Easter and baseball and Duncan’s ‘The Brothers K’

By Kenneth Craycraft | OSV News

Baseball is the only major team sport in which “sacrifice” is an officially recognized statistic. (For purposes of this column, fastpitch softball is inclusive of the term “baseball.”) Other sports may have situational occasions in which a player will be called to subordinate his statistical interest in favor of a team goal, but only in baseball is a player sent onto the field of play for the purpose of sacrificing his opportunity — giving himself up — for the greater good. Baseball is already a game of disappointment — batters only get about four chances per game to get a hit, and the best of them fail about 70% of the time. To give up one of those opportunities is no small matter.

I thought of this as I revisited David James Duncan’s remarkable 1992 novel, “The Brothers K” — a story about baseball, God and politics, in no particular order. One must always be careful about baseball metaphors and religious imagery. It is easy to slip into facile comparisons or to endow baseball with a mystical quality that it simply doesn’t have. Baseball is a wonderful sport, and no American family looks forward to the beginning of April more than mine, but it is a game, and it must always be enjoyed in relief to things that overshadow it.

That’s why Duncan’s book is a nearly perfect baseball/religious/political novel. Baseball is indeed the fulcrum on which the narrative is balanced — and the game’s storylines are essential to the tale — but this is only because the novel is actually about sacrifice — about a series of sacrifices that various characters make in order to advance the good of others.

Set in the town of Camas, Washington, between about 1960 and the mid-1970s, “The Brothers K” follows the raucous life of Hugh and Laura Chance and their six children, four boys and twin daughters, as narrated by the youngest son, Kincaid. Hugh is a promising professional baseball player, whose intelligence and athletic ability are inherited by his sons, but who suffers a series of hardships that frustrate his dreams. While Hugh’s unfulfilled athletic career is the least of the calamities that the family suffers, it is the framework for the portrait that Kincaid paints of his parents and siblings.

Laura is a devout — indeed sometimes fanatical — member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Hugh is a skeptic, and the children fall along a spectrum between their parents: Everett rejects religion altogether; Irwin shares the positive aspects of his mother’s piety; Peter is as consumed by religion as his mother, but drawn to Eastern expressions, which he pursues as a Harvard graduate student in India. Kincaid reveals little of his own religious convictions, but his account of the journeys of his siblings demonstrates an acute sensibility to the deepest aspects of Christian virtue.

“The Brothers K” is critically acclaimed yet not widely read, and I hope here to induce you to read it. You will become engrossed in a series of devastating hardships that afflict the Chance family. Some are self-inflicted. Others come through a series of, well, chances that none of the family could have avoided.

Given the novel’s timeframe, the war in southeast Asia, and the contentious politics around it, cause some of these contingencies. Two of the sons are directly affected by the war, and their experiences provide the occasion for the entire Chance family to rise to the challenge of overcoming heartbreaking adversity. Pointedly, their experiences set the stage for a series of sacrifices that the brothers and other family members make in a series of mutual expressions of unqualified love and deep mutual affection.

April 2023 is the convergence of the Easter and baseball seasons. “The Brothers K” is a story about both. It’s a tale of failure and triumph, sin and salvation, sorrow and joy. It probes the depths of religious conviction and human psychology, taking us places that we would rather not go, but for the purpose of showing us how we might emerge.

Through the eyes of Kinkaid Chance, we discover both the tragedy of human frailty and the comedy of human redemption. Along the way, we laugh, cry and root for the good guys to win. I can’t think of better Easter (and baseball) reading than this fine, underappreciated novel. “The Brothers K” shows us how sacrifice is at the heart of both baseball and Christian faith.

Photo: Kenneth Craycraft is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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