I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.
— Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy, Bull Durham
Tomorrow is Opening Day. It's a joyous occasion. The return of baseball to San Diego after a long, dark winter. It's the one day a season we can be guaranteed to see a stadium packed full of Padre fans. The day where, even after a disappointing start on the road, anything still seems possible. But there's something about Opening Day that always leaves me with a sense of unease: In the middle of the 7th inning, someone is going to sing "God Bless America".
If you've ever been to a game with me on a holiday or a Sunday or you follow me on Twitter or hang out in the game threads, you've heard my complaints before. Some of you haven't, and must be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, it's just a two minute, patriotic song. Harmless, right? I don't think so.
A Brief History
"God Bless America" was first sung during the seventh inning stretch on September 17, 2001. It was the day baseball returned after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and, at the request of Bud Selig, every team played "God Bless America" instead of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame". At a time when the country was still in shock, it moved many to tears. Baseball, the great American pastime, was part of the healing process.
Before the 2002 season, Selig instructed teams to play the song at their discretion. Most teams used it less frequently, predominantly on Opening Day, holidays, Sundays, and September 11. The Yankees and the Dodgers still play it at every game. Until 2008, the Yankees even required fans to stay in their seats for the duration of the song.
The Church of Baseball
Baseball fans and players are a pretty superstitious lot. We don't talk about no-hitters. We have lucky caps and jerseys and shirts and socks. We speak in hushed tones about curses of long-dead ballplayers. Some people are even Yankees fans, so they're basically Satanists. With all of that, it's not really surprising that many of those who pray at the Church of Baseball also pray in actual churches. It's common in professional sports in general: Every third word Ray Lewis said during the 2013 NFL postseason was "God". So "God Bless America" seems like a pretty appropriate song for most fans and players. Emphasis on "most".
The Silent Minority
According to the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life, 80.1% of Americans worship the Judeo-Christian God of "God Bless America". That means nearly one in five Americans doesn't identify with the basic sentiment of the song. And that leads me to my own personal reason for writing this article: I'm an atheist. I've been one since before I knew what the word meant. So when the middle of the seventh inning rolls around tomorrow, most of the stadium will be on their feet praying to a god I don't even believe exists. I've loved Padres baseball since I was a little kid. I've invested my money, my time, and, most of all, my heart into supporting this team. But for two minutes in the seventh inning tomorrow, I won't be welcome at Petco Park.