McGwire's Blast Brings Redemption: Baseball Is Linked to History, Religion, Professor Asserts

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Baseball is linked to history, religion, professor asserts

It was a redemptive, celebratory moment, a return to innocence, wiping clean for one joyous moment our nation's slate of sins: the tawdriness of this season's politics, the competition, divisions, xenophobia and greed that mar our national experience. When St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire's 62nd home run streaked over the left field wall, it was liturgy erupting into euphoria, the sometimes interminable drone of baseball lifting us into epiphanies of joy.

The redheaded folk hero with the Irish name veritably levitated around the field and, during an 11-minute spontaneous party in the park, hoisted Sammy Sosa, competitor for the home run title, off the ground in exuberant embrace.

For Robert Elias, the excitement and symbols of this season will add gloss to a semester-long program at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches American politics.

With enviable foresight, Professor Elias had proposed baseball as the topic of the prestigious annual Davies Forum focusing on values and leadership in American life. To his surprise, "The committee liked it," he said. He's calling the series "The National Pastime and the American Dream: Baseball as Cultural Mirror."

"Baseball allows us to examine important aspects of American life and culture," said Elias, who grew up in the 1950s heyday of New York baseball, "Exciting times," he said, when the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants were all part of the scene. Baseball, he said, "reflects things such as labor-management struggles, how we organize our economy, ... race relations."

Even more, "For a lot of people, baseball is a kind of religion," he said. Like faith, it is passed from generation to generation and tends to breed fanatics, he said. Elias is collecting quotes comparing baseball and religion (see box, page 3) and keeping track of religious references by the players themselves.

During his forum, plays, movies, panel discussions, and talks by sportscasters, former managers and players will examine the parallels between baseball's history and our own.

The parallels include:

* Periodic power struggles between owners and players, reflecting labor's battles nationally. Among victories for players was the death of the "reserve clause" in 1976, allowing free agency for. players and ending virtual "wage slavery," Elias said. The latest chapter in those struggles was the strike that cut short the 1994 season.

* The crack in the major league color barrier in 1947, with the signing of Jackie Robinson, grandson of a slave, to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The breakthrough --accompanied by Robinson's promise to ignore racial epithets -- is widely regarded as the most significant event marking the progress of racial equality between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

* The westward and southward geographical movement of baseball during the 1950s and '60s, reflecting shifts in the broader population.

* A change in the nature of the game from early in the century, when scratch-it-out scores were valued over the home run hit, which was seen "as kind of grotesque," Elias said, to a new admiration for spectacle and power. Elias speculates that the change reflects our 20th-century aspirations to transcend national borders, even to conquer space.

* A shift in our favored heroic type from the aggressive and ill-tempered Ty Cobb, a virulent racist who slept with a revolver, to the ebullient Babe Ruth, renowned as a boozer and philanderer, to the sensitive and fitness-conscious McGwire, "gentle giant" of the '90s.

McGwire and Sosa's emotional embrace will linger for many as a memorable snapshot, a triumph of friendship and good will over the me-first spirit that cynics associate with the American way of life. Sosa, right fielder for the Chicago Cubs, is a former shoeshine boy from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, notable for producing more major league players per capita than any city in the world. …