In This Wintertime, Only The Catholic Way Will Save Us

Christ’s pilgrim Church has suddenly found itself in the late innings of, perhaps, transformation and schism, and few are around anymore to help save the day. But there is a Catholic Way forward.

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The Baltimore Orioles are winning (and will be for a long while), and on this humid August afternoon in Maryland, it might as well be a crisp day in early spring. I am a 10-year-old boy again and I’ve thrown off my jacket and gone into the side yard to play catch with my older brother, Danny.

After its three-decade-long death by a thousand cuts, The Oriole Way—that wondrous, bottom-up, organization-wide elixir, has reared its head—and childhood memories race through me these days like Secretariat. 

I recalled one such memory last night: in the late-’70s, on August vacations in the New Hampshire mountains, I would join my brother in the front seat of our family’s wood-paneled station wagon to listen to the radio broadcast of an Orioles game. As moonlit Lake Winnipesaukee’s crickets and bullfrogs harmonized, we fiddled with the radio dial with a watchmaker’s touch until managing to pull the crackle of Baltimore’s WBAL flagship announcers Bill O’Donnell and Chuck Thompson, who sat in a small radio booth 520 miles south of us bringing to life the play-by-play polyphony of Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, and the rest of the Orioles in God’s greatest game. We often lost contact as their voices detoured into the traffic of other nighttime radio programs, but we sat like eager purgatory souls—fiddling, fiddling, fiddling—until their faint baseball voices came back like a three-days-dead Lazarus. 

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We’d listen in as Memorial Stadium’s blue-collar symphony serenaded Murray with its riotous sing-song hymn of adoration—Ed-die!, Ed-die!, Ed-die!—which ricocheted off the narrow Waverly row houses that wrapped around the old neighborhood ballpark like a protective mother bear. And Murray, my only hero, seemed to always oblige by waving a bat and sending a baseball to a part of the field no one thought to cover. I used to imagine sleepers all over the quiet city enclave being awakened when Murray, the greatest clutch hitter in the game at the time, thrilled a stadium by finding a way, yet again, to deliver in a late-inning crisis.

Few reading this sentence will have heard of The Oriole Way. But for thirty years, it was held as sacred in Baltimore as Unitas, Brooks, and Edgar Allan Poe. For the reader with little love for baseball (shame on you), I will be brief in explaining The Oriole Way that prompted Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford to write, 

by consensus, the Orioles are not only the best team, but the best organization—with the best players, the best manager, the best system, the best front office, the best morale and, definitely, the best chances…it is accepted as the model of a dynasty.

What was The Oriole Way? By way of imagery, imagine for a moment a pimply-faced and uncertain Cal Ripken Jr., as he was on a June afternoon in 1978. He is celebrating with his family after being drafted by the Orioles in the second round. Cal is a gangly and unproven 18-year-old, having just danced at his senior prom at Aberdeen (Maryland) High School. A month later, he’s seated beside his father on a car ride to a baseball diamond in Bluefield, West Virginia, a tiny coal town buried in the Appalachian Mountains.

It is in this speck of a town, as he steps from Dad’s car and into the Bluefield Orioles bareboned rookie ball clubhouse, that The Oriole Way begins to be stamped into his soul. Cal is handed a thick manual, a blueprint with a detailed position-by-position, coherent system of the old-fashioned way of teaching, playing, and winning baseball games. The Oriole Way was this: it was adhering to the fundamentals, executing them flawlessly, and winning by waiting out the mistakes made by the other side. “It’s not practice that makes perfect,” an Orioles coach said. “But perfect practice that makes perfect.”

On that first day as an Oriole, young Cal was being treated, taught, and trained in precisely the same manner as Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger in the big leagues. From rookie ball through the A, AA, and AAA minor league system, and onto the major leagues, The Oriole Way kept hundreds of organizational players in an idyllic lockstep of ongoing baseball formation. Fundamentals—not flashy players, sparks of brilliance, brawny home run hitters, or fireballing pitchers—won games. Executing the old-fashioned right way was an icon burned into every Orioles player systemwide—and from 1964 through 1983, their prioritization of the highest standards of professionalism helped keep the Orioles consistently perched atop the American League East Division. 

After the Orioles beat the Phillies in the World Series in 1983, the organization suddenly began to stray from its ways. In the seeming blink of an eye, Baltimore became a genuine baseball laughingstock, beginning the 1988 season 0-21. The Orioles had lost their way. It would take them nearly thirty years to dig out.

For the same reason, the Catholic Church finds itself in a long wintertime. It, too, has mostly lost its way. It has abandoned traditional customs, de-emphasized the sacred, and refashioned its Christ-imposed mandate to proclaim the Good News of salvation. Sermons on sin and the need for absolution, the reality of Purgatory and Hell, the significance of life’s cross, and daily striving for virtue and holiness, etc., have been replaced by gentler and less hassling messages.  The Catholic Church finds itself in a long wintertime. It has mostly lost its way. It has abandoned traditional customs, de-emphasized the sacred, and refashioned its Christ-imposed mandate to proclaim the Good News of salvation.Tweet This

Millions of faithful Catholics today feel a visceral inner sadness. Why? They know spiritual leaders’ genuflection to the world and piecemeal abandonment of the sacred over the past decade have plunged their Church into a withering crucifixion—and they know it has only just begun.

When Orioles management quit on the fundamentals—and eventually guillotined the notion of setting clear objectives—their minor league system collapsed. Because management knew their farm system had capsized, it attempted to make up for the deficiencies by lazily signing aging free agents and fading stars (Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy, Alan Wiggins, Don Aase, and Terry Kennedy). It failed monstrously. In the span of just a few years, the Orioles were considered by many to be the most poorly run organization in all of professional sports. 

G.K. Chesterton said: “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” The Orioles’ small laws doomed their franchise; 100-loss seasons became the standard. Fans stopped attending games. And folks started turning their attention to other things.

This is what has happened in the Catholic Church, which is bleeding its members because spiritual leaders broke the “big laws” and began to institute a red tide of “small laws” to staunch the bleeding. In Baltimore this month, Archbishop William Lori joined forces with the city in a “Gun Buyback Fair.” Prior to that, he released a 14-page document offering guidelines for parish ministries involved in the pastoral accompaniment of LGBT parishioners. Before that, an archdiocesan-wide fiat was written into Baltimore’s Catholic school handbooks stating that schools will no longer discriminate on the basis of one’s gender identity. 

As the Church falls further into crisis, another “small law”—a leviathan “small law,” if there can be such a thing—awaits us in the bombastic, years-in-the-making Synod on Synodality.

Beginning the second week of October in Rome, Pope Francis will ask 363 voting delegates—many of them Modernist clergy and laity—to listen to the Holy Spirit and respond to questions posed in the Instrumentum Laboris, a document covering the allowance of women deacons, priestly celibacy, LGBTQ+ outreach, and featuring an openness for new institutional bodies to allow for greater participation in decision-making by the “People of God.” 

The Synod will be overseen by the Pope Francis-appointed, homosexual-friendly Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich. German Cardinal Gerhard Müller called the Synod a possible “takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ.” Whether or not Müller’s apocalyptic words come to pass, one thing is now certain—numberless faithful Catholics believe what Müller does: the Synod on Synodality has been commandeered to subvert the moral doctrine of the Church.

My mind returns to memories of the brick rowhouse where I lived in 1991 and ’92 after graduating from college; a time when the Orioles were deep in the desert of their abandonment of The Oriole Way. Ten years of ill-advised free agent signings, the trading away of future All-Stars, a shoestring minor league budget, and devaluation of its scouting and player department contributed to the lowest morale in Baltimore baseball history. 

But Orioles leadership came up with an idea to dig out. It asked the state for more than $100 million to build a new stadium, a statuesque brick and wrought-iron masterpiece that would rest in the massive shadow of the old B&O warehouse. A two-minute stroll from my rowhouse permitted a front-row seat to bricklayers, ironworkers, concrete men, and various other trades building Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which thirty years later still stands as one of baseball’s most beautiful stadiums.

Although the Orioles were still awful, folks from up and down the eastern seaboard and beyond began traveling to downtown Baltimore to get a taste of the new ballpark. Strings of sellouts and enormous streams of revenue from merchandising and concessions led to a windfall. All of a sudden, the Orioles found themselves flush with cash. It seemed to mark the perfect time to return to the old Oriole Waya New Springtime—and use its resources to resurrect and rebuild the player development, scouting, and farm system. 

But it was a false spring. Orioles management doubled down on its blundering ways.

They began spending millions on steroidal baseball players. They signed Roberto Alomar, an All-Star second baseman who spit in an umpire’s face. High-paid clubhouse cancers Bobby Bonilla and Will Clark were shipped in. 

Although the collection of high-priced talent brought about a legitimate World Series run in ’97, experienced Orioles fans knew doom lay in the shadows. Throughout the abbreviated run of success, the Baltimore Sun began reporting on a feud between owner Peter Angelos and Manager Davey Johnson, who was an old Oriole Way second baseman from the ’60s. Johnson led the Orioles to a wire-to-wire first-place finish in ’97, but he was fired by Angelos immediately after the season.

Thereafter, the full weight of the collapse came. For the next 15 years, Orioles fans would have to endure locker rooms of lost souls, miserable baseball, and 100-loss seasons.

The sublime Oriole Park at Camden Yards, as it was when it opened in ’92, is reminding me these days of the Synod on Synodality, which millions of Catholics will regard as the streamlined construction of a glorious new edifice. 

But as the Orioles’ glistening new ballpark could not hide or overcome the unsightly brand of baseball it held within it, the Synod on Synodality will not overcome decades of abuse, mismanagement, and the shameful neglect of time-honored Catholic heirlooms. Novelties (female deacons, same-sex blessings, more intense listening and accompaniment, ecological discussions, etc.) bring to mind steroidal baseball players with chemically-generated muscle. The Church’s flame of the sensus fidei—which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people” recognizes when fakery blends with the sacred, like the parable of the wheat and tares.       

Christ’s pilgrim Church has suddenly found itself in the late innings of, perhaps, transformation and schism, and few Eddie Murray’s are around anymore to help save the day.

So, what to do during this time of the Church’s diminishment of the sacred and accelerated erection of “small laws”?

We turn to The Oriole Way, the indomitable adherence to the unchanging fundamentals. In the midst of this wintertime, only the old-fashioned, tried-and-true Catholic Way will save us now. We adhere to the same fundamentals of the dynasty of Beloved John, Pope Gregory the Great, Benedict of Nursia, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, and Mother Teresa, who daily rested their heads against Christ’s Sacred Heart and devoted their lives to the Savior of the World.

What is The Catholic Way in this time of Church-wide crucifixion? It will vary, but here are some thoughts:

  • An intensified prayer life; at least one hour each day.
  • Living out our vocational call to holiness through daily sacrifice.
  • More frequent reception of the Eucharist and visits to the Adoration chapel.
  • Increased service to the poor and corporal works of mercy.
  • Deepening our devotion to Mary.
  • More frequent confessions.
  • Increased time with Scripture and spiritual reading. 

Postscript: By tethering himself to the fundamentals of The Oriole Way, that pimply-faced teenager went on to become a hero to tens of thousands of boys; an infielder seemingly on loan from Heaven. The shot-and-beer city of Baltimore loved Cal Ripken for one reason more than any other: his fidelity to his daily work and allegiance to practicing the fundamentals. By refusing to take a day off—brushing off bodily aches, slump-enduring mental anguish, prolonged road trips, and the monotony of 162-game seasons—he played in 2,632 consecutive games, more than any player in baseball history.

Hardy souls respect hardy men. Baltimore’s bleary-eyed cops, mechanics, short-order cooks, and the like adored Cal because he tethered himself to the “big laws” of his duty. He was trained to instantly reject the “small laws” and shortcuts to “winning.” He became an Ironman because he bent his body to his will. 

Monuments in Cal’s image have been carved for the most mundane of reasons: he honored the burden of his identity. He did what he was supposed to do. It was the effect of that grind-it-out fiat that sparked the admiration of millions. Because he did it the Oriole Way for 21 seasons, he has been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I am imagining now what a bishop or priest would resemble if he displayed the day-in and day-out habits of Cal, who simply lived the daily burden of his baseball identity. I am imagining the enshrinement that would await the bishop or priest—and how such a shepherd would be greeted in Heaven: by a long line of saints whose souls he had once saved by his unrelenting work to save them.   

Bishops, digging out of this wintertime requires a single act: shepherd your flock back to God alone. Nothing else will work.

Because false springtimes die quickly in long winters. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

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