The Swinging Friar

by Rebecca Curtin

It’s fall, and baseball season is coming to a close. It’s bittersweet saying goodbye to the “Boys of Summer,” and it’s tempting to be caught up in the excitement of a new football season, to anticipate falling leaves, pumpkins, and holidays.

But, for now, I’m still thinking about baseball. Baseball and this fellow.

The Friar. The Swinging Friar, mascot of the San Diego Padres, my home team. The Padres have had a solid season and are – as this goes to press – neck and neck in the race for their division title.

The Swinging Friar is one of the only religious figures who is also a mascot of a major American professional sports team (the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New Orleans Saints being others). He is definitely the only mascot with a tonsure. Sometimes, during breaks between innings at Petco Park, he runs the bases. Really. It’s a sight to see, a pretty silly sight at that, and one that always makes me laugh.

The inspiration for the Swinging Friar is Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who was instrumental in the founding of 21 missions in Alta California, still a colony of Spain in the eighteenth century. Young Californians learn about these missions in school and visit them on field trips. Father Serra’s first, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was established in 1769, seven years before the Declaration of Independence was written.

The San Diego Padre is a loaded figure, as many religious symbols are, especially in the southwestern United States where the Spanish missions were established to “civilize,” “cultivate,” and “convert” the native populations. Behind that goofy smile and gelatin physique is a subtext of colonization and oppression. He is a remembrance of a cultural institution long dead and of two governments overthrown in succession, first Spain by Mexico then Mexico by the United States. Many of the California missions have been restored, but others exist in various states of disrepair, the most famous ruins probably those of San Juan Capistrano, where a dilapidated and beautiful church still rises half-formed over the mission walls.

The Swinging Friar sometimes feels less like a reference to the original padres and more like a figure from a medieval carnival, which parodied the Church by turning powerful figures into caricatures of themselves, to be both taunted and cheered on by a reveling crowd. The carnivals were venues where it was okay to lampoon the powerful. The Friar’s generous belly speaks of opulence, his blithe nature to a carefree outlook, hardly qualities, I think, of the padres who lived and worked with the native Americans in mission communities, more Friar Tuck, less Father Serra. Every home game a little Mardi Gras.

It has always bothered me to hear someone say that they prefer the East Coast of the United States because of its history. I do love the old cemeteries, the historical sites, and that musty smell of the oldest houses of New England, my adopted home. But, the history of what is now the Southwestern United States is uniquely intertwined with the history of Catholicism in the New World. It’s our history, the history of the Catholic Church in America, and it’s messy, complicated, and sad. It’s a history at once brutal and beautiful.

Sometimes the only way to deal with instances of such stark paradox is to make fun of them, to laugh, as I always do when that jolly friar awkwardly slides into home.

Rebecca Curtin was, as a small child, often mistaken for a boy, both because of her non-existent head of hair and because of the San Diego Padres cap she refused to take off. She would like to point out that the San Diego Chicken, though awesome, is not the “official” mascot of the Padres.

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