Praying Through Baseball
A recent article in the Christian Century tugged at my heartstrings because it brought up the strong connection many of us pastoral ministry types have with baseball. The author, John Buchanan, talks about the connection between having faith in both religion and the baseball team one follows:
The Pirates remain in my heart, of course, and I am in a near existential crisis when they play the Cubs. However the game turns out, I will both win and lose, rejoice and lament. The Pirates have won three World Series championships during my lifetime, most memorably in 1960 when Pittsburgh upset the heavily favored New York Yankees. The Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to break a 9-9 tie and win the series. It was a moment I have never forgotten. The Cubs, on the other hand, have not won the World Series since 1908 and have created decades of frustration and despair for their followers, with high hopes inevitably crushed, only to be renewed again in the spring.
I sometimes wonder why I care about this game so much. In his new book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton (Blogger’s note: Sexton is NYU’s President and a three time Fordham graduate) reinforces my lifelong interest, commitment and enthusiasm. Sexton says that baseball, the only game without a clock, requires concentrated attention and teaches us to “live slow and notice.” He observes that fathers want to give their children something to love, something bigger than themselves to be part of. It is often a religion, and it is often baseball and a team. My parents, thanks be to God, gave me both.
These reflections mirror much of my own feelings about the grand, old game. Most people don’t realize that Baseball is as more about what is not happening than it is about what IS happening. (Will the runner steal? What will the pitcher throw him? Why is the shortstop so deep in the hole for this hitter? Should we bring in a reliever?) The minutia in the game is chock full of statistics and stories that have filled dozens of books and oral traditions. It’s amazing how many stories I have that surround baseball. I can remember moments during high school games, where I almost always rode the bench, but came away with amazing stories and life lessons that have stuck with me to this day. One in particular stands out:
Last inning and our pitcher Mike Rodak heads to the mound and has been masterful. If memory serves he’s throwing a two hitter and we’re up 2-0. Rodak walks the first batter bringing the tying run to the plate. He rears back and throws his best curve of the day to stun the hitter cold and there’s one out. The next batter hits a one hopper that our shortstop knocks down but can only get a force play at second on, but there’s two outs now.
We can smell victory.
Rodak looks spent. He’s all over the place and walks the next guy on four pitches. Now the tying run is on base.
“Mike,” Coach Prior bellows to me, the scorekeeper, “what did this guy do last time?”
“Lined out to straight away center.”
“OK I’m gonna go get Rodak before this guy hits another shot like that!”
“Coach, c’mon. There’s two outs. He also struck this guy out earlier. He’s come this far. Let’s see if he can finish it.”
I knew Mike would rather die than be taken out of this game and he pitched a beauty and thought he could get this guy out.
“Kid,” Coach Prior barked, “You have to win with your best. And right now, Vasquez gives us the best chance at an out.” And Coach trotted out and took the ball from Rodak and handed the ball to Tommy Vasquez, our ace pitcher.
Tommy was amazing. He indeed was our best pitcher on the squad. He even bounced around the minors a bit after he graduated. He was also a great guy, always taking time for guys like me who just didn’t have the talent, but who he saw loved the game and really wanted to just get a chance to contribute. He’d lobby to get me in the game as a pinch hitter and I’d always be grateful. He even let me pinch hit for him once.
So Tommy comes in and we’re feeling confident. “You got this, Tommy!” I yell. After his warm ups, Tommy looks in for the sign. He winds. He throws. Fastball, belt high…
And the batter hits one that I don’t think has landed yet.
There was no wall at this field so the ball just flew and by the time the ball had gotten back the batter has crossed home plate with a walk-off three run homer.
Rodak had been sitting next to me on the bench. He looked forlorn and said to me, “All that shit for nothing.”
It reminds me a bit of what the disciples must have felt like in the upper room. They had done everything right. Jesus, in fact, WAS the messiah and they followed Him, spending days and nights working with him and giving him every ounce of their dedication. Surely He was the one who would set them free from bondage.
And then they killed Him, hanging Him like a common criminal. It was all over in a short 24 hours.
Baseball reminds us, as does Good Friday, that even when we do everything right, sometimes things don’t go as we planned. This is not God playing torture games with us, rather it’s an opportunity for us to find God within the suffering experience.
That afternoon we boarded the bus and Tommy was dejected. Rodak just as angry, not at Tommy, just at the whole mess. We had a small rubber “Sigmund and the sea monsters” plastic hand puppet that was kind of a team mascot for the day. And so Luis Alvarez, our second baseman decided that someone had to break the silence.
“WOW!” he yelled, thrusting Sigmund’s mouth agape, “Tommy got taken REEEEEEEAL DEEP.” And on the word real, Sigmund’s mouth opened immensely.
We all looked at Tommy, who just smiled and then laughed a bit. It was over. There was nothing more to do or say. It was simply time to move on and get them next time. And the next time out Tommy stood a bit stronger for the journey. In fact, I don’t think Tommy or Mike lost again that year.
The themes of forgiveness, resurrection, mindfulness and even silence are intertwined within both baseball and our faith. Like Rev. Buchanan, I am proud that my parents gave me a rich opportunity to be familiar with my faith and to love it. And they also gave me a love for baseball. Together they both have remained with me and have taught me much about resiliency and sacrifice.
May they never leave me. Play ball.