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Baseball and My Spiritual Journey

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Note: I have been working hard this week with contractors in the house making repairs to the damage caused when our water heater blew out on February 3rd. Thankfully, despite being so tired I have been able to make a couple of baseball games at Harbor Park here in Norfolk. I have been too tired to make it all the way through either game despite the fact that they were good close games. Tonight I only made it to the top of the 7th inning. At the time the Tides were up 2-1 but had blown a number of opportunities to blow the game open. I got home and found they had lost 3-2. Thankfully I am beginning to see the light at the end of the rebuilding and renovation tunnel and it is not the train. Depending how I feel tomorrow I may try to take in part of the final game of this series. Unfortunately I still have much work that needs to be done around the house…but I digress… on to Baseball and my spiritual journey.

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“Baseball is a curious anomaly in American life. It seems to have been ingrained in people in their childhood…. Baseball is, after all, a boy’s game, and children are innocent of evil. So even adults who are prejudiced revert to their childhood when they encounter a baseball player and they react with the purity of little children.” Jackie Robinson Baseball Has Done It

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I feel closeness to God at the ballpark that after Iraq is hard for me to find in many other places.  For me there is a mystery, magic about a ballpark that just isn’t there for the other sports.  With the opening of baseball season I am soaking in the pleasantness of the game.  The past two nights I have had the television on with baseball games.  It is so much more peaceful and edifying than the deluge of political talk and reality shows that are the staple of entertainment now days.

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For me the other sports can grab my momentary attention but because of their nature cause them to be merely ordinary and occasionally interesting.  Baseball is another matter, it is more than a game. As George Will said “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” For me baseball is a metaphor for life, a spiritual experience and a game that mirrors life and faith in many ways. For me this goes back to childhood.

As a kid my dad made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching in the back yard or in a park, dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey, basketball and golf, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid dad was a Cincinnati Reds fan and as we moved West he became a solid San Francisco Giants fan.

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My mom went along to many games while we were in Anaheim and she lives and dies with the Giants. My mom was a Navy Wife and back then there were not nearly the support structures that we have today and Navy wives had to be wear many hats.  One of those hats was being my chauffeur and number one fan. When my dad was deployed to Vietnam when we were in Stockton she would take me to my Little League games and shuttle me and my friends to Billy Herbert Field to see the Stockton Ports.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of West Virginia was a die hard Los Angeles Dodgers fan. I still wonder how a woman from West Virginia became a Dodgers’ fan but she was incredibly independent.  My grandfather was killed in a trucking accident when my dad was a small child leaving Granny a widow with two young boys to raise.
She was a single parent and for a while lived with family as she established herself. It was the late 1930s and she went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most people in West Virginia at that time she was a Republican. This was long before West Virginia ever voted for a Republican either President or statewide office. True to form Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, fierce and independent.  I have to admire her perseverance but as a Giants fan I cannot fathom her being a fan of the Evil Dodgers. Despite having fallen under the spell of the Dark Lords of Chavez Ravine Granny was a real baseball fan. Any time you went to Granny’s house and there was a game on, the television was tuned in to it. When she visited us in Texas in the early 1990s we went to a Texas Rangers game but it was called because of tornadoes and severe thunder storms.

I can say that thanks to my dad, mom and grandmother that I was immersed in baseball from an early age and when we got to a place where dad could take us to ball games on a regular basis he did.

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Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots during their first and only season in that fair city before they went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.  In the elementary schools of those days many our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on the TV as many of those games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazing Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970. I will never forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run and the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, especially the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 20 games there in 1970 and another 25-30 in 1971 as well as a couple at Dodger stadium that year.  We met a lot of the Angel players at community events and before the games. I entered the “My Favorite Angel” contest and my entry was picked as a runner up. This netted me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  I wrote about Jim Spencer a Gold Glove First Baseball who later played for the Yankees.  I still have a hat from that team with numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, and Billy Cowan. It was a magical time for a 10 year old boy.

When we moved to Stockton California dad took us to see the A’s dynasty teams including a number of playoff games.  But he also took us across San Francisco Bay to watch the Giants.  I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In Anaheim, Oakland and San Francisco I got to see some of the greats of the era play in those stadiums, Catfish, Reggie, McCovey, Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew and so many others.

I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball when we moved to Stockton in1971. At the time the Stockton Ports were the Class A California League farm team for the Baltimore Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I became a closet Orioles fan back then and today I have a renewed interest in the Orioles because of their affiliation with the Norfolk Tides.  The retired GM of the Tides, Dave Rosenfield has told me about his young days in the California League and time at Billy Hebert Field in the 1950s.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game only deepens despite strikes and steroids and other problems that plague the game at the major league level.  I am in awe of the game and the diamond on which it is played.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers, seen a no-hitter, playoff games and met many players. I’ve watched the game in Japan, seen historic moments when deployed to combat zones in and have thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.

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I am enchanted with the nearly spiritual aspects of the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batters box.

Likewise I am enthralled with the Americanness of the game. Michael Novak wrote:

“Baseball is as close a liturgical enactment of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant myth as the nation has. It is a cerebral game, designed as geometrically as the city of Washington itself, born out of the Enlightenment and the philosophies so beloved of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. It is to games what the Federalist Papers are to books; orderly, reasoned, judiciously balanced, incorporating segments of violence and collision in a larger plan of rationality, absolutely dependent on an interiorization of public rules.”

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My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.
Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace. When I was stationed in Norfolk I had season tickets behind home plate at Harbor Park.  At the end of the 2010 season I was transferred to Camp LeJeune and was able to take in a good number of Kinston Indians games but since that team was sold and moved at the end of the 2011 season I didn’t get to see many games in the flesh. Thankfully with my return to the Hampton Roads area I have my season ticket back at Harbor Park and life is coming back into balance.

As I do that I can hear the words of James Earl Jones in the great film Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

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In a sense those word say it all to me. In the midst of war, economic crisis and deep political division they are also a prayer of hope of what once was good, and what be again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Blowing out the Candle(stick)…Power Goes out During Big 49ers – Steelers Game

I hesitate to call Candlestick Park old. It opened the year that I was born just across the bay.  I have never been to a 49er’s game but saw the Giants a number of times at the venerable yard. However even in the 1970s it was cold and dank, especially during the summer.  Monday night however the old stadium lost power twice the first time just before kickoff and the second during the second quarter of the game between the 49ers and Steelers.

The stadium has been the scene of some of the most memorable moments in sports history. One was “The Catch” when the 49ers defeated the highly favored Dallas Cowboys on January 10th 1982. Tight End Dwight Clark leaped to grab a pass from Joe Montana in the NFC Championship game, a game which ended the decade long Cowboys dominance of the conference.

It was also the site of the 1989 World Series.  The cross bay Oakland Athletics had taken the first too games in Oakland and the pre-game activities were in full swing when  a massive earthquake, the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck Northern California. Measuring 6.9 (7.1 surface wave) the quake hit at 5:04 PM on October 17th 1989 and was the first earthquake ever recorded on national television.  I was a seminary student and I remember sitting in front of my television in our run down East Fort Worth home, a neighborhood known for its frequent appearances on the TV show COPS.  Judy was in the kitchen getting something to drink if I recall and I watched the event occur. It was surreal and being from California I knew that it had to be a bad quake.

The Giants never won a World Series will playing at the “Stick” despite having some of the greatest players to ever play the game grace the field.  Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobbie and Barry Bonds, the Alou brother’s outfield, Felipe, Manny and Jesus who became the first “all brothers” outfield in 1963. Of course there were pitchers like Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.  49ers greats Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Ronnie Lott all made their names in the cavernous confines of Candlestick.

 

The 49ers moved to the Stick in 1971 from Kezar Stadium while the Giants moved to the new Pac-Bell or AT&T Park in 2000.  The Beatles player their last full concert there on August 29th 1966.   The biggest event I ever saw at Candlestick was Giant’s pitcher Ed Halicki no-hitting the Mets back on August 24th 1975.

The power outage was called embarrassing by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the Pacific Gas and Electric had no immediate explanation for the outage. The fact that it happened on a nationwide broadcast of Monday Night Football gave it fare more attention than in might have received. Fortunately for the 49ers approval of a new stadium in Santa Clara are almost done and by 2015 the team should be in its new home so long as the ghosts and demons of the Stick don’t find their way south.

Blessings,

Padre Steve+

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NO HITTER! The Lights Go Out in Georgia; Chris Tillman Blanks the Braves

Chris Tillman no-hit the Gwinnett Braves on Wednesday night

It was a magical night in Georgia when dreams came true for a 22 year old Baltimore Orioles prospect named Chris Tillman as the lights went out in Georgia on the Gwinnett Braves.

Tillman became the first Norfolk Tides pitcher to pitch a 9 inning no-hitter since May 15th 1992 when Dave Telgheder no-hit the Pawtucket Red Sox.  In 2001 Steve Trachsel pitched a seven inning no-hitter against the Ottawa Lynx.  Back then the Tides were with the Mets in the pre-Minaya era.

The Tides changed up their road uniforms tonight wearing the old red jerseys that hearken back to early 1960s when the Tides were an affiliate of the St Louis Cardinals and had not been worn regularly since the 2008 season.

Tillman who had begun the year with a series of rough starts has turned things around in a big way on this road trip. He began the trip with an eight inning 5-3 win in Charlotte where he controlled the game.  However, tonight Chris made history in Lawrenceville Georgia where at Coolray Field on a chilly night in front of 2989 fans he tossed the first no-hitter of the year at the AAA level and is setting himself up for a rapid promotion to Baltimore along with his stable mate and the leading pitcher in the International League Jake Arrieta.  These young and talented pitchers will along with Brian Matusz be the mainstays of the Orioles rotation for years if managed right.   Both are exceptionally talented and though some are calling for their immediate promotion to the Orioles it would not be unwise to let them work a while longer in AAA before going up.

Chris allowed just two base runners both in the 5th inning, one a walk to Brent Clevlen and the other on an error committed by First Baseman Michael Aubrey.   The rest of the game Tillman was perfect striking out 6 Braves and getting 13 more on ground outs.  He threw just 105 pitches in the effort making it all look easy.  With the win Tillman improves his record to 2-3 with a 4.05 ERA.   Jim Parr would take the loss for the Braves his first of the year.

Chris was aided by excellent defense by a number of Tides players including Corey Patterson who ran down a deep fly ball by Wes Timmons in the 3rd inning which easily could have gone for a hit had Patterson not tracked it down.

Tides hitters came forward tonight scoring 6 runs on 9 hits aided by 3 walks issued by Braves pitchers and 3 errors two by Brandon Hicks and 1 by Joe Thurston.  Seven of the nine Tides hitters hit in the game with Joey Gathright and Jeff Salazar having two each and Scott Moore and Michael Aubrey both connecting for doubles against Gwinnett starting pitcher Jim Parr.  Jeff Salazar had two stolen bases and Corey Patterson stole another as everything came together for Chris Tillman and the Tides tonight.

If you have never been to a no-hitter in person or watched or listened in rapt suspense as one unfolded before your eyes on television or a broadcaster poetically called one on the radio then you have missed what I think is one of the most suspenseful and riveting events in all of sports. I saw Ed Halicki no-hit the Mets 6-0 in Candlestick Park back on August 24th 1975.  I have been close to attending a couple of other’s missing Clyde Wright of the California Angels no-hit the A’s on July 3rd 1970 as our tickets were for the fireworks on the 4th and Nolan Ryan on May 1st 1991 when I had tickets for the following day.

However one has to imagine what it would be like for this young man to walk out onto the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning knowing how many no-hitters have been lost to unknown players who got a base hit, perhaps a line drive into the gap or a bloop into Right Field or even a grounder with eyes that gets past the outstretched glove of an infielder trying desperately to make the play to save his pitcher’s no-hitter.

Knowing things like this when the bench begins to realize that their starter is pitching the no-hitter the pitcher is left alone in the dugout.  No one talks about what is happening as they do not want to “jinx” the pitcher.  The tension begins to mount from about the 5th inning on as players and spectators alike sensing that something magical is happening before their eyes.  With every pitch and especially every time the a batter puts the ball in play there is a collective gasp as everyone, except the opposing team prays to whatever Deity they worship, and I know that even the Atheists are praying to someone at this point for a putout to be made.

I was doing that as Tides Announcer Bob Socci called the 9th inning.  Tillman got Brandon Hicks to ground out to Josh Bell at Third Base, Bell made the play and threw to Michael Aubrey for the out.  He then faced Clint Sammons and his first pitch to Sammons was a strike.  Sammons then swung at and missed the second pitch to take the count to 0-2.  His next pitch was a ball that was high in the zone followed by another low.  With the count 2 balls and 2 strikes Sammons hit one back to Tillman who ran towards first and tossed the ball to Michael Aubrey for out number two.  My heart was now racing as Chris stepped up to the rubber and faced Braves lead off hitter Michael Young.  The first pitch was fouled off by Young.  Tillman’s next pitch was a ball, the count one and one.  The next pitch also a ball and Tillman was behind in the count to Young a 250 hitter.  Chris then wound up and delivered a called strike to move the count to two and two.  Tillman paused and then delivered his fifth pitch to Young which Young hit a ground ball to Shortstop Robert Andino who threw to Aubrey for the out.  The Tides mobbed Tillman coming out of the dugout to congratulate Chris and celebrate his accomplishment.

Steve Melewski of MASN.com  has a page with audio of Bob Socci’s call of the last out, an interview with Chris and another interview with Tides pitching coach Mike Griffin.  That page is linked here:

http://masnsports.com/steve_melewski/2010/04/audio-from-chris-tillmans-no-hitter.html

Britt Ghiroli of MLB.com the Orioles’ major league beat reporter was able to ask Tillman about the game:

“Everything kind of fell into place,” Tillman said Wednesday. “I was pitching around my fastball. I had my curveball when I needed it. I was able to throw my changeup and my cutter.  My catcher [Adam Donachie] did a great job calling pitches. I had three or four great plays behind me.”

Congratulations Chris and congratulations to the Tides in the field and at the plate who helped this dream come true.  I do think that this might be a magical season for the Tides as well as Chris Tillman and maybe, just maybe things will begin looking up for the Orioles.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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How Baseball Helps Padre Steve Make Sense of the World

Opening Night 2010 at Harbor Park

“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.” Woody Allen in Selig (1983)

Last night was Opening Night at Harbor Park and I the visit took me back to memories of how important baseball is to me.  The Church of Baseball at Harbor Park and in particular my little corner of the world in Section 102, Row “B” Seats 1 and 2 are one of my places of sanctuary in a world that seems to have gone mad.  Baseball has always meant a lot to me but even more so after returning from Iraq in 2008.  Until recently Harbor Park was one of the few places that I felt safe, I have added to the “safe” zones since last season with Saint James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Virginia and the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach where Judy and I are members of the “Stein Club.” Slowly normalcy is returning to other parts of my life but during baseball season Harbor Park is about the center of my world.

Lefty Phillips and Me

In the fall after last season ended I would go to Harbor Park just to talk with staff and sit in the concourse.  There is something about baseball people and my seats down in section 102 that help me even when there is no game being played.  There is a peace that I have when I walk around the diamond and I feel close to God when I am around a ballpark, even without the game being played there is something almost mystical about it.  To me there is nowhere more peaceful than a ballpark and every time I watch a game on TV my mind goes back to how much baseball has been part of my life, and how in a very real way that God speaks to me through this special game.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Me Rich Reese and my brother Jeff

Baseball became part of my life as a child when my dad introduced me to it in our back yard in Oak Harbor Washington.  Even before I played an organized game dad played catch with me, showed me how to grip a ball and told me about the great ballplayers.  He made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of Putnam County West Virginia was a diehard Dodgers fan, though I am sure that God forgives her for that.  She was an independent woman of conviction and determination that has to in some way influenced her love for the game, even as a little boy if there was a game on television she would have it on and could talk intelligently about it.  I still wonder about to this day how she became a Dodger’s fan but it probably had something to do with her independent streak.  “Granny” as she chose to be called was a woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the people in West Virginia she was also a Republican, a rare breed especially in that era. Likewise she left the Baptist church of her family and became a Methodist. As independent in her choice of baseball teams as she was in her politics Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, so even with Granny we were immersed in baseball.

Jeff, Me and Rocky Bridges

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots which the next year went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. The Pilots were an expansion team in a town with a long history of minor league ball. They played at an old park named Sick Stadium, which if you ask me is a really bad marketing plan.  The game that we went to was the “Bat Day” giveaway.  Then they gave out regulation size Louisville Slugger bats.  Mine had the name of the Pilots First Baseman Mike Hegan on the barrel.  That was my first trip to a Major League stadium and I still can remember it as if it was yesterday.  Somewhere in my junk I have a button with the Pilots logo on it.  I’ll have to fish it out again sometime.  The next year I played my first organized baseball with the Oak Harbor Little League “Cheyenne’s.” My coach was a kind of gruff old guy who stuck me out in right field when as any little kid would I was pretty much a spectator as almost nothing came my way.  I don’t know why but our team uniforms did not match, half of us had white and the other half gray. Unfortunately due to military moves I didn’t get to play organized ball again until 1972.

Oak Park Little Little League A.L Rams 1972 and yes A G Spanos of the Chargers was our sponsor

In the elementary schools of those days our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on television in our classrooms as then many of the games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazin’ Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and seeing the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970.  I never will forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run.  I watched in awe as the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer of 1978 when the Bronx burned.  Back then every Saturday there was the NBC Game of the Week hosted by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garragiola.  It was a sad day when that broadcast went off the air.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California from 1970-1971 my dad had us at Anaheim stadium watching the California Angels all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 30 to 40 games there and a couple at Dodger stadium that first year and a good number more before we moved to Stockton California in the middle of the 1971 season.  The move north was disappointing, it took forever to get adjusted to Stockton and I think that part of it was not seeing the Angels every week at the Big “A.” At those games I met a lot of the players and coaches and even some opposing players.  The Von’s grocery store chain and the Angels radio network had a “My Favorite Angel” contest when I was in 5th Grade.  I submitted an entry about Angels First Baseman Jim Spencer and was named as a runner up.  This netted me two seats behind the plate and legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman who later played for the Yankees on their 1978 World Series team.  My first hat from a Major League team was the old blue hat with a red bill, the letters CA on the front and a halo stitched on top. I still have a hat from the 1971 team with the lower case “a” with a halo hanging off of it.  It has numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, and Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

Harbor Park in the Fall

While we didn’t live as close to a major league team baseball did not cease to be a part of my life.  While we were not at the ballpark as much it got more interesting in some aspects as for the first time I attended playoff games and saw a no-hitter. We saw the A’s dynasty teams including games one and two of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the A’s and the Tigers.  Across the Bay a few years later I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In those days I got to see some of the greats of the era play, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Steve Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers, and so many others at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Candlestick Park.

While in Stockton I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball through the Stockton Ports, who then were the Class “A” California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I would ride my bike over in the evening to try to get foul balls that came over the grand stand when I didn’t have the money to get a ticket.

When I was a kid I had a large baseball card collection which I kept in a square cardboard roller-skate box.  I must have had hundreds of cards including cards that if I had them now would be worth a small fortune. Unfortunately when I went away to college I left them in the garage and during a purge of my junk they were tossed out.  Last year I started collecting cards again, mostly signed cards that I obtained at the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park.  In a sense they kind of serve a purpose like Holy Cards due in the Catholic Church for me.  They are a touch point with the game and the players who signed them.

Billy Hebert Field

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game, despite strikes and steroids still grows.  I am in awe of the diamond.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers seen games in many other venues at the Major League and Minor League levels and thrown out the first pitch in a couple of Kinston Indians games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Unlike almost all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals in baseball such as the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules and the ceremonial first pitch.  Likewise there are customs that border on superstition such as players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. Even the care of the playing field is practiced with almost liturgical purity. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batter’s box.

Grand Slam Home Run by Robby Hammock 2009

We have travelled to many minor league parks often in tiny out of the way locations and even to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa where once again Judy indulged me and let me play catch. Likewise my long suffering wife has allowed our kitchen and much of my dining room is as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them; thankfully she is most tolerant and indulges this passion of mine.

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond has been one of my few places of solace.  For the first time last season I bought a season ticket to the Tides and in section 102, row B seats 2 and 3 was able to watch the game from the same place every day.  It became a place of refuge during some of my bad PTSD times, and I got to know and love the people around me; Elliot the Usher, Chip the Usher, Ray and Bill the Vietnam Veteran Beer guys behind home plate, Kenny “Crabmeat” the Pretzel Guy and Barry the Scorekeeper.  This year Ray is not at the park nor is Charlie one of the other Vietnam Vets and the Veterans beer stand is now down the first base concourse where they have been relegated to the boring beers. I now have seats 1 and 2 in the same section and row as last year and it was good to see so many of the old crowd last night.

Chris Tillman

Even still there is some sadness in baseball this year as there was last year.  My dad is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s disease and a shell of his former self but the last time I saw him he did not know me and could not talk about baseball even for a minute.  Maybe if I go back we’ll get a few minutes of lucidity and a bit of time together again but I know that that will not happen because there is little left of him, I wish he was able to get up and play catch, but that will have to wait for eternity on the lush baseball field that only heaven can offer.

Dad Jeff and I around 1973

The season is just beginning and God is not done speaking to me through baseball as I close my eyes and recollect the words of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and bitter partisan political division.  In a sense it is a prayer, a prayer for a return to something that was good and what could be good again.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Dad’s Gift of Baseball to Me…a New Season Begins

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Harbor Park

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal and as Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) said in Bull Durham “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was in 1970-1971 when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted long before watching games on a black and white TV and having my dad play catch, teach me to throw, field and run the bases.  In 1967 we even saw the Seattle Pilots in person while stationed in Washington State. While my dad thrived on all sports but baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen masters love, but which is not to be compared with baseball.  Golf it is an interior and individual game whereas baseball is a game where individuals depend upon one another in community much as in an ideal world Christians depend upon one another in the Church.

Me with Angels Manager Left Phillips 1970

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine not having done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  I cannot remember a time that I did not have a ball, glove and bat as well as at least one baseball hat. It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teaching me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May of 2009 I thanked him for teaching me to love the game. I told him that I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls but complained that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”  Obviously he understood that I would never hit much above the Mendoza Line and stuck to teaching me defense and pitching.

Oak Park Little League Rams Stockton CA, the Team Sponsor was San Diego Chargers Owner Alex Spanos

Back in the days at Anaheim Stadium when it was still called “the Big A” I really did fall in love with the game.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  I met so many of the players on that team and those of opposing teams and it was that personal connection of ballplayers giving a 5th grade kid the time of day that endeared me to the game. Players like Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, Andy Messersmith, Sandy Alomar and Ken McMullen as well as coaches and managers gave me some of the best memories of childhood.

Billy Hebert Field

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  Seeing the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome.  However our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days because of the inhospitable location and added distance from home.   If you have ever seen a baseball game at Candlestick you will know that it is a perfectly miserable place to see a game as in that if nothing else that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.  One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California where we lived. In the summer she would let me see the Stockton Ports several times a week. Back then the Ports were the California League Single “A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun, chasing balls down and chomping down peanuts that cost a quarter a bag.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor league player in the 1960s.

Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star Game

http://mlb.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=5766041

In high school and college due to other diversions I stopped playing baseball and did not have as much contact with it.  However the call of baseball never completely left me and I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game. I think that the biggest mistakes that I ever made were taking on hockey for a couple of seasons and an ill-fated one year career in high school football. It was like I sold out baseball for games that seemed more exciting but were not me.  I have dreams of what it would be like to get the chance to play at my advanced age for one inning in a minor league game.

Moonlight Graham

I feel in a sense like Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams when he tells Ray Kinsella:

“Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?” I can totally relate.

Other major sports do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is a spiritual dimension that the game has which makes it timeless.  Other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks there are no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock.  If a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that the game will be over.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games has different rules than regulation time making them seem somewhat hypocritical to me.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock. Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Jeff Fiorentino Going Yard at Harbor Park

Baseball is not like that.  In order to win you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. The nine innings could in theory go on for eternity, as they nearly do in W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, A story which is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner.  Foul lines in theory go on for eternity, only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that outfields are a lot more spacious and have a wonderful playing surface in heaven.

I love baseball parks. I like their individuality and savor their differences and save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable to play football on, baseball parks have kept their individuality.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity. Although the ivy of Wrigley Field, the Green Monster of Fenway are about all that are left of the great old ballparks however the new ballparks have returned to what makes every ballpark special in its own way.  Gone are the ugly drab oval stadiums with their fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf with only a small cut out for the bases.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble or retired to serve in other capacities and replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

Oak Harbor Little League where I played my first organized baseball

Last year for the first time in my life I bought season tickets for my local AAA team, the Norfolk Tides who are the AAA Affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I also went Norfolk’s Harbor Park to see the Commonwealth Classic an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.  The ballpark is a place of solace for me that was after I returned from Iraq one of the few places that I could have peace, even church was a dangerous place but walking onto the concourse and taking in the lush green diamond and immaculately trimmed infield there was a place of peace.  I found that watching the young players striving to reach or get back to the majors to stay helped motivate me as I recovered from PTSD, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and a crisis of faith that scared the hell out of me.  I appreciate the young pitchers that I have met behind home plate as the chart the game following their starts, and my hope and prayer for them is that they will see their dreams fulfilled and eventually make it to the show and stay there.  So Jim, Andy, Chris, Ross, David This year I look forward to again taking me seats in Section 102 Row B seats 1 and 2.  Opening day is the 8th of April and the Weather Channel’s 10 day forecast says that the weather should be good.  However this is Hampton Roads, opening day was rained out last year and in 2005 the temperature at game time was 38 degrees with winds of 25-40 knots coming out of center field.

Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house.  My seats in Section 102 row 2 are right behind home plate and offer a field level view of all the action. I love the people in the section, Elliott and Skip the Ushers, Kenny the Pretzel Guy, Marty the Card Dealer, Ray, John and the Vietnam Veterans of America at the beer stand and of course legendary General Manager Dave Rosenfield and President Ken Johnson as well as Linda, Heather and the rest of the staff.

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolds again as I gaze in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different than last year but similar my dad is still in a nursing home in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the disease is taking its time and now has robbed him of everything that he once was. In November I saw him and he did not know me.  It is so sad to see.  A year and a half to two years ago he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants and bad mouth the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  I never shared that opinion or the fact that I have been a closet Baltimore Orioles fan for years as he could barely handle my liking the Oakland Athletics.  He did not like Earl Weaver one bit but was a lot like him in his approach to the game and life…however he did admire Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson.

Dad told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he made sure that there were books of baseball stories around the house.  I learned to read with books about Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Rogers HornsbyJackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. Dad was an avid fan of Pete Rose; he loved “Charlie Hustle’s” high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall dad yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard at second base to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era where players who were Hall of Fame caliber sacrificed their reputations by doing steroids.

My Dad and I May 2009

I don’t know how long my dad will live. He has outlived his doctor’s expectations by well over a year maybe even a year and a half. He doesn’t know what is going on for the most part but somewhere in his Alzheimer’s ravaged brain he must still be there.  Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Play Ball!

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, PTSD

Yes Friends, God Really Does Speak to Me Through Baseball

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Padresteve, Jeff and Angels 3rd Base Coach Rocky Bridges in 1970

Well we are deep into football season, while hockey, basketball that World Cup qualifiers move along.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know these sports well but for me they are not the same as baseball.  I have played all of them in school, the biggest mistake that I made as a kid was forsaking organized baseball first for hockey and then for football.  I gave up playing my first love for short term flings with other sports.

The Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish

I was down walking the concourse at Harbor Park the other day to relax following about 32 hours spanning two nights at the hospital.  I like going to the ballpark even when it is the off season because it is one of the few places where I can be fully relaxed and at peace.  Tuesday was beautiful, the temperature was in the mid 50s with sunshine and a light breeze, the field was a brilliant great and the ever present grounds crew was at work.  In the front office I talked with a number of the office staff about players who would and would not be coming back for the 2010 season as well as highlights of the past season.  The Tides have a wonderful front office staff.  To walk the concourse from behind home plate, out to the right field corner and then back across to the left field picnic area and then to go down to my seat in Section 102, Row B seats 1 and 2 at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish is a highlight of the week when I have the chance to do it.  I feel closeness to God at the ballpark that after Iraq is hard for me to find in many other places.  For me there is a mystery and magic about a ballpark that just isn’t there for the other sports, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

For me the other sports can grab my momentary attention but because of their nature cause them to be merely ordinary and occasionally interesting.  Baseball is another matter, it is more than a game, it is a metaphor for life, a spiritual experience and a game that mirrors life and faith in many ways. For me this goes back to childhood.

As a kid my dad made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching in the back yard or in a park, dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of West Virginia was a die hard Dodgers fan.  That I still wonder about to this day, but she was the same woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the state she was also a Republican, long before West Virginia ever voted for a Republican either President or statewide office. True to form Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, fierce and independent.  However, as a Giants fan I mourn how she had been taken in by the power of the dark side.  Despite having fallen under the spell of the Dark Lords Granny was a real baseball fan. Any time you went to Granny’s house and there was a game on, the television was tuned in to it.  We were immersed in baseball thanks to my dad and his mother.

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots during their first and only season in that fair city before they went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.  In the elementary schools of those days many our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on the TV as many of those games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazing Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970. I will never forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run and the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, especially the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.

Me with Angel’s Manager Lefty Phillips 1970

When we were stationed in Long Beach California dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 20 games there in 1970 and another 25-30 in 1971 as well as a couple at Dodger stadium that year.  We met a lot of the Angel players at community events and before the games. I entered the “My Favorite Angel” contest and my entry was picked as a runner up. This netted me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  I wrote about Jim Spencer a Gold Glove First Baseball who later played for the Yankees.  I still have a hat from that team with numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, and Billy Cowan. It was a magical time for a 10 year old boy.

When we moved to Stockton California dad took us to see the A’s dynasty teams including a number of playoff games.  But he also took us across San Francisco Bay to watch the Giants.  I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  I got to see some of the greats of the era play in those stadiums, Catfish, Reggie, McCovey, Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew and so many others.  I also became acquainted with Minor League Baseball at this time through the Stockton Ports. At the time the Ports were the Class A California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Paul Blair the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  Today I have a renewed interest in the Orioles because of their affiliation with the Norfolk Tides.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game only deepens despite strikes and steroids and other problems that plague the game at the major league level.  I am in awe of the game and the diamond on which it is played.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers, seen a no-hitter, playoff games and met players. I’ve watched the game in Japan, seen historic moments when deployed to combat zones in and have thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretical go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batters box.

My kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them.

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace.  For the first time last year I bought season tickets to my local minor league team the Norfolk Tides.  Section 102, row B seats 1 and 2 from which I will, the Deity Herself willing take in the 2010 season at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.  The home opener is April the 8th against the Durham Bulls, barely 4 months away.  From there I will sit back and imagine the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams:

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and division.  In a sense it is a prayer. Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, philosophy, Religion

My Life and Baseball: How Padre Steve Makes Some Sense of the World

harbor park opening dayThe Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish

“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.” Woody Allen in Selig (1983)

I went to Harbor Park last week just to talk with staff and sit in the concourse.  Tomorrow after work, though the weather is not predicted to be very good I plan on doing the same. There is something about baseball people and my seats down in section 102, row B, seat 2 and 3 that help me even when there is not game going on.  I walked around the diamond, the weather was gorgeous and it was so peaceful, even as the head groundskeeper aerated the field in preparation for the winter.  I feel close to God when I am around a ballpark, even without the game being played there is something almost mystical about it.  To me there is nowhere more peaceful than a ballpark.  Tonight as I sit watching game one of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Phillies my mind goes back to how much baseball has been part of my life, and how in a very real way that God speaks to me through this special game.

grainger stadiumGranger Stadium Kinston NC

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Baseball is part of my life and I think this goes back to my childhood when my dad introduced me to it in our back yard in Oak Harbor Washington.  Even before I played an organized game dad played catch with me, showed me how to grip a ball and told me about the great ballplayers.  He made me learn the fundamentals of the game and weather we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of Putnam County West Virginia was a diehard Dodgers fan, though I am sure that God forgives her for that.  She was an independent woman of conviction and determination that has to in some way influenced her love for the game, even as a little boy if there was a game on television she would have it on.  I still wonder about to this day how she became a Dodger’s fan but it probably had something to do with her independent streak.  Granny as she chose to be called was a woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the people in West Virginia she was also a Republican, a rare breed especially in that era. As independent in her choice of baseball teams as she was in her politics Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, so even with Granny we were immersed in baseball.

Me and Lefty PhillipsCalifornia Angels Manager Lefty Phillips and Young Padre Steve 1970

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots which the next year went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. The pilots were an expansion team in a town with a long history of minor league ball. They played at an old park named Sick Stadium, which if you ask me is a really bad marketing plan.  The game that we went to was the “Bat Day” giveaway.  Then they game regulation size Louisville Slugger bats.  Mine had the name of the Pilots First Baseman Mike Hegan on the barrel.  That was my first trip to a Major League stadium and I still can remember it as if it was yesterday.  Somewhere in my junk I have a button with the Pilots logo on it.  I’ll have to find it again sometime.  The next year I played my first organized baseball with the Oak Harbor Little League “Cheyenne’s.” My coach was a kind of gruff old guy who stuck me out in right field.  I don’t know why but our team uniforms did not match, half of us had white and the other half gray.   Unfortunately due to military moves I didn’t get to play organized ball again until 1972.

jim_spencer_autographMY Favorite Angel Jim Spencer as a Yankee

In the elementary schools of those days our teachers who put the playoff and World’s Series games as many were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazin’ Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and seeing the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970.  I never will forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run.  I watched in awe as the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer that the Bronx burned.  Back then every Saturday there was the NBC Game of the Week hosted by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garragiola.

halicki no hitterEd Halicki No Hitter

When we were stationed in Long Beach California from 1970-1971 my dad had us at Anaheim stadium all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 30 games there and a couple at Dodger stadium that first year and a good number more before we moved to Stockton California in the middle of the 1971 season.  That was disappointing, it took forever to get adjusted to Stockton and I think that part of it was not seeing the Angels every week at the Big “A.” At those games I met a lot of the players and coaches and even some opposing players.  The Von’s grocery store chain and the Angels radio network had a “My Favorite Angel” contest.  My entry about Angels First Baseman Jim Spencer was a runner up, netting me two seats behind the plate and having Dick Enberg announce my name on the radio.  Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman who later played for the Yankees on their 1978 World Series team.  My first hat from a Major League team was the old blue hat with a red bill, the letters CA on the front and a halo stitched on top. I still have a hat from the 1971 team with the lower case “a” with a halo hanging off of it.  It has numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, and Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

Me and last last picMy Dad and Me May 2009

While we didn’t live as close to a major league team baseball did not go away, though we were not at the ballpark as much it got more interesting as I got to see playoff games and a no-hitter.  We saw the A’s dynasty teams including games one and two of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the A’s and the Tigers.  Across the Bay a few years later I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In those days I got to see some of the greats of the era play, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Steve Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers, and so many others at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Candlestick Park.

While in Stockton I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball through the Stockton Ports, who then were the Class “A” California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to Paul Blair the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I would ride my bike over in the evening to try to get foul balls that came over the grand stand when I didn’t have the money to get a ticket.

1972 Oak Park AL RamsMy Championship Season

When I was a kid I had a large baseball card collection which I kept in a square cardboard box.  I must have had hundreds of cards including cards that if I had them now would be worth a small fortune, unfortunately when I went away to college I left them in the garage and during a purge of junk they were tossed out.  This year I started collecting cards again, mostly signed cards that I obtained at the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park.  In a sense they kind of serve a purpose like Holy Cards due in the Catholic Church for me.  They are a touch point with the game and the players who signed them.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game, despite strikes and steroids still grows.  I am in awe of the diamond.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers seen games in other venues and thrown out the first pitch in a couple of minor league games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretical go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Likewise unlike all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals, the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules, the ceremonial first pitch, players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batter’s box.

We have travelled to many minor league parks often in tiny out of the way locations and even to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa where once again Judy indulged me and let me play catch. Likewise my long suffering wife has allowed our kitchen and much of my dining room are as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them; thankfully she is most tolerant and indulges this passion of mine.

042Elliott the Usher

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond is one of my few places of solace.  For the first time I bought a season ticket to my local minor league team the Norfolk Tides.  Section 102, row B seat 2 and 3 and was able to watch the game from the same place game after game.  It became a place of refuge during some of my bad PTSD times, and I got to know and love the people around me; Elliot the Usher, Chip the Usher, Ray and Bill the Vietnam Veteran Beer guys behind home plate, Kenny “Crabmeat” the Pretzel Guy and Barry the Scorekeeper.

122Moon Over Harbor Park

My dad is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s Disease and a shell of his former self but the last time I visited him we had a few minutes where he was with it we talked baseball and I gave him a new Giants t-shirt and hat.  I plan on going back next month sometime to spend some time with him.  Maybe we’ll get a few minutes of lucidity and a bit of time together again, I wish he was able to get up and play catch, but that will have to wait for eternity on the lushest baseball field imaginable.

The season there is over, but God is not done speaking to me through baseball as I close my eyes and recollect the words of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

044Jeff Fiorentino hits a 3 run shot at Harbor Park

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis and bitter partisan political division.  In a sense it is a prayer, a prayer for a return to something that can be good again.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, philosophy, Religion