The National Catholic Review

Critics can’t decide if Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is really a book about baseball. There’s a lot of “other stuff” going on in the novel. But certainly in the character of Henry Skrimshander, it offers a wonderful description of what it means to be consumed by America’s pastime.

When he came home from Little League games, his mother would ask how many errors he’d made. “Zero!” he’d crow, popping the pocket of his beloved glove with a balled-up fist. He mom still used the name — “Henry, put Zero away, please!” — and he winced, embarrassed, when she did. But in the safety of his mind he never thought of it any other way. Nor did he let anyone else touch Zero. If Henry happened to be on base when an inning ended, his teammates knew better than to ferry his hat and glove onto the diamond for him. “The glove is not an object in the usual sense, “ said Aparicio in The Art of Fielding. “For the infielder to divide it from himself, even in thought, is one of the roots of error.”

Henry played shortstop, only and ever shortstop — the most demanding spot on the diamond. More ground balls were hit to the shortstop than to anyone else, and then he had to make the longest throw to first. He also had to turn double plays, cover second on steals, keep runners on second from taking long leads, make relay throws from the outfield. Every Little League coach Henry had ever had took one look at him and pointed toward right field or second base. Or else the coach didn’t point anywhere, just shrugged at the fate that had assigned him this pitiable shrimp, this born benchwarmer.

Bold nowhere else in his life, Henry was bold in this: no matter what the coach said, or what his eyebrows expressed, he would jog out to shortstop, pop his fist into Zero’s pocket, and wait. If the coach shouted at him to go to second base, or right field, or home to his mommy, he would keep standing there, blinking and dumb, popping his fist. Finally someone would hit him a grounder, and he would show what he could do.

What he could do was field. He’d spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw (8-9).

It might seem, at best, banal and, at worst, blasphemous to suggest a parallel between a devoted shortstop and Christ’s cleansing of the temple. But perhaps there is a portal to understanding the zeal that consumed Christ. Sports may well be cultural evolution’s last rituals. Americans, and moderns in general, understand what it means to be fanatical about a sport. Europeans assail each other at soccer matches as though they were still barbarian tribes. Attend a large, state college football game, and, as the home team rushes onto the field behind the American flag and the crowd surges to its feet, tell me that you don’t fear something like human sacrifice will follow.

In class, when I’ve explained the reasoning behind the Church’s ascetical practices — fasting, abstaining from meat, or celibacy — the students often profess disbelief that anyone would be willing to forego a good — any good — for the sake of something intangible. When they start to compare the asceticism of Christianity to masochistic self-loathing, I remind them that athletes forego all of these things, and suddenly the room fills with ascetics. That sort of self-denial seems quite reasonable to them.

All four of our canonical gospels record the cleansing of the temple. This makes sense, as it was the event that likely settled the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. And yet one could conceivably relate the passion narrative without it. Indeed, St. John’s gospel appears to put the incident much earlier in the ministry of Jesus. Either way, the primitive Church felt compelled to remember and to relate the story. Why?

Because some incidents manage to capture and crystalize an entire life. They’re the sort of events we can’t help but to recall when we remember a person. — “I’ll always think of grandma, the day Arnie went off to war.” “When I remember my dad coming down those stairs, his red eyes filled with tears and anger, I knew that I had a father who cared.”

In the Cleansing of the Temple, the first disciples clearly thought they had comprehended, and ever so briefly captured, the mystery of the one who had walked in their midst. Here was a man consumed with the love of God, with purity of intention, with zeal for Israel’s faith. In cleansing the temple, Christ had revealed his deepest identity. He was consumed with fire; he was a consuming fire.

The Cleansing of the Temple is a talisman of faith. In his zeal, Christ lays bare his very self, the same self that would be exposed on the wood of the cross. In Christ, God gives all. To respond with anything less than the total gift of self is to waiver in faith. Religion that is calculated, that counts and hedges its commitments, that looks for ways to control God, is not the faith of Israel or a response to Christ’s complete gift of self.

I’m always a little dismayed when I see good folk reading bulletins during Mass, refusing to sing, or marching out behind the priest while the last hymn still plays, as though to say, “I’ve paid my dues; I’ve done what’s required; now God owes me.” Who can judge? At least that generation knew that it owed something to God. Can it be blamed for having been taught that it could calculate how much? In contrast, young people today either give their devotion freely or not at all. Balance seems to elude us.

Strange thing about Chad Harbach’s novel. Henry Skrimshander doesn’t become a legendary shortstop. He had it in him, but somehow the gift was lost. That’s always the danger. We can be presumptuous. We don’t realize that life demands a return on what it gives. There’s an equal temptation for believers: to forget that what God gave us in Jesus was burning passion, relentless zeal, ultimately, the gift of self. Any true faith must endeavor the same.

Rev. Terrance W. Klein