Knuckleballs, Grace, and the Church

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New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is my favorite baseball player. When it’s his turn to ascend the mound, I feel drawn to watch by an interior force whose origins I do not understand. Perhaps it is his compelling personal journey that includes overcoming a broken home, abuse at age eight, and years of minor league struggles until he established himself as an all-star. Perhaps it is his command of baseball’s most beguiling and seldom used pitch, the knuckleball. Perhaps it is his noticeable grit and class on the field. Or perhaps it is his profound Christian faith, which has molded him into the pitcher and man he is today.

This last quality permeates his recent autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up, a moving and self-cathartic retelling of his childhood and baseball odyssey. Throughout his struggles – especially when he reached his life’s nadir – it was his faith in Jesus Christ that gave him hope and set him back on the narrow path to life.

As a Catholic, I was struck not by the means of Dickey’s conversion, which came through the influence of a school friend who invited him to meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was the logistics: when he inquired how to become a Christian, he was told to “just invite Him into your life” and profess faith in Christ. And this Dickey did, with his friend and his friend’s mother, inside their home. The next step, he was told, was to learn and study the Bible.

In no way do I doubt Dickey’s faith, sincerity, or commitment. I admire it. Yet his experience as he describes it lacks a key element. He made a personal pledge between himself and Christ to whom others led him, but the moment of grace was for him alone: no exterior authentication, no incorporation into something greater than the self. In other words, what was missing from his experience was baptism and the Catholic Church.

For Catholics baptism is certainly a direct and personal encounter with God, even if the baptismal promises are made on our behalf as infants. But this encounter takes place through the Church, the means through which God communicates His grace and brings us into communion with Him. The Scriptures are clear: God did not will to save individuals qua individuals, but a people – His people. His covenant with Israel foreshadowed the new and eternal covenant in Christ that is open to all who respond to His invitation. Our individual “I” must become part of the greater ecclesial “I” of the Bride of Christ.

Through baptism we are formally incorporated into the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, of which, as St. Paul tells us, there are many members, but all are united and given a purpose by Christ the Head. We each have a unique vocation through which we work out our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Yet our seemingly singular paths are all bound together by God’s providence, and they lead us to a shared end: heaven’s Communion of Saints, which is precisely that – a communion of the blessed together with God.

There is a second aspect of Dickey’s faith journey that attests to the splendor of Catholic teaching: the drama of sin and redemption. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Dickey was tormented by guilt and shame throughout adulthood until he confronted his past in his early thirties. Before he reached this moment, his past compounded his pain over his personal failings all the more. As he worked through his difficulties, he attests to becoming a better human being through constant self-examination.

For Catholics self-examination takes on supernatural import when done in the context of sacramental confession. The time honored practice of the examination of conscience allows us to assess the graces we have received and the sins we have committed within the context of God’s abiding love and mercy. When we confess, we humbly place the results of our exam before God, who, through the ministry of the priest, grants us pardon and peace. Through the Church our self-examination becomes the means of self-transcendence on the road to the Communion of Saints.

The Catholic journey is not one of a solitary pilgrim, but of solidarity with all the members of the Body of Christ, including those who have gone before us. This solidarity is spiritual, known by faith in Christ who prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one. This oneness is not an earthly or political goal, but a supernatural reality made possible by God’s grace communicated through the Church who points us to our ultimate goal.

In his book Dickey states that part of the difficulty in learning the knuckleball is the paucity of coaches who can teach it. As a result, knuckleballers are a small and tight fraternity. Dickey did not have success with this finicky pitch until he received instruction from several fraternity members over a few years.

In the same manner, the individual alone in his room with his Bible has never been part of Catholic living. We each have a unique vocation, but included within it is the call to communion with God in Christ. Only in the community that is the Catholic Church do we find the fullness of grace to reach this communion, one that is shared by the Communion of Saints.  


David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.