I’ve always related to the characters in Kevin Costner’s baseball films, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. The main characters in each of the films touch me each in different way. Crash Davis and Billy Chapel are players at the end of their careers. Davis is a career Minor Leagues journeyman who “played 21 days in the show.” and Chapel is other a future Hall of Famer at the close of a final season filled with disappointment.
The character of Crash Davis strikes a particular chord in me. Crash Davisis a journeyman minor league catcher with the dubious distinction of having the most minor league home runs, 227 to be exact. The real life Minor League Home Run King is Mike Hessman who played for 15 years in the Minors with a few trips to the Majors and the U. S. Olympic Baseball Team; he had 329 home runs and is now playing in Japan) I have seen Hessman belt numerous home runs and the man is a beast, but I digress…
Davis also played “21 days in the show.” In the film Davis is a consummate professional. He loves and respects the game and actually cares about the development of the young guys, even if they try his patience. His dealings with Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLooche played by Tim Robbins are case in point. Crash is demoted by the big team from his AAA contract to the single “A” Durham Bulls, back when Durham was in the Carolina League in order to help the team develop the young bonus baby. Crash is not happy with the job, he’s proud, and threatens to leave the team, only to ask his new manager what time batting practice is.
He takes the new assignment on with a mixture of skill and humor in a manner that benefits not only the young pitcher but motivates the rest of the team. It does not matter that he is in the minor leagues as he still plays his heart out and spends his time teaching the next generation. He even gets thrown out of games if it helps motivate his team. Likewise he is not hesitant to let his young charge learn the hard way when young “Nuke” decides to ignore his advice. The thing that Crash has the hardest time in dealing with his young charge is that he feels that “Nuke” doesn’t respect the game. Respect matters to a professional.
The comparison fits for me in more than one way. In a sense my life has been like a journeyman ball player. I started my military career in the Army almost 30 years ago. I come from a different generation of military than the vast majority of the Sailors and Marines that I serve with today. I am “old school” in some ways but have learned to adapt, just as the men who were the old soldiers when I was a young enlisted man and officer. My career has been quite diverse and I have not always done the same job on the same team or at the same level. I think this is the mark of a true journeyman, to keep playing because you love the game. Mike Hessman is doing that in Japan.
To continue the baseball journeyman analogy I played one position for a number of years and then so to speak left the big team to train for a new position while playing in the minors. I left my active career as a Medical Service Corps Captain and transferred to the National Guard to attend seminary. When I graduated from seminary I became a National Guard and Reserve Chaplain. I did not go on active duty. Back then the reserves were kind of like the minor leagues. Being a Reserve component Chaplain while doing my hospital residency and first hospital chaplain jobs it was like working my way up through the minors. When I was promoted to the rank of Major in the Army Reserve it was like moving up to AAA ball. When I got mobilized to support the Bosnia operation it was like getting called up during the regular season by the Major League team. When that time ended and I returned to the reserves it was like being sent back to the minors. I honestly thought that I would spend the rest of my career there, maybe getting called up for brief periods of time but knowing that my career was destined to end in the minor leagues.
That all changed when I was given a chance to go into the Navy. I took a reduction in rank and came in with no time in grade. This meant that I was starting from scratch with a new team. I had all of my experience but I was starting over. It was like when a player gets traded or is sent back to the Minors by one team and has his contract picked up by another team in a different league in mid season. His slate is clear; it is a new start with the new team. That is what happened to me.
The analogy also fits because I do not like it when I feel that people do not respect “the game.” By game of course I mean the vocation of serving as a Military Chaplain as a calling as well as their attitude toward the organization in which they serve. I have little tolerance for clergyman or women who enter the military with better education and natural or God given abilities than me who do not respect the institution, those in it and are out to push their agenda. This is how Crash feels about “Nuke” and I love this exchange from the film:
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How come you don’t like me?
Crash Davis: Because you don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem. You got a gift.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I got a what?
Crash Davis: You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you’re pissing it away.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I ain’t pissing nothing away. I got a Porsche already; a 911 with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt.
Crash Davis: Christ, you don’t need a quadraphonic Blaupunkt! What you need is a curveball! In the show, everyone can hit heat.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well, how would you know? YOU been in the majors?
Crash Davis: Yeah, I’ve been in the majors.
Looking at Billy Chapel, the central character in For the Love of the Game I also find some connection though not quite the same as Crash Davis. Billy has played the game a long time for the same team, 19 years. He came back from what should have been a career ending injury. In the film and in the novel he pitches in what for his team is a meaningless last game of the season against the playoff bound Yankees in New York. The story focuses on this last game, Billy’s relationships with current and former teammates as well as his long term relationship with the team’s owner who is selling the team. The new management wants to deal Billy to another team in the off season and is asking him if he wants to continue in baseball.
While the game is going on, Chapel knows this is the end and spends a lot of time reflecting on his life, his parents, his World Series appearances and friendships. He thinks about things that have gone well and things that he regrets. He especially regrets his relationship with the woman he loves but has messed up. While his mind visits these subjects he tries to maintain his focus on the game and block out the thoughts as well as the near hatred of the Yankee fans. “Clear the mechanism….”
The thing that hits me the most is relationship between Billy Chapel and Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston. I have done a lot in my military career but at the same time have missed a lot of time with Judy. From 1996-2001 we spent most of 40 of 60 months apart. Since September 11th 2001 we have spent many more months apart. We have only spent 12 of 28 wedding anniversaries together not to mention birthdays and other holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. So many times Judy has missed the high points of my career and I have missed out on being with her to celebrate her achievements and to be there when times were hard. But as anyone who serves a full career in the military knows it goes with the game. Chapel’s words to Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston after his perfect game strike a chord with me, I don’t ever think that I have said that I didn’t need Judy, but I spent a lot of my life not needing anybody, so she probably thought at times that I didn’t need her. Thus Chapel’s words to Jane do get me and when I first saw the movie put tears in my eyes:
“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. “
The second thing that really gets me is where the owner tells Billy Chapel that he is selling the team and tells Chapel that “the game stinks.” I’ve seen a lot of people throughout my career with that kind of attitude about the Church, the military, their vocation and life in general that I want to scream. Yes there is much that is not perfect in life and the institutions that we serve, but neither life nor serving God one this country stinks. Chapel’s words back to him echo how I feel about so much of life.
“The game doesn’t stink, Mr. Wheeler. It’s a great game.” After all these years I still love the game, my vocation, my service as a chaplain in the military and the young people that I get to work with.
Since coming back from Iraq there have been plenty of times that I have felt like I had nothing left to give. In the times that I was really struggling I made my transfer to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where I ran into a number of guys who were like Chapel’s catcher Gus Sinski (played by John C. Reilly) and let me know that they were not only with me but were going to take care of me:
Billy Chapel: I don’t know if I have anything left.
Gus Sinski: You just throw whatever you got, whatever’s left. The boys are all here for you. We’re gonna be awesome for you right now!
There are times in life where we think that we have nothing left and when we have people that challenge us and stand with us even painful situations where we don’t think that we don’t think we have anything left to give.
Finally there is the announcer, the legendary Vin Scully calling the game and realizes that something special is going on:
“And you know Steve you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”
Now I know that I am quite as far down the road career wise as Billy Chapel in the movie, but I do know that I am closer to the end of my military career than I was even a couple of years ago, but the thought that I could be on the last few years does cross my mind a lot.
I guess that there are three major things that I want to accomplish before the end of my military career. I want to take care of all of the people that God gives me and puts in my life. Second is to help coach the young men and women that I meet along the way, especially clergy and chaplains as well as colleagues and friends, especially when they hit difficult patches. In one scene Billy Chapel talks to a young player named Mickey Hart (played by Greer Barnes) who made a boneheaded play on a fly ball against the “Green Monster” in Boston. The young man knows that his flub will be all over the news and chapel advises him: “There’s a bunch of cameras out there right now waiting to make a joke of this, Mick. So you can either stop, give them the sound bite, do the dance. Or you can hold your head up and walk by, and the next time we’re in Boston, we’ll go out there and work the wall together. Don’t help them make a joke out of you.” When I see young guys get in trouble or make mistakes I want to help them get back on their feet, especially the young chaplains and medical professionals that come into my life.
What is funny is that I am as old or older than most of our young Sailors and Marines parents. I’ve been in the military since before many of the Sailors and Marines were born. In a sense I’m a Crash Davis and Billy Chapel kind of guy. I want to finish well and have my last season be my best, to go out like Mike Mussina when he retired from the Yankees.
My career isn’t done yet. I should have a few more good years left. I’ll be promoted on September 1st to Commander in the Navy.
I love both films and characters and find a new connection every time that I watch them. I think that it is important when we have lived the often disconnected military life that we find things that help connect us to the people closest to us, those who have often have had to endure our choice of vocation. Somehow in Her grace the Deity Herself allowed me to find this in baseball and somehow relate it to the rest of my life. After all, it is for the Love of the Game.