Kevin Costner as Billy Chapel
One of my favorite movies is the baseball story For the Love of the Game which starred Kevin Costner. This is the film rendition of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Perfect Game. Both the book and the movie tell the story of “Billy Chapel” a pitcher who played 19 seasons with the same team, in the movie the Detroit Tigers. The story focuses on the last game of the season in which Chapel is to start. The game for his team is meaningless; they will not be going to the playoffs as they are a bad team. Compounding the team’s situation is the uncertainty of the team’s future as the long time owner who signed Chapel out of high school is about to sell the team. The new ownership group wants to make changes, among the changes a trade involving Billy Chapel to the Giants. The trade would force him to play the next season in another uniform and another city when he wants to finish his career in the same city where it started. Before the game the owner comes to Chapel to talk about possibilities and then begins to criticize the game, saying that it stinks. Chapel responds: “The game doesn’t stink, Mr. Wheeler. It’s a great game.”
The book and the movie present a tapestry of the Billy Chapel’s life in between pitches. Unlike most baseball films this focus’s not on a season, but a game, a single game. Woven in this rich tapestry of this game are the lives of several people besides the lead character played by Kevin Costner. The manager of the team has a wife with cancer. His love, Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston is leaving him, going to London for a new job and stands him up the previous night. She tells him “You’re perfect. You, and the ball, and the diamond, you’re this perfectly beautiful thing. You can win or lose the game, all by yourself. You don’t need me.” It is the classic cry of a woman whose true love is absolutely passionate about what he does well.
Billy Chapel (Costner) and Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston)
A friend and former team mate now plays for the Yankees who Chapel’s Tigers will play in the last game of the season. Billy’s catcher Gus is not much of a hitter and the manager wants to play a better hitting catcher but Chapel will have nothing of it as Gus is “his catcher.” As the game goes on Chapel’s arm begins to hurt from an old off season injury, he’s tired and feeling the pressure. Throughout the game Gus helps Billy keep it together and as they go out for the last inning he goes out to the mound and says to Billy: “The boys are all here for ya, we’ll back you up, we’ll be there, cause, Billy, we don’t stink right now. We’re the best team in baseball, right now, right this minute, because of you. You’re the reason. We’re not gonna screw that up, we’re gonna be awesome for you right now. Just throw.” It’s the kind of word that anyone can need when they are exhausted but about to accomplish something great, the team is there for them.
The Wind Up
Billy chapel is old. He has had a mediocre season for anyone else but for him a bad season. His all star days are past. His dad who taught him the game and witnessed his greatest moments is dead as is his mother. He is, with the exception of Gus alone. It is a story that could end like so many stories in sadness or despair. Instead it is the story of triumph. It is the story of how in spite of a whirl of emotions and a lot of pain from past injuries he triumphs. He does so against an opponent that is going to the playoffs, the always dangerous Yankees in the venerable Yankee Stadium. Chapel pitches a perfect game against the odds. Supporting players who had failed during the season make stellar plays. The team which had nothing to look forward to celebrates one of the rarest of human events, a Major League perfect game. Not just a “no-hitter” which I have been specially graced by the Deity Herself to see in person, but a perfect game of which only 18 have been thrown. Perfect games are unforgettable and this story gets it right. The game itself is a story of redemption, in life, love and the pursuit of excellence. During the game the grandson of the owner is sent to get Chapel’s answer about taking the trade. Chapel writes his response on a baseball: Tell them I’m through, “for love of the game”, Billy Chapel. Chapel the game is more than a paycheck, it is about life and relationships.
After the post game celebration he pours Gus out in his room and He then goes to find Jane, who due to a flight delay is stuck waiting at JFK in a bar watching the game. She realizes what she is walking out on. When Chapel finds out about her leaving the next morning he goes to the airport. He says something that I think really sticks out to guys who have invested much in their careers but left love behind or had it go stale:
“I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there. So I just wanted to tell you, not to change your mind or keep you from going, but just so you know, that I know, that I do need you.”
Padre Steve Doing What He Loves
The story of Billy Chapel is one of finishing well. So many people start their lives full of promise and somewhere along the way give up. They exist, go through the motions and stop believing in themselves and those who love them. For whatever reason some people, maybe a lot of people stop living long before they die. The wake up, go through the motions and stop striving for excellence and forget about love, life and friendship. They forget what loyalty means and take for granted the love of people who care about them. They have lost their love and passion and simply go through the motions of existence. It happens in all phases of life. In the military we have a slang term called the “ROAD program.” It means “Retired On Active Duty. These are the guys who have stopped trying; they know that short of committing a criminal act that they can retire. They go through the motions. There are these kinds of folks everywhere, not just the military and unfortunately a decent number in minstry. Somewhere, somehow they have given up. I don’t want to do that. I want my last game to be my best.
Billy Chapel is the epitome of a man who gives his all in what he knows will be his final game, a game that for everyone else but him is meaningless. However in the microcosm of that game everyone finds meaning. As he pitches and the tension builds, those who had just been along for the ride get caught up in the magic. His manager, his journeyman catcher “Gus,” his team mates, and even the opposing players and the hostile Yankee fans discover what it is to live again. People who had given up find inspiration and hope. Billy Chapel creates magic on the mound which in that moment of time makes life right. Sure it is just a novel, it is just a film, but it is life just as baseball is life, a game played like most of us live, some great performances, slumps, winning and losing streaks, errors, bad calls, trades, being fired and even rain or on rare occasion Colorado fans, snow delays. In baseball great players are still not perfect the majority of the time, baseball unlike any other sport is humanity at its best and worst.
Me with My Love
I find the story of Billy Chapel in The Perfect Game to be compelling. I love baseball and for me the story of someone at the tail end of their career achieving the next to impossible is inspiring. I find inspiration in other old ball players who keep doing well. It is the old guys of baseball who inspire me now, guys like Jamie Moyer of the Phillies and Mike Mussina who retired from the Yankees last year at the top of his game. I could well be finishing my career in the next few years. I want my time in the Navy to matter in my last few years. If I get promoted and remain a few more, that is okay, but even then I want to finish well. When I’m done with that I hope that the Deity Herself will give me the grace to continue to strive for excellence in serving people as a priest. I never want to be on the ROAD program even if I live to be 90. I want my last years, be they a military career, or the rest of my life and ministry to be my best and that means my life.
Peace, Padre Steve+