in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea having a religious experience? If he was, how did that experience resonate for the students in the class?

“In the depth of his adversity,” said William Visone, a 19-year-old junior, “he keeps talking about how the big fish is out there. That’s a kind of faith. And it’s like last week when I said that I believe that in my lifetime I will see the Mets win the World Series.”

Another student, Nicole Greenhouse, talked about the “cardinal curse of despair” she had often felt as a Boston Red Sox fan. Yet, she went on, when the team won the 2004 American League pennant with an epic comeback against the despised Yankees and then took the World Series, the achievement set a standard of ecstasy impossible to repeat.

All the talk of belief, disbelief and disappointment provoked an especially personal reaction from Emily Ruth Grose. A 21-year-old junior, she had grown up on family stories of near misses. One uncle, a pitcher, made it to triple A before falling just short of the major leagues. Her father, a star shortstop in high school and junior college, was enduringly embittered by his failure to be drafted by the pros.

“I always viewed baseball as kind of my family’s religion,” she added in an interview after class. “Baseball was filling a void in their heart, and when they didn’t have it, what did they fill the hole with? I really wanted to learn why baseball mattered so much to them. And I’ve come to really see that it doesn’t need to be an organized religion, that anything can serve as your religion.”

For Noam Mintz, who took the class last year and returned as a “Celestial” this year, the course helped him resolve what had seemed like a conundrum. Why had he always considered the two most profound religious experiences of his life praying beside his father, an Orthodox rabbi, on Yom Kippur, and watching Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series with his father, as the Yankees beat the Red Sox on Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning home run. (Sorry, Nicole.)

“In my life, Judaism and baseball had always played a central role,” said Mintz, 22, a senior. “But they always diverged from each other. They had different compartments. Now I can see where these passions might intersect.”