I have had a number of patients in my ICUs who have been avid baseball fans. Likewise there are a number of physicians and nurses who are avid fans of the game, or sometimes certain teams. Like me they were members of the Church of Baseball. Some even attend my parish, Harbor Park. It is funny how in the intersection of life and death that baseball finds a place more than any other sport. Baseball has a quality and nuance that is different from most other sports, save perhaps golf. Baseball is not bound by the constraints of time. It has an eternal quality that somehow transcends life and death and one can see that in the stories that we tell in film in novels, histories and our own narratives.
There is a scene in The Babe Ruth Story where a critically ill child asks the Babe to hit a home run for him. The Babe then went out and hit two. Later in the movie when the Babe is dying of cancer he is given a Miraculous Medal. The film was rushed to completion before Ruth died and the scene at Yankee Stadium was filmed shortly before a game and Ruth came from his death bed to be there.
In Field of Dreams the spirits of the 1919 White Sox who were forced out of baseball in the Blacksox scandal. The Pride of the Yankees deals with the life of Lou Gehrig, baseballs original Iron Man and his battle with ALS. His speech at Yankee Stadium when he retired from the game is classic. It is a reflection on life well lived and thanksgiving for what he experienced.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” – July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day
These are intersections of life and death. In the ICUs I have a surprising amount of dealings with baseball. In one ICU I had a lady that was very sick with chronic and apparently terminal heart disease. She was a delightful woman with a wonderful husband. I had met them and while she had struggled she looked like she was on the uptick. She was delightful to spend time with and in those pastoral conversations when I had the overnight duty we found that we shared a common passion, baseball.
We agreed that the Biblical writer’s description of heaven was inaccurate being that they were unaware of the Deity’s love of baseball. We agreed that heaven had to have not streets of gold, but the most amazing turf and most immaculate infield which one could imagine and foul lines that went into infinity. She and her husband were watching the Nationals and Astros play deep into the night but the following day she took a bad turn for the worse.
I saw her that day we visited again and she was struggling. I prayed and anointed her at her request. And I asked her if she would like a baseball. Her eyes lit up and she nodded “yes.” So I promised that I would get one from the stadium last night. The game at Harbor Park was rained out that night so I went home and got a ball that I had received after throwing out the first pitch at a Kinston Indians game. I inscribed it to her and took it to her room the next day. She was pretty heavily sedated and her sister was with her. I spent some time with her sister to let her know that I had the baseball for her. We then went to the bedside where I let the lady know that I had her baseball. She opened her eyes and I put the ball in her hand. Her hand gripped it tight and I blessed her.
The lady did get better and about 8 months later following my “Christmas miracle” I was walking past the Medical Center Pharmacy and I heard a familiar voice. It was the lady’s husband and she sat beside him looking very well. It turned out that they had been able to correct the worst part of her condition through a catheterization after she had gotten out of the ICU. New medications were also helping but she was most thankful of my little visits to her and the gift of the baseball.
Her husband talked of how the ball seldom left her hand during her ICU stay. As we visited they both told me how much what I did in the ICU meant to them, the prayer, anointing of the sick and the baseball. She told me that the ball, an official Carolina League ball was now on her mantle. We chatted some more and talked about all the prayer that had been made on her behalf as well as the hard work of the ICU and Cardiology teams to keep her alive and help her recover. I mentioned that it was likely that the whole companies of baseball “saints” in heaven were praying for her as well and we all had a great laugh. I had to leave and go to a call but we exchanged hugs and blessings.
Sometimes the miracle is not in the prayer but in the things that touch us and mean much to us. For this lady, her husband and I that was baseball.