Baseball: lessons in faith

by Maria L. Evans

"Give me a fresh vision of your love, that I may find again what I fear I have lost."--from the prayer "For one who fears losing hope," Enriching Our Worship 2, p. 75.

"People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."--Rogers Hornsby

Almost every year, I get my heart broken by the longest continuing summer love affair I've ever had in my life--the major league baseball season, particularly as it relates to "my" lifelong team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Honestly, my first childhood understandings of what faith and devotion were about were not learned in church, but learned in the box scores of the sports section of the newspaper.

Oh, I'm not so pathetic as Rogers Hornsby in the off-season--as I was telling someone, I'll placate myself in the off season with college basketball. "I love college basketball, but it's not the daily love affair baseball is for me. Basketball is more episodic. Baseball takes commitment."

I guess you could say college basketball is my annual infidelity, and college football only gets my full attention once the baseball season is over for the Cardinals--something I date when my usual date isn't around . But even in my flirtations and side relationships I am always waiting for that magic day when pitchers and catchers report.

I think very unfaithful things in the off-season. Will I really be able to give myself over again to this to have my heart broken again? What if there's another strike? Do owners know how badly what they do pulls my heart around?

Sometimes I feel shame for being a rather spoiled baseball fan. "My" team has been World Series champs eleven times. What about those poor hapless Cubs fans? (Ok, the Cubs deserve a Series. But I still don't want them to beat my Cards in a wild card playoff to get there.) Lately, I've been trying to balance the sting of the Red Sox breaking the Curse of the Bambino on MY team in 2004 by sweeping the Cards, and now being beaten AGAIN in 2013, by remembering how desperately Boston fans have yearned for a series win, and people living and dying never seeing it happen. Yeah, I get that at one level. But it still hurts at a deep level, and the baseball season constantly forces me to understand that tension in other places in my life.

Sometimes I fret that maybe I'm not as passionate a fan as I claim. Although I check the scores online every day, and get text messages about the games when I'm away from my TV, there are days during the season I watch something else on TV instead, or start off watching the game, get disgusted with what's happening, and start channel surfing. Maybe I don't deserve to claim being a passionate fan because I don't hang in there with every pitch, every out, every inning, all season long.

Yet I also dream. I dream of free agents that will help my team, I dream of pheoms coming up through the farm system.

Well.

Now take what I said and flip that around into churchspeak.

"Maybe I'm not a good Christian because I don't go to church every Sunday."

"I know I should feel compassion for those people over there, but it's hard. There's a part of me that gets it, but there's a part of me that dislikes those people."

"I like worshiping THIS WAY. Don't people know that when they mess with worship, it messes with ME?"

"I haven't been that holy. I've had affairs."

We are given windows and windows and more windows to understand that faith and devotion is not a perfect process. It's a fluid, day-to-day thing, that in small ways, changes all the time, and some days we are more into it than others. The bottom line is "Can we learn to trust in hope?" Trusting in hope means living with things when they don't always go the way we think they ought to. It means accepting our own insecurities, flaws, and yes, the times we've strayed--to return anyway, scars and all. It's about trying to continue to grow compassion when we feel hurt, by remembering that Resurrection doesn't come without death and burial.

It means accepting that we are beloved fans of Jesus Christ, who don't always figure out how to express our devotion, even when we are no more liked for it than someone is for wearing a Cardinals shirt in Wrigley Field. It's learning to accept that people make mistakes, including the people in power, and we might feel at times we're victims of a poor trade. It means committing to remain in love when love ain't easy. It means falling in love with the dreams we share.

Where is a place outside of the church, that taught you lessons in faith?


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Spring training

by Emily A. Mellott

Every year, early in January, certain dates imprint themselves on my consciousness: Ash Wednesday (this year, February 13), and the date that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training (February 10 for the earliest teams, including my Chicago Cubs – your team’s pitchers may report a day or two later.) And then there’s Easter (March 31) and Opening Day (March 31, Rangers at Astros, 8 pm EDT). And so for several weeks, I’ve been aware that this year, Spring Training almost exactly parallels Lent.

For the sake of my personal dreams and wishes, this is a disaster. Every year I promise myself that next year I’m going to Spring Training. And every year, the time comes to book tickets and it turns out that Lent has overwhelmed my calendar – it happens that way for parish priests. But in other ways, this calendar coincidence is perfect.

In Arizona and Florida, in a few places consecrated by hope and sweat and expectation, major league ballplayers start the disciplines of their vocation. The rituals of teamwork take over from individual training or relaxation. Repetition, trial and error mark the path to the perfect pitch, the tight and well-turned double play, the towering home run. And identities are navigated: who’s the starting second baseman this year, and who is the utility infielder; who’s the clubhouse clown, and who steadies the team and pulls everyone together?

It’s the same thing we’re doing in church, after all – in communities all over the country and the world, consecrated by prayer and habit, by inspiring experience and hour after hour of volunteer effort. The rituals of Lent insist on a different focus of attention; one where repentance and renewal takes over from routine and comfort. Trial and error – and then a lot of repetition – mark our liturgical changes and our commitments to fasting and discipline – better known as “giving something up” or “taking something on” for Lent. And we wrestle with our identity – our flaws and our gifts, our hopes and fears – what and who we truly believe ourselves to be.

For me, Spring Training is a fantasy land – a place and a life that I have promised myself, someday – because it’s warm, and relaxed, and open. The sun is supposed to shine on Spring Training, the distinctions between stars and newcomers blur, the players and the fans seem closer together. But most of all, Spring Training is my dream because it is so infused with hope. It’s a blank slate: what happened last year is gone, and everything is possible. It’s a free zone for trial and error – horrible batting averages, team records, or ERAs disappear on Opening Day.

Even though that’s not how I usually think of Lent, it’s what I long for. Wouldn’t it be great if our season of repentance was full of light, refreshment, and openness? Repentance, after all, is the process of profoundly turning back to God. The metaphorical equivalent of midday Arizona sun would help - to see where I’ve gotten to, and how to turn back. That sense of openness to others could turn up God-sightings in unexpected places. Openness is a part of the practice of forgiveness, too – because trial and error happens at least as much in faith as in baseball. And I’m probably not the only one who needs to relax a bit, to stop depending on our schedules and ourselves and our electronic devices, so that we fall further into the hands of God.

Most of all, though, Lent is a time to steep ourselves in hope and possibility and expectation. Professional ballplayers are training for the win: for awards and titles, winning seasons, the World Series. Christians, meanwhile, are training for resurrection: for eternal life breaking in to here and now. We’re training the muscles of the spirit and the heart to reliably produce the kind of hope that sees the presence of God in the world, right in the midst of daily life. We’re training those muscles to produce possibilities for reconciliation, compassion, and healing in the face of prejudice, petty injustice and systemic oppressions. We’re training our bodies and souls for the joy and gratitude and grace so needed as the world turns upside down again and again.

Living resurrection, living in the kingdom of God, is a lot of work. But we don’t do it alone. It takes a team – including the folks who barely get off the bench, the staff who never set foot on the field, and even the fans in the bleachers – to win the World Series or to record a “perfect game.” It takes a team – you and me and Christians we’ve never even met – to make truth out of eternal life and fact of the Kingdom of God.

But I’m convinced that when we get there it’s worth every moment – every year and hour of hope and work and cheering from the bleachers. I like to think it’s sunny and warm – but it might happen on a snowy October night. And if this isn’t the year we win the Series, or the year of your resurrection, then it’s especially good news that Spring Training happens every year – in Arizona, in Florida, and in your local church. And once again, over and over, everything is possible, and hope is the only truth that matters.

So, in that spirit, please forgive me if I slip some Sunday morning, and open the worship service with the immortal words, “Play ball!”


The Rev. Emily A. Mellott, is the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois and a life-long Cubs fan.

Now and forever and the World Series

by Maria Evans

From the opening lines in our Book of Common Prayer's Rite II Holy Eucharist, and in several of the BCP prayers and collects, we affirm that God's kingdom is "now and forever." But the truth be known, I suspect we are usually thinking "forever" more than "now"--well, really, more like "Sometime later that I don't really understand, after I'm dead, and I'll think about that one later."

Most of us know that "living in the now" or "living in the moment" is a highly prized spiritual discipline. For folks in various twelve step programs, "Just for today" is a key facet of their recovery. Many of us have read Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" more than once. I imagine many of us with spiritual leanings like to claim at least novice, and maybe even intermediate, mastery of this discipline. The evidence in our minds is that it allows us some degree of spiritual peace, so it's our tendency to have, or at least fake, passable knowledge in the concept.

Yet the fact remains that it's way easier to think about the Realm of God as being a "later" rather than a "now" proposition. If anything, the world tends to scream its broken-ness at us on TV and in the news, as well as our own personal relationships. How can God's kingdom exist now, when the world is rife with violent crime, abject poverty, personal failure, natural disasters, and constant disappointment?

We find ourselves in a paradox--we can intellectually sign on to the concept of the "now" of holiness, but our heart tells us otherwise too many times It seems to be an acceptance of risk we dare not bear.

I only know one place in my experiential realm where I really, truly understand the "now" of "now and forever"--it is in the final half of the final inning of an important baseball game with two out, and the home team behind. Sporting events with clocks teach us there's a place where the outcome is academic, and our best efforts become for our own self-esteem rather than affect the outcome. The clock-less aspect of baseball, however, reminds us that we truly are building God's kingdom as we speak and it reminds us that it requires living in a tension we'd rather avoid.

I was reminded of this in an almost unfathomable place--the tail end of the sixth game of the 2011 World Series. As a loyal St. Louis Cardinals fan for all of the cognitive aspects of my 51 years, the product of my grandmother's loyalty prior to that, going back to 1926, I can no more fathom "not being a Cardinals fan" any more than I can fathom being any religion than Christian--because I was reared that way. It's who I am. So right from the get-go I have a barrier to the "now," because the past is a tap root to my groundedness. As I watched David Freese at the plate, wearing #23, I could not help but remember that was Ted Simmons' number in another era of my Cardinal-ness.

Additionally, baseball is filled with "tomorrows." Rain delay? We'll play tomorrow. Disappointing series against the Cubs? There will be another. Lousy year? Simply adopt the motto of the old Brooklyn Dodgers--"Wait till next year."

It's easier to live in the glories of the past, or fantasize about the projections of the future, than to simply breathe and be alive during that last out in the last inning. I thought about how stressful it was for me, a mere fan to watch David Freese stand in the batter's box with two down in the 9th and tie it up, and my palpable disappointment in stranding the go-ahead run in that inning. If that wasn't enough, I was not even given the mercy to live it once and be done with it--I had to repeat the same process with Lance Berkman in the 10th, but with a different outcome--Freese's walk-off home run that followed. Every pitch became excruciating. I wanted to turn off the TV and go to bed, to save myself the stress. I wanted to distract myself with junk mail or get a snack and have the possibility of loss not be in my direct vision. But I didn't, because I could not, and remain loyal to myself. Even then, in my faith, I wavered--more than once I thought, "Well, just don't strike out looking. Be swinging if you strike out."

That's also true with our spiritual lives in community. It's just way easier to think about how God interacted with people in Biblical times, or brush aside any of our pains, paradoxes, or puzzlements with a wave of the hand and a curt, "Well, it will be different in Heaven." We don't like to stay too long in the idea of what we are doing right at this moment in the here and now has the ability to help shape and form the Heaven that will be--even in the act of our failures and disappointments. We don't like to do mission and consider the possibility it will fall flat, while we are doing it. We don't like to come to church in difficult or uncomfortable parish times when there's the risk we could actually be snubbed at the Peace. We don't like to throw our heart into a new activity for the Glory of God and find that almost no one came. Those things hurt--brutally so, in fact, and there's just no good way of saying otherwise.

I think that's true from the clergy side, too. I can't imagine the priest or deacon of an angry or dysfunctional parish relishes stepping into the fray every Sunday. The pain of following a call, that ends with the curt vestry meeting and the call to the Bishop to ask to "dissolve the bonds of pastoral affection" can't possibly feel like God's plan is working at that moment.

But when I am sitting in a good place in my spirituality, and look back, I discover that the good parts of who I am at this moment and who our communities are at this moment would not have been the same, had these awful things not occurred. When we open ourselves up to the possibility that these times are merely lessons in formation, rather than things where our control yielded "right" and "wrong" choices, we discover that it wasn't about "us" at all. We just happened to be that batter in the lineup at that time, and what we did simultaneously mattered and didn't matter. It was not an "either/or" proposition, but instead, it was "now and forever" working simultaneously.

I believe we are probably most fully in the now of "now and forever," not when we feel secure and confident about seeing God in everything, but when seeing God in everything is the hardest. The faith to the notion that we are continually loved by God--that our striking out or getting on base does not affect this love, it only affects how we view each other in community--is a fearful proposition. But if we can merely stay in the batter's box, it is when we begin to see our own shape and form within the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Heaven of Forever gets a little closer to the Heaven of Now.



Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The Winning Pitcher

by Jim Papile

I was really captured by the photo above the fold on the sports page of a recent Sunday's New York Times. It was taken in a rural village in Zambia, Africa. The photo was of a group of African children and two young, white Americans, comfortably nestled together. Everyone was grinning. Instantly transported, my memory of similar trips, similar pictures, let me feel the heat of the African sun, smell the cook fires, and hear the laughter of the children. It was as if I was in the picture myself. But it's not just me. It's about all of us, young and old, who aren't professional athletes, who don't have fabulously fit bodies, fame or fortune; but who can't wait to take that next short term mission trip to Haiti, or Kenya, Colombia, New Orleans, or Appalachia.

In early January I was getting on a plane in Washington, DC for a mission trip of my own to Liberia. I met a young woman, with a great, big backpack, traveling alone to do a mission in Tanzania. Her trip, she told me, would include, not just the plane ride, but also a rigorous two day bus ride. I think about the young people who I have shared trips with, challenged physically, or emotionally, yet who worked uncomplainingly in hot, dusty places to bring the good news of God’s love, and themselves, to help others. I keep hearing from these travelers that they get much more from those they go to serve than they give. All effective mission trips are about the transformation of the missioner more than about the project. When we sign up for our first trip it's invariably with the notion that we are going off with the express purpose to help "those needy people." If we're paying attention we soon figure out, as our young pitcher did, that we get in touch with our own humanity in ways we may have never expected. Just from the look on his face I know Kershaw did.

In the article Times writer Karen Crouse wrote:

"The Los Angeles left-hander, Clayton Kershaw, held the African audience in sway from his first practice pitch. A world removed from the grandeur of Dodger Stadium, the barefoot stood in awe as they watched Kershaw's curveball dip and spin."

As much as it delighted the children, Kershaw's pitching had a serious purpose. He was getting in a few precious minutes of training. Any young pitcher with a great future knows that training time is vital. With the season just weeks away Crouse reports that the biggest anxiety he had with the trip was that he would miss a week of training.

Baseball players, like most of us, need to be focused. Whether a pitcher, fielder, or designated hitter; or in our cases, a doctor, teacher, or realtor, focus is the name of the game. If we are to be successful then we need to concentrate, all the time. In our busy lives even taking one day off feels risky. Why else do we take smart phones, ipads and lap tops with us on vacation? We want our emails; on the beach, on a hike in the mountains, or visiting the Louvre in Paris. Wherever you are you will see somebody texting or emailing, guaranteed. I'm sure this is exactly what made Kershaw nervous when he decided to join his wife on the trip to Africa. "Will I still have the same edge when I get back as I have now? Will I lose some speed off my fast ball, the break in my slider?" Or if it's you or me; "will my office mate get the new contract, will I lose that client?" My guess is that what the young pitcher learned on his first mission was that it's the very act of getting out of the routine that allows one to see the world in a profoundly different and important way. Baseball is Kershaw's life right now, and it should be. How many of us have his gift, his talent. But he knows now too, that life can be more than baseball.

It's wonderful when a baseball star like Kershaw “gets it” and makes it to the sports page of the New York Times. But how about the rest of us? Summer is the most popular time to take a mission trip. If you haven't already experienced a short term mission trip this summer is great time to bench your smart phone and step to the plate.

The Rev. James Papile is the Rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Reston VA and often writes about baseball, the church and faith.

Sacred time in centerfield

By Adam Thomas

Long before I realized the sacredness of the altar or the font or the Gospel book with its gilded edges, my contact with the holy happened twenty yards due north of second base. The play-by-play guys and color commentators speak of the “baseball gods,” but I can forgive their polytheism, for they must not have heard the good news that the Almighty God of heaven and earth became the God of baseball around 1912. Of course, half a lifetime ago, I didn’t realize that. All I knew was that centerfield was, somehow, holy.

I lived to play defense—my hitting and striking out and stealing bases and popping out to the first baseman and scoring from second were dry toast. Catching fly balls and cutting off balls hit in the gap were pizza and hamburgers. I relished being a member of the home team because it meant wallowing in the purgatorial dugout was delayed half an inning. I sprinted out to centerfield, my cleats enduring a few mouthfuls of dusty clay before clamping their teeth into the damp, tussock-strewn earth of the outfield.

It had rained that morning—not hard, but the ground had drank in the drizzle for the same several hours that I sat around my house hoping the coach wouldn’t call with bad news. Any ball that bounced would be wet, making it harder to throw accurately. I would be slower by the third inning, after my cleats and socks each added a pound or two of mud and water. The rain had stopped, but the clouds still muffled the late-spring twilight. The sky was the color of a scuffed baseball, which, of course, made the actual scuffed baseballs that would soon be arcing toward me quite difficult to see.

I sprinted all the way to the chain-link fence that bounded the field. Faded, plywood advertisements for local car dealers and Baptist churches adorned the fence, which was polka-dotted with pockets of rust. The top of the fence was just out of my leaping reach, since I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. With my gloved right hand, I tapped the chain-links with all the reverence of crossing myself with holy water. Then I squelched back to continue my ritual north-northwest of the pitcher’s mound.

As a centerfielder, I never stood perfectly in the center of the field, else the pitcher would obscure my view of the batter. Instead, I let my internal dowsing rod lead me to the patch of ground four or five steps to the shortstop side of second base, the better to get the jump on balls batted by right-handed hitters. This spot was the spring at the center of my fiefdom, a territory it was my duty to protect from incoming mortar fire. I dug my cleats into the spot, creating a shallow foxhole. This was my land, and it was holy, and I soaked up its sacredness through my cleated feet.

As the leadoff batter walked toward home plate, the field’s lights hiccupped and hummed to life. But there was already electricity in the air, and the aftertaste of bubble gum mixed with the mint chocolate flavor of exhilaration in my mouth. The banks of lights cast four shadows, and they swirled around me like Busby Berkeley’s dancers. The familiar, but always surprising, feeling of anticipation hiccupped and hummed to life in my bowels.

The batter kicked his heals into the clay. The pitcher gripped the ball in his glove. I punched my glove and paced my foxhole. As the pitcher went into his windup, the organs south of my lungs declared war and started marching north. Strike One. My stomach occupied the region around my larynx. Ball One. My heart beat a double time cadence. Crack. I took a step back and moved to my right. The ball hurtled into the air, past the artificial horizon where the sloping roof of the concession stand met the sky. I took four more steps to my right and waited, while in my mind the thousands of ways I could fail tried to smother the single way I could succeed. For half a second, I wondered if Ashlee were in the bleachers. I waited as the ball reached its peak and fell back to earth, towards my land. Finally, after three and a half seconds of forever, the ball sailed into my glove and made the satisfying SWAPTH sound that I lived for. My sacred ground remained undefiled, and I could breathe again.

I tossed the ball to the shortstop, marched back to my foxhole, and the warring organs broke their ceasefires. Would that be my only catch of game? Or would I have a busy night patrolling my fiefdom? There was no way to know. So I stared down the batter on each pitch, flinched reflexively on each swing, and waited in anticipation, my feet poised on holy ground, connected to something that brought out the best in me and that called to me from the scuffed baseball sky and the fence and my foxhole. That something – I wouldn’t have known to call it God then – that something called to me, speaking the grace needed to taste the mint chocolate flavor of exhilaration, speaking the devotion that enabled me to move with purpose each time ball and bat connected, speaking the love that kept me returning again and again to the ballpark in rain or shine, speaking my very life into being.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Hope, spring, baseball...Lent

By Sam Candler

It’s time for baseball again.

This is the time of year I make my formal apology to non-sports fans everywhere, as I take the time to rejoice in the ritual of baseball’s spring training. I suppose I must also apologize to the fans of other sports, those sports which are ever so noble but regrettably inferior to baseball.

As our winter takes another chilly turn, baseball players gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training. Seasoned veterans and raw rookies all have hope in their veins. They will make the team this year, after years of “almost.” All the batters believe that batting .300 is achievable. All the pitchers believe 15 wins or 20 saves is achievable. Everyone’s home team has a chance to win the pennant. All baseball fans, from the wisest newspaper writers to the most naïve local fans, take a renewed interest in the home team. Baseball in the spring is the very definition of “hope springs eternal.”

Hope and endurance are the foundations of success in baseball. Baseball is the sport for those who can endure, and hope is source of that endurance. Baseball is the sport of endurance. First off, of course, is the sheer length of its incessant schedule. Even the worst professional team will play 162 games this year. The difference between a first place team and a second place may turn out to be one game among those 162.

Baseball is the sport of humble aspirations. By “humble,” I mean down-to-earth. There will be no such thing as a team that wins every game, or even a batter who gets a hit in every game. In fact, the expectations are much more “down-to-earth,” “humble.” A successful batter needs to get a hit only 30% of the time. A player’s inner hope and emotional endurance will inspire him to return to the batters’ box after he has made seven outs in a row. After all, three successive hits in a row would then give him that ongoing .300 batting average.

Baseball will test the endurance of fans, too. It takes a lot of time to appreciate and enjoy the art of baseball. Fewer and fewer of us tend to devote much time to anything these days. We prefer the quick e-mail message, the short phone call, the casual glance at the newspaper or the television news. The game of baseball introduces long periods of no action into the game. A play itself lasts only twenty seconds; and then we all wait two or three minutes for the next play. By then, many of us have changed the channel.

But the art of baseball lies in appreciating those moments between the actual plays. For the game of baseball is the thinking and strategizing over how that play will develop. How do the fielders position themselves? What pitch does the pitcher throw? What will the batter anticipate? Who is scheduled to bat next inning? Who is warming up in the bullpen? The play itself is quick; the art—the discipline—takes a lifetime.

I could go on, just like baseball goes on and on. But if you’ve read this far, you deserve the closing Christian analogy. The analogy is that we all need Spring Training. We all need to get our muscles and training routines back into shape. We all need a review of techniques and strategies. We all need to work on what we are supposed to meditate on “between plays,” or between crises. We all need to renew our hope and our endurance.

In the church, we have another name for this Spring Training. We call it Lent. It’s time to get our aching prayer routines back into shape. It’s time to renew our hope. It’s time to focus on what God really wants us to do in this life. We call it Lent. It is the intentional training of our spiritual lives, so that we can succeed in the long season of resurrection life.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The Church of Baseball

By Heidi Shott

On Friday afternoon my family and I make the three-hour trip to Fenway Park. As always, we stop at the Kennebunkport rest stop so my husband Scott, who would sooner jump into a leech-infested lake than get behind the wheel in Boston, can hand over the keys. Before long we find our worn, wooden seats along the third baseline and settle in for the evening.

As we munch our Fenway franks, sip our Sam Adams and juggle our stuff every few minutes to allow someone in or out, we let the pleasure of being at Fenway again sink into our bones.

“Welcome to America’s best-loved ballpark!”

What I find telling is that the announcer, in greeting the crowd, doesn’t say, “Welcome to the home of America’s best-loved ball team.” Fenway Park, and the game that’s been played there for 95 seasons, is what New England fans love. Except for the nasty year of the strike, fans have trusted that a bunch of guys wearing Red Sox jerseys will take to the field at 7:05 p.m. and play baseball.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not always the same bunch of guys. Sure, we have our saints…down in the box in front of us I spy an old duffer wearing a Carlton Fisk jersey…and last year I saw a sad-looking woolen Yastrzemski jersey on a fellow whose face looked like he’d never quite gotten over Bucky Dent’s homer or the horror of watching the ball go between Bill Buckner’s legs. I’m not quite over them myself.

When I left the staff of the Diocese of Maine last year to downshift to a consulting role, our Canon to the Ordinary – to make me feel rotten – started addressing me as Pedro and signing her emails as Manny, a nod to Pedro Martinez’s departure to the Mets and the loss felt by his friend and countryman Manny Ramirez still in Boston. Players come and players go, but we fans love the game and we love the Red Sox beyond the individuals, even when they’re stars like Pedro or Nomar. It’s the game, it’s the team, it’s the park…and somehow the magic works even if you’ve never seen a game at Fenway.

With the Red Sox seven games ahead of both the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, whom we’re playing, I luxuriate in being able to enjoy the game without feeling like every pitch matters. Our American League East lead slows everything down. There is no rush; there is no pressure. The pleasure of being in the park on a lovely Spring evening with my husband and sons and with no drunken fans in close proximity is a gift. We lose, 6-3, our boys can’t hit the ball worth beans and the terrific fielding of the Orioles’ shortstop nixes a few promising opportunities. But so what? We’re in it for the long haul, both the 2007 season and for the rest of our lives.

One gorgeous spring morning nine years ago I sat on a hard pew in the nave of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, Maine. A priest from Chicago named Chilton Knudsen was about to be consecrated Bishop. As one of our retired bishops passed the row in the processional, my neighbor, whom I’d met a few minutes before, whispered, “That’s my bishop.”

“What? Are you nuts?” I wanted to hiss back. “You can muster loyalty to only one bishop over the course of your whole life? Give her a chance! She doesn’t even have the mitre on her head yet and you already prefer a bishop who retired 13 years ago?”

That comment still worries me because the future of Christendom, specifically our Anglican brand, cannot depend on superstars or even supervillains. It should not depend on individuals at any level. The Body of Christ depends on people coming in and sitting on the same worn, wooden seats every Sunday – seats, like those at Fenway, that have borne witness to moments of profound joy and deep sadness; good singing and bad singing; restless children and restless souls.

As years pass, the priests, the altar guild ladies, the choir members, the acolytes and even the bishops enter and depart. The Church depends on our enduring and often exhausting faithfulness to Christ’s charge to love God with all of our hearts, minds, bodies and souls and to love those we encounter with the great passion and intensity we usually reserve for our lovers and our children and ourselves.

The demands of really living this kind of life…of really doing the work of the Gospel day in and day out… rarely allow us to luxuriate in the mystery of the liturgy or the beauty of the prayerbook language. How important it is to remember what a rare and magnificent thing it is to be a part of a vast and loving community that existed long before us and will extend far beyond us. If only we could keep such a vision before us.

At Fenway Park, that kind of crazy thinking is what makes the people over in the left field bleachers start a wave.

What could it do in the Episcopal Church? It’s impossible to say.

Heidi Shott is communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

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42

Sixty years ago tomorrow, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.

You can visit Jackie's Hall of Fame page, read some of The New York Times' coverage of Robinson's career or peruse the package that MLB.com has put together for your edification.

The Philadelphia Daily News has a nice piece on Robinson's relationship with Brooklyn Dodgers' president Branch Rickey. But the best treatment I've read of Robinson's story is Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel. Among its many strengths is Tygiel's understanding that the integration of baseball was the culmination of a lengthy campaign that involved not just Robinson, Rickey and some now-legendary black sportswriters, but black players and fans in minor league cities throughout the country. He's particularly good at illustrating the ways in which the struggle to integrate Major League Baseball served as a tactical trial run for the civil rights movement.

Opening Day

Updated: Nats lose 9-2, two starters injured. I think I've come up with this season's marketing campaign: Root for the Nats, because Lent just isn't long enough.

The Nats take on the Marlins this afternoon at RFK Stadium. John Patterson v. Dontrelle Willis. I will be on hand to make sure no spiritually or ecclesiastically significant developments go unnoticed.

Countdown

As visitors to this site are no doubt aware, something entirely momentous will transpire next week.

Say the magic words:

Pitchers and catchers report.

Have a look at the countdown clock: 3 days, 18 hours and 27 minutes as I post. There's more news here. And all right-thinking people will want to catch up with the Sawx and the Nats.

Hat tip to AndrewPlus, another Sox fan, for the idea

Three cheers for Cal and Tony

Hall of Fame balloting results are in.

Subway Series

As some visitors know, I trod that well-worn career path from covering Major League Baseball to working for the Episcopal Church. With a few stops in between. One of those stops was at Beliefnet, where I wrote the column below on the theological significance of the 2000 World Series--the Subway Series, in which the New York Yankees played the New York Mets. As those two teams may meet once again this October, I thought I'd trot this piece out for another spin around the track. It begins:

All right-thinking individuals will acknowledge that the meeting of the Yankees and the Mets in the 2000 World Series was ordained by God before the dawn of time. Indeed, the game of baseball, the New York City transit system, and Bob Costas--though they have served well in other, unrelated capacities--were called into being solely to play their parts in the grand allegory that unfolded in the last ten days.

Click to keep reading.

Read more »

Summer camp

My 15-year-old son is a counselor at a wonderful baseball camp featured this morning on NPR.

One of the things I like most about this camp is that its director, John McCarthy, has proven that sports can be a vehicle for mission. Have a look at Beisbol y libros.

Blog forecast

Expect only light percipitation over the holiday weekend.

Please say a prayer ...

... for Peter Gammons. He is a real gentleman, and a tender heart in a tough business.

Doc Gooden, 20 years later

Twenty years ago I covered the New York Mets for the Daily News in New York. They won the World Series that year, and 21-year-old Dwight "Doc" Gooden was the toast of the town, as he had been the previous season when he became the youngest person ever to win the Cy Young Award, going 24-4 with an earned run average of 1.53, 268 strike outs, 16 complete games and eight shutouts.

Gooden is in jail in Florida now, and as this heartbreaking if overwrought story in The New York Post makes clear, he is haunted by regret.

"I kept looking back to the day I got drafted out of high school [in 1982] and remembering all the joy," Gooden said. "Now I'm in this little box where two people couldn't fit in there. You keep asking yourself, 'What went wrong? What went wrong?' "

For me, his story, even more than that of his friend and former teammates Darryl Strawberry, is the ultimate cautionary tale of what can happen when life seemingly blesses you with too much, too soon. Those of us who covered him thought of Gooden as baseball's Mozart, because he was so gifted, and had seemingly harnessed his gifts at such an early age. (He went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 276 strikeouts at the age of 19.)

But he was a shy kid who once told me that the first time the Mets flew him to New York (just after the 1982 draft, I think) he was so frightened by the big city that he stayed in his room at a hotel near LaGuarida Airport and peered out the fish eye in his door for a good long time even before admitting the waiters who were bringing him his room service meals. No matter how fast he threw the ball, or how sharply his curve broke, or how much poise he showed on the mound, he wasn't ready to be the most famous athlete in the largest media market in the country. And like many people who find themselves traveling extensively at a young age, he wasn't ready for life on the road.

Gooden was on the cover of Time during the week that the season opened in April of 1986. But there were already signs that something was going wrong. He missed a spring training game because of a fender bender. Later, he and his girlfriend got into a spat with a clerk while returning a rental car. And though he was the starting pitcher in the All-Star game that season, he didn’t look like the same pitcher. The numbers were still very good—17-6, 2.84 ERA, 12 complete games—but sports editors around town began urging their reporters to find out what we could about Gooden’s personal life. I can remember sitting in various bars, known as players’ hangouts, wondering if he would come in, but he seldom did. If you hung around the Mets that season, you had a sense that maybe Strawberry’s ability to suck down gin and tonics deep enough to drown in might land him in trouble. But Gooden, despite the off-the-field dust-ups, always seemed as though he were more under control, and that he learned a lesson from that pair of highly publicized run-ins. (I can remember, after the rent-a-car thing, him saying that he felt like he needed to move all of his furniture into the clubhouse and just live there.)

As it turns out, Gooden didn’t begin using cocaine until after the ’86 season. Had that not happened, I think the conversation about his decline as a pitcher would have focused on whether he had pitched too many innings at too young an age—834 before his 22d birthday. Perhaps something could have been done about that.

As it was, he tested positive for cocaine before the 1987 season and entered rehab. I had moved to Washington by then, so I don’t know what he was like when he came back to the game. Despite everything he and early fame did to him, he still had a remarkable career, but a miserable life, and this most recent chapter just breaks your heart if you knew him when he was barely out of high school and had New York City at this feet.

Click if you'd like to read a piece I wrote for The Washington Post when he went into rehab.

Read more »

The Nats are back

Those of you who have followed the Apostle Paul and set your mind on higher things may already be aware that the Washington Nationals returned to RFK Stadium tonight. Sure it was only an exhibition game, and sure they lost 9-6 to a team wearing uniforms that made them look like cheese puffs with racing stripes (the Baltimore Orioles) but baseball is back. And, regardless of the litiurgical season, that deserves an Alleluia.

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