Blessed pastime

I have often argued that baseball is a Catholic game.

The pastoral nature of baseball. Its popularity first mushrooming in urban Catholic America. The timelessness of a game without a clock where every game begins with the potential to last for eternity, while played amid the pleasing, ceaseless murmur of a thousand conversations. Baseball is where grace builds on nature, and where things of nature — grass, clay, fields — form its very essence.

And on April 1, I got an email confirming my theology.

“Pope Francis has issued a surprise statement condemning the designated-hitter rule in American baseball as ‘a clear violation of the natural law.’ The papal statement was titled Et Novem Ubi Sunt, (‘Where Are the Nine’).”

There was a link to the full text. I hit it, and it took me to the Wikipedia entry for April Fool’s Day.

Just before the season began, I was having lunch with a friend. She asked the question I had been hoping never to be asked. Silence filled the room. Then, she repeated it.

“C’mon. Are you a Mets or a Pirates fan now?”

Baseball. The rules of the game can be hard to explain to an outsider. The rules for fans can be just as obtuse and just as rigorous. Example: You can’t root for two teams. Why? Because you can’t.

So there I sit, facing the fundamental question. I am a firm believer that your first love should be your team for a lifetime. I was raised in a National League home in Yonkers, New York, though the Dodgers and the Giants had caught the last train for the coast just as I came to full baseball awareness. But the house rule set by the Old Man was simple: root for any National League team but the two that abandoned us. And don’t even think about the Yankees. So my first team was actually the Milwaukee Braves. They had beaten the Yankees in the 1957 World Series, though they lost to them the next year. The Old Man approved, so I followed the Braves faithfully until the Mets happened in 1962. The Old Man took me to see them at the Polo Grounds. Though historically awful — they went 40-120 in their first season — I dropped the Braves like a bad habit.

Truth is, I think part of the love affair with the Mets was because they were so awful. Want perfection in 1962? Go watch Mickey, Whitey and Yogi at Yankee Stadium. Want humanity in all its imperfections, head to the ramshackle Polo Grounds.

I left New York in 1971 and took the Mets along. I cheered from Indiana and kept the flame alive. Like you’re supposed to.

Then 2002 was my first season relocated in Pittsburgh. I started going to Pirates’ ballgames. And they were awful, in the midst of setting the record for consecutive seasons with more losses than wins — 20 straight.

That awfulness was so reminiscent of my early Mets that I began to be a fan. Mets first and serious, but Pirates lingering.

This year, both the Mets and the Pirates should contend, and it is not unreasonable to think the teams could meet in the playoffs. That generated the question from the lady sitting across from me.

I could have said the Pirates, since I can argue that the Milwaukee Braves were my first love and they no longer exist — not in Milwaukee, anyway. Yet, the Mets mean the Polo Grounds, the Old Man and cheering when they scored a run in the seventh that brought them within six.

So I pulled a Solomon.

I said: “I’ll wait until the playoffs. I’ll tell you then if they meet.”

She didn’t care for that. But what does she know? She roots for the Nationals.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.