In both baseball and the Church, angry fans could accent the positive

Both baseball and Catholicism are victims of their own success, in that dysfunctional management often is facilitated by a wildly passionate fan base that just won’t walk away, no matter how staggeringly obtuse those in charge sometimes can be.

News Analysis

ROME – Some years ago, I wrote a column listing nine reasons why baseball and Catholicism are a natural pair. The lineup included that both feature obscure rules intelligible only to initiates (the infield fly rule and the Pauline privilege, for instance), both are global games especially big right now in Latin America, and both venerate the past.

Watching the current squabbles in the States between baseball owners and players which threaten to prevent a post-quarantine season, I guess we should go into extra innings so I can add a tenth similarity.

To wit: Both baseball and Catholicism are victims of their own success, in that dysfunctional management is facilitated by a wildly passionate fan base that just won’t walk away, no matter how staggeringly obtuse those in charge sometimes can be.

At the moment, Major League Baseball and its Players Association are negotiating a return to action. As of late Wednesday, after weeks of acrimony and stalemate, the two sides at least were talking again, though nothing is guaranteed.

Everyone knows a full 162-game season is impossible, but players want as many games as possible with full pro-rated salaries — meaning they’ll make 100 percent of what they’re owed per game, even though their total income will decline by as much as 60 percent due to fewer games being played. Owners, claiming they’ll lose too much money staging games in empty stadiums because of coronavirus precautions, want either a short season (so they pay players less) or outright pay cuts.

While many outraged fans blame players for trying to add to their millions while legions of people are out of work, the award for most shameless hypocrisy surely goes to the owners. At the very moment they’re crying poverty, they just signed a new $3.2 billion deal with Turner Sports to air the MLB playoffs — not even the whole playoffs, mind you, but pieces of them, collecting additional billions from Fox for the rest.

Recently I heard an interview with Karl Ravech, a baseball play-by-play announcer on ESPN. I can’t quote him exactly, but the gist was that fans should be the “third voice in the room” in these negotiations, but they don’t seem to have any voice.

The reason is because the only real leverage fans might have is to boycott baseball entirely until the system is fixed. Yet the truth is, most fans won’t do that. If their team is in town, they’ll try to get to the stadium; if the game is on TV, they’ll watch, no matter how disgusted they may be with the people running the show. I guarantee, if a shortened season started tomorrow, for most fans the labor squabbles that delayed it instantly would become a distant memory.

Pari passu, the same point applies to Catholicism.

Over the years, I’ve watched activists try to persuade laity to punish the Church over some perceived outrage, especially the clerical sexual abuse scandals, by withholding donations, boycotting Mass, deregistering from parishes, and so on. Inevitably, a few people follow their lead but most don’t, and the Church lumbers ahead.

Granted, Mass attendance has been in decline in some parts of the world for a long time, but that’s mostly a long-term trend towards secularism rather than a protest movement, and even in the most secularized zones you can still find vibrant and growing parishes. Today’s financial shortfalls in some parts of the Catholic world, including the Vatican, are more about the economic fallout of the coronavirus than any drastic decline in giving.

Like baseball fans, Catholics tend to be deeply attached to the church, imperfections and all. They distinguish between the faith and the institution, tending to focus on their parish and their own spiritual lives while trying to block out the rest – just like baseball fans appalled by both owners and the union, but who still want to watch the game.

Where does that leave us? Well, here’s a thought.

If fans can’t give up baseball, they could get behind the likes of the Kansas City Royals, who, despite being a small-market team with limited resources, recently announced they’ll pay minor leaguers their full 2020 salaries and not release a single player. The logic is that even if most of those players never make The Show, many will go back into their communities to coach or scout in academies, jucos and high schools, and thereby keep baseball fresh.

“They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it,” said Royals GM Dayton Moore. “So we felt it was really, really important not to release one minor league player during this time, a time we need to stand behind them.”

Now that’s a management figure you can love.

In other words,  we’re talking about a choice for embracing the positive. In Catholic terms, the same option is available.

If you’re outraged about the abuse scandals, for example, try supporting change agents such as the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University. If you’re dismayed by Vatican financial scandals, try telling bishops and pastors who issue thorough and independently audited annual financial reports, and who practice real accountability, how much you appreciate it.

The examples are almost endless, because for every scandal one can cite in the Church, there are an equal-and-opposite number of stories of courage, good judgment and grace.

Of course, some Catholics, just like some baseball fans, will reach their breaking points and peel off, and in both cases the ruling class undoubtedly deserves the rebuke. Given that most won’t do that, however, perhaps another way to gain a voice is by finding things to which we can say “yes” rather than “no.”

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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