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Dennis Baker, SJ: On Brackets and Belief

March 21, 2014 — In a familiar rite of March, college basketball fans across the country are filling out their brackets for the N.C.A.A. tournament beginning this week. And one of those fans, Dennis Baker, SJ, says he is prepared to make a different sort of wager.

“If you hand somebody a bracket and say, ‘Circle the Jesuit schools in this tournament,’ hardly anyone would be able to do that,” said Baker, a Jesuit in formation or training who is working on a study of college athletics for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, or AJCU. He bets that people will know the names of competing Jesuit schools, but not the inspiration behind them.

The 34-year-old Jesuit would like to see more people talking and learning about Jesuit higher education, and he thinks the athletic notoriety could be one way of leveraging the good news. This year, March Madness includes five Jesuit colleges and universities — Creighton, Gonzaga, St. Louis, St. Joseph's, and Xavier — along with some other Catholic institutions. Altogether, 68 teams were selected on Sunday for the single-elimination tournament.

Part of Baker’s message is that Jesuit schools ranging from Gonzaga in Washington State to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. (which won’t be gracing the brackets this year), aren’t just about basketball, or even getting a degree. “These are places that change people’s lives,” said the Jesuit, a big man with thick, reddish blonde hair and an easy laugh.

Ministering to Shortstops

A former student athlete with years of experience as a coach and team chaplain, Baker is well suited for this role.

“I’ve just always loved sports. I’ve always loved competition — I hate losing at anything,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle, in what amounts to a confession for a Jesuit. He spoke in an interview at a Jesuit residence near Boston College, where he is studying at the graduate School of Theology and Ministry.

Dennis BakerGrowing up near Buffalo, New York, Baker heard from an early age about Jesuits and sports. During the 1930s, his paternal grandfather went to the Jesuits' Fordham University in New York City on a football scholarship. Len Baker played on the team known for the “Seven Blocks of Granite” — the legendary offensive line that included Vince Lombardi. His mother graduated from another Jesuit college, Le Moyne, in Syracuse, New York. His father worked at Niagara University, a Catholic though not Jesuit school.

At Jesuit-run Canisius High School in Buffalo, Baker played varsity basketball and baseball, and for a year he ran cross-country. He says the Jesuits at Canisius broadened his horizons and made him intellectually curious. “The world got pretty big, pretty fast, because of the education I got there,” he recalled.

Baker went on to major in history at Fordham. After graduating from there in 2002, he taught the subject at his alma mater, Canisius, while coaching baseball and basketball. Then, he took a further leap of faith by entering the Society of Jesus, two years after college.

Being a Jesuit in formation (which normally lasts about a decade) hasn’t kept Baker off the field and out of the clubhouse.

While doing his graduate studies in philosophy at Fordham, early in his Jesuit training, he served as chaplain to the university’s baseball team. When not pondering Aristotle or ministering to a shortstop, he was often seen shagging fly balls in the outfield before baseball games or sinking half-court shots at halftime of Fordham basketball games.

Before coming to Boston College in 2012, Baker spent three years teaching history and global studies at Xavier High School in Manhattan (a typical assignment during Jesuit formation). There, he also resumed coaching basketball and baseball.

Connecting God and Game

Currently he is in his second year of studies for the Master of Divinity degree, which will pave the way for priestly ordination, a year from now. He also writes essays about sports for The Jesuit Post, an online publication. And, he is compiling his report for the AJCU.

Baker spent last summer visiting about a third of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities nationwide. He met with coaches, athletic directors and those who concern themselves with the Jesuit identity of these schools (for example, people in offices that go by the name of “Mission and Ministry”). He was looking to see how much interaction there is between these groups, and his general impression was that there needs to be much more of it.

For instance, do the schools run programs for coaches to learn more about the Jesuit educational mission? Are student athletes at all familiar with this mission, which includes nurturing “men and women for others,” as the Jesuit saying goes? These are the kinds of the questions Baker is tackling in his report due in May.

Dennis Baker, SJ, teachingThat aside, he says big-time college sports give Jesuit schools a big opportunity. Through media exposure, the schools could use athletics to tell a larger story about their distinctive brand of values-driven, liberal arts education. And that’s where March Madness bounces back into the picture.

The Jesuit says his “pipedream” would be for Jesuit schools to hold their own basketball tournament or have a set of weekend games each year. That would be a dramatic way of drawing attention (from prospective students, among others) and putting Jesuit higher education in the spotlight, he notes.

Baker is convinced about at least one fundamental point: Athletics is good for the soul, at any university.

He points out that when student athletes are asked about the best part of their collegiate experience, the answer is almost invariably, “My teammates.” As he put it, “It’s not the X’s and O’s. It’s the Jimmys and Joes. You don’t get any more Ignatian than that.” He was alluding to Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who held that relationships with others and with the world are the clearest way to understand one’s relationship with God.

“It’s always the people you remember,” the Jesuit added. “I keep in touch with every good coach I ever had, every good teammate I ever had. And I think that’s true for student athletes across the board.”

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