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The faithful

From ancient times to our own, sport and religion have been deeply connected. But here in Red Sox Nation, there are varieties of religious experience only a Sox fan can know.

WITH INTERNATIONAL ATHLETES competing before sparse crowds in Athens, it seems as though the Olympics have lost some of the urgency they had during the Cold War, when they were a quadrennial staging ground for war by other means. But as the athletes perform in the shadow of Mt. Olympus, where once the Greek gods roamed, we are reminded that deeper things -- sacred things, holy things -- may be at stake than mere politics.

That's because sport and religion, along with nationalism and war, are deeply entwined at some atavistic level of the human psyche, and together they help form the cultural bedrock of nearly every human society. In ancient societies, including Greece, sports were often tied to superstitious rituals designed to impose order on a chaotic universe, or to placate capricious gods.

The ancient Greeks competed in sports -- and organized the first Olympics -- not only to appease their gods, but also to improve themselves physically and spiritually. Still earlier, religious texts recovered from the pyramids of ancient Egypt depict pharaohs and priests engaged in what looks like batting practice, with symbols suggesting that they were trying to ward off infertility and death. Among early Central and South American civilizations there was a recurring myth explaining the existence of the sun and the moon as the result of a ball game that took place near the dawn of man -- the sun and the moon being the sacrificed heads of the losing team. And speaking of sacrificed heads, the Aztecs of Central America built elaborate stone courtsalongside their religious temples where contestants would play an early version of basketball -- with the losing team sometimes ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods.

Early Christians seized on the ancient Greek ethos, and in his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul described the route to spiritual transcendence as a running race, using the same language the Greeks used to describe Olympic sprinters. Some 1500 years later, both Martin Luther and John Calvin engaged in an early form of bowling, imagining that as they toppled the pins they were knocking down the devil and his temptations.

In his excellent new book, "The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do" (PublicAffairs), Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, writes that modern team sports and organized religion share several important features. "Both address the needs of the spirit and the psyche rather than the flesh," Mandelbaum writes. "And team sports provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first-century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate."

In the United States, no sport is fused more deeply with religious impulses than baseball. Indeed, although many of the sociologists who have studied the relation between sport and religion tend to agree that baseball may not be an actual religion, some scholars of religion have argued that the game has enough of the attributes of a religious faith that it can be viewed, at the very least, as a kind of surrogate for religion.

"Like a church, with its orthodoxy and heresies, its canonical myths and professions of faith, its rites of communication and excommunication," observed University of Cape Town (South Africa) comparative religion professor David Chidester, in a 1996 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, "baseball appears in these terms as the functional religion of America."

And it is here, in Red Sox Nation, that the religion of baseball finds its most devout -- and masochistic -- sect.

How can so much of New England's psychic well-being be staked on what 29 men we've never met do on an oversized playground with a cowhide ball and a carved wooden stick? No lives hang in the balance in a baseball game. No political policies will be altered based on its outcome. The government will not fall. Our incomes will not be affected. Our husbands and wives will not leave us. We'll still have to go to work the next day.

Last Oct. 16, when New York Yankee third baseman Aaron Boone launched a home run into the left-field bleachers of Yankee Stadium, propelling the Bronx Bombers to an 11th-inning victory over the Red Sox in the seventh game of the American League Championship series, yet another searing image was added to Red Sox fans' extensive iconography of woe -- Bill Buckner letting the ball dribble through his legs (1986), Bucky Dent homering over the Green Monster (1978), Johnny Pesky holding the ball (1946), Babe Ruth being sold to New York (1919) -- and for we millions of proverbially long-suffering New Englanders, our annual passion play was reenacted.

Logically, it shouldn't matter that Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in an inning too long, or that Tim Wakefield's knuckleball failed to knuckle at a key moment in the 11th, or that the men wearing pinstripes touched a rubber pentagon one more time than the men not wearing pinstripes did. And yet, somehow, for millions of people, the difference between joy and misery lay in which team touched that pentagon more often.

The intensity of meaning derived from ritualized actions and symbols, the depth of the suffering, the potential for rapture, the inaccessibility of the experience for the uninitiated -- all of these tend to be attributes of religion. Baseball, of course, has long been known as America's "civic religion"; it is a binding agent that brings us together as a people, an assimilation mechanism for immigrants, and a reflection of the American character. But doesn't the depth of meaning that we draw from the outcome of Red Sox games seem religious in more than merely a "civic" sense?

Every religion has its sacred spaces -- churches, temples, hallowed grounds -- where the normal rules of everyday life do not apply. Red Sox fans have Fenway Park, where the members of the faith congregate and where special rules apply. A fan (a word that derives, of course, from "fanatic," which derives from the Latin for something like "temple-crazy") sits in a baseball stadium "surrounded by ghostly ancestors," the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak has observed, "as at the Mass one is surrounded by the hosts" who have for millennia celebrated the Eucharist.

Churches have statues, shrines, and images honoring heroes and saints. Baseball stadiums have statues, shrines, and images honoring its heroes and saints. Think of the Ted Williams statue just outside Fenway, or the retired numbers on the wall above right field. In Yankee Stadium the shrines to departed heroes -- Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle -- are believed to have magical powers, harboring "ghosts" that help the Yankees and haunt the Red Sox. The bats, balls, and uniforms that end up in the Hall of Fame are like the relics of the Catholic Church. And Michael Mandelbaum points out that baseball cards are similar to Roman coins that honored gods and heroes.

Baseball is steeped in ritual -- as are, needless to say, traditional religious ceremonies, such as the Catholic liturgy. In his 1922 book "The Spirit of the Liturgy," the influential priest and theologian Romano Guardini observed that the liturgy is "pointless but significant" -- like Aaron Boone touching the rubber pentagon, the liturgy simultaneously means nothing and everything.

Anyone who has spent five minutes listening to sports radio knows that to thousands of New Englanders, the Red Sox mean everything. The people who call into the talk radio shows are passionate and devout.

"Being a Red Sox fan is like a religion," an 18-year-old Emerson College student recently told the Associated Press. "It's like a faith," he says, echoing an observation made repeatedly by a generation of sportswriters, "and when playoff season comes around it's like your faith is reborn."

It's a faith, however, that seems never to be rewarded. Its adherents suffer yearly without salvation or redemption. By selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 -- bringing down on the unfortunate Red Sox what the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy has dubbed the "Curse of the Bambino" -- Boston committed its Original Sin. Cast out of Eden (1918 was the last year the Red Sox won the World Series), the Red Sox have since then been a fallen team. (Will trading Nomar Garciaparra, with his elaborate collection of superstitious tics and rituals, reverse the curse or renew it?)

Red Sox fans have a properly Puritan way of rooting for their team; at some level, the experience is joyless. Actually, the combination of eternal hope and resigned acceptance has more than a whiff of Calvinism: Supporting the Sox means embracing suffering as the primary fact of life and accepting the team as not among the elect, predestined to fail and therefore forever denied entrance to Heaven.

In his documentary film "Still, We Believe" -- released this month on DVD -- Paul Doyle Jr. captures this effectively. Doyle's cameras follow six diehard Red Sox fans through the entirety of the 2003 season. One of these fans, Angry Bill, says, "You live, you die, and the Red Sox are part of how you grow up. They're not going to win but you root for them anyway."

A brilliant review of the film appeared, appropriately enough, in the liberal Catholic publication Commonweal. "Red Sox suffering is a cathedral of loss and pain. It is holy," the reviewer, Rand Richards Cooper, observed. "The Red Sox remind us that life is a trial; that it raises hopes only to crush them cruelly; that it ends badly." Yet this, as Cooper astutely points out, "demands not a cessation of faith, but a continuation."

As the years pass, rooting for the Red Sox increasingly embodies faith in a literal way. As 1918 recedes further into the past, there are fewer and fewer people alive who have seen the World Champion Boston Red Sox. For the vast majority of us, believing the Sox can win the World Series requires believing in something that we have never seen -- just as faith in God requires a belief in the unseen.

In the meantime, the suffering of Red Sox fans is purifying, soul-deepening. Shared failure -- repeated failure, epic failure -- bonds us as a region. As the Sox slog through the dog days of summer and into the fall, we (like Angry Bill) know that they will fail -- we expect them to fail -- while at the same time we hope and believe that they will not. And when, one way or another, they do fail, redemption will be deferred yet again. But endlessly deferred redemption provides, paradoxically enough, its own kind of reward. It tests our faith and marks us as spiritually stronger than other fans for whom entrance into heaven is a far cheaper thing.

Then again -- hope springs eternal -- maybe this finally will be the year. After all, Johnny Damon really does look a little like Jesus.

Scott Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of "Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver." He lives in Belmont.

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