This reflection was written by Nick Panissidi while a student in Neumann University’s ‘Exploring Spirituality through Sports’ course.
In his book Crossing Home, James Penrice uses the game of baseball as an allegory to teach us about the spiritual journey all Christians embark on in an effort to get to Heaven. According to Webster’s online dictionary, an allegory is a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life. Penrice uses familiar terms like the Umpire, the Opponent, the Game, and the trinity of the bases to give a highly visual and concrete understanding of the joyful, but often difficult, journey to get to Heaven. In the same way Jesus used parables to foster understanding of difficult concepts, Penrice successfully uses baseball to enlighten us about the road to spirituality and the obstacles that sometimes get in the way of achieving our ultimate goal.
Penrice refers to “the Game” as Christian life, God is “the Umpire, the Owner, and our Biggest Fan,” and Satan is “the Opponent.” He also refers to “Home” as the starting point of our journey and the place that we are always striving to get back to. Home, of course, refers to Heaven. The symbolism of Home is that we are all given the gift of life from God (who we came from) and as Christians we spend our life trying to be on the right path to get back to God when we die (go to Heaven).
In this way, the game of baseball is a good allegory for what Christians are trying to achieve. All baseball players get up to bat with the goal of rounding the bases and getting back to cross home plate. As every baseball player knows, this is not an easy task. Penrice illustrates just how hard crossing home can be and by doing so, successfully demonstrates the difficult journey Christians face when trying to stay on the path to Heaven.
First, Penrice points out all the practice and preparation baseball players must endure before they step onto the field. Christians must learn about God through the Scriptures and by taking part in Mass and by being actively involved in the Christian community. Baseball is a team sport in which everyone has an active role in making the team successful. The Church and the words of Jesus must be kept alive and vibrant through the workings of each of the members of the Church. In addition to this, every baseball player faces obstacles to get to each base. The opposing team will do everything to stop him from reaching base and try to pick him off if he’s on one. Penrice compares this to Satan and all the material distractions in our world that often “keep us off base” and prevent us from crossing home. Penrice points out that during these times, we rely on our teammates to keep us focused and help us watch out for the harm our opponents try to inflict on us. This happens any time an opposing team tries to pick a player off of first base. Usually, teammates yell “Get Back!” and the player rushes back to the base. In the same way, all members of the Christian community can look out for and support each other to stay on the right path to Heaven.
Finally, Penrice compares an umpire or owner of a team to God. Owners want their team to be successful just like God wants us to come back to Heaven. However, like an umpire, God watches over us but does not tell us what to do. We have to use our free will and decide our own course of action. Ultimately, our actions will decide whether we make it Home or not.
In addition, God is compared to our Biggest Fan because he wants us to be successful and he’s cheering us on. However, he understands that we are human and may make mistakes at times. As long as we get back on the right path after we falter, God will still be waiting for us to make it Home. Good ballplayers make errors but they also know that is part of the game and they know how to use these mistakes to become stronger and better players in the future.
I think the ideas presented in this book are clearly connected with the concepts of spirituality found in Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing. Rolheiser explains that spirituality is a longing to get back to God. He quotes St. Augustine’s words, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This reminds me of Penrice’s analogy that the goal of baseball is to go home and the goal of all Christians is to get back to Heaven with God. Rolheiser also talks about the energy and the desire to compete that drives all athletes. He says that this high level of athletic energy is what is necessary in order to be spiritual. Without energy, there is no drive; we become apathetic and lazy. The drive or longing to accomplish our goal is what keeps us on the right path toward God.
Penrice also talks about respect for this drive when he says that the Umpire must often endures outbursts from players who feel they were judged unfairly. He goes on to say that the Umpire would rather suffer the outburst than have the player not care about the game or give up on it. However, Rolheiser warns that players must find the right balance for this energy. They must be able to use it to achieve their goals but contain it so that it does not make them out of control. Penrice and Rolheiser both agree that players can do this by putting the game above their own individual needs and playing as part of a team. In the same way, all Christians can use their God-given talents to help others and by doing that, will make this world a better place. Players who believe in the good of the team are more successful and create an atmosphere of love and respect for each other. Both authors demonstrate how this spiritual approach to the game is the same winning formula for creating a loving and concerned world.
In addition to this, Crossing Home reinforces Neumann University’s core values of RISES. The author talks about reverence and respect for the rules of the game and for each teammate and official. Penrice also talks about integrity when he says that bases must be earned in a fair way; that is why he does not think walks and home runs are of value. He believes that baseball players provide service through their long hours of commitment and hard work to achieve excellence and be the best players that they can be. Finally, baseball players can demonstrate stewardship by using their God-given talents to promote fair play in a way that will promote the values of the organization that they represent. Neumann players try to do this on the field and also during baseball camps with young players.
I definitely think this book can be used to convey the topic of spirituality through sport. Penrice does this in the same way as Jesus did when he used parables to convey a religious meaning through the use of everyday experiences. By using well-known baseball symbols such as the Umpire, the Opponent, and the trinity of the bases, the author successfully illustrates his point that we all desire to get home to God, but the journey to get there will be filled with obstacles along the way. He uses baseball to show how we must always keep our focus on getting home as our one and only purpose. He stresses that we must earn our bases in baseball, in the same way we must earn our way into Heaven. Penrice illustrates that athletes must be strong and focused and never lose their “faith” in the game. It is easy to see the parallel here as Penrice shows how we must stick to our faith, fight our way through all of life’s challenges, and follow the path to Heaven. Penrice’s comparison of the game of baseball to the spiritual journey of all Christians is easy to understand and conveys its point successfully.
Penrice wrote this book for the simple reason of showing how an everyday game like baseball reflects our spirituality. He points out that all humans are bound by their desire to know their purpose in life, to bond with others in their community, and to use their inner forces to overcome external obstacles. Penrice demonstrates that athletes push themselves to the limit to get to the best they can be. Baseball players fight their way to get home. In the same way, all of us are fighting to know why we are here and trying to become a better person to be closer to God. As stated before, Penrice illustrates his point perfectly by using the common symbols of baseball. His comparison is easy to understand and makes a lasting impression on the reader.
I enjoyed reading Penrice’s book because it reinforced everything I learned as a baseball player. My time on the field taught me that nothing comes easy; everything good comes from hard work and perseverance. This is why one of my favorite quotes is from Vince Lombardi. He stated, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”
Baseball also taught me that a team that works together and helps each other can leave each game feeling proud of their efforts no matter what the scoreboard says. I also learned to stay focused on my goals and never to give up. I know that I may have a bad day but I can learn from my mistakes and become a better player because of them. In other words, baseball taught me the secrets to being successful in life and the key to being a good Christian. Spirituality is all about using our God-given talents and energy to make a difference in the world. I feel that by learning how to do this on the baseball field, I can take this into the real world and work hard to help others. As the saying goes, “Life is not a spectator sport.” We must do whatever we can to bring our Christian values into the world to make it better. I think baseball has taught me this and Penrice’s book clearly illustrates this.
Finally, upon completing this book I know that my thoughts about baseball and its life lessons are true; however, I would add that sometimes the Opponent who tries to prevent us from reaching our goals is not from the other team. It can be our own coach or negative attitudes from our own teammates. Sometimes we have to recognize that the people who surround us might not always be positive for our journey. Therefore, we have to be even more careful to stay focused on our goals and not let anyone (even those we consider close to us) deter us from our path. Life is definitely not a spectator sport and we must always guard against anyone who tries to prevent us from crossing home.