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The Only Church that Truly Feeds the Soul

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“The Only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham (MGM 1989)

Tonight I am going to the last home game of the Norfolk Tides. The Tides are our local Triple-A Minor League farm team of the Baltimore Orioles who are now 7 games up on the Yankees in the American League East. I love baseball. For me it is a source of peace, comfort and meaning in the sea of so much hatred, violence, inequity and injustice, angst and despair that fills our world.

Now honestly, while things seem are not good we tend to see life at any given time through they could be worse and certainly could be better they are not nearly as apocalyptic as the bearers of bad news make them out to be. Barbara Tuchman wrote “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts….The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to tenfold.”

This is especially true for those who follow that loathsome Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who make their living causing people to be angry, covetous, anxious and on edge.

When I read or hear some of the vile things being said by allegedly conservative Bible believing Christian leaders be they politicians, pundits or preachers, or in the case of Mike Huckabee a despicable combination of all three, I become more convinced that Annie Savoy was right… the only church that truly feeds the soul is baseball.

In fact when I hear the likes of the Partisan Political Parsons, any of the big Mega-Church Pastors or television ministry hosts, or even some Catholic bishops start spouting off I feel like I have left this country and ended up in Medieval Europe or maybe Saudi Arabia. I wonder where the love has gone. When I read the words of men like Pat Robertson, James Robison, James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Scott Lively, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer and so many others I understand why people are fleeing the church in droves and so many hold the Christian faith, as well as other religions in such disdain.

Jonathan Swift once mused about the religion of his time, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough for us to love one another.”   Swift’s words are a perfect description of the American Religious Right as much as they are of non-Christian groups who hate, the Moslem extremists of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and the Taliban; the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who think that they are the only acceptable form of Judaism and physically attack other Jews for not being Jewish enough even while persecuting Israeli citizens who are Christian or Moslem; and the Hindu fundamentalists that burn down Christian and Moslem villages in India.

Thankfully, though I am still a Christian and at that a rather miscreant Priest and Chaplain that struggles with faith and belief, I also belong to the Church of Baseball. I am so because I agree with the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti, who said, “there is nothing bad that accrues from baseball.” 

While I am very frustrated at what I see going on in the Christian church as well as in other religions that dominate other countries or cultures, when I think about baseball I know that God still cares. Every time that I look at that beautiful green diamond that sits in the middle of the great cathedrals and parish churches of the Church of Baseball, my sense of hope and faith is renewed.

To true believers, that may seem like heresy. But God even loves heretics and unbelievers. For me baseball speaks to the soul, maybe it is because baseball is more than a game.  Conservative political commentator and long suffering Chicago Cubs fan George Will said “Baseball is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes or games are created equal.” 

If that is heresy I don’t care. But then what is heresy? I don’t actually think that Jesus would recognize a lot of what we Christians do today as even being Christian.  I could be wrong but I recall Jesus was really big into the whole “two commandment” “love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself” way of life; and he wasn’t really cool with pompous religious leaders that give preference to the rich and powerful, and seek their own political power so they can use the state to enforce their religious views on non-believers like we do.

That is why I find something so right about baseball. Unlike the message of the political preachers that specialize in making themselves rich by keeping their followers anxious and angry while preaching the message that “God loved the world so much that he can’t wait to come back, judge and destroy it because of fouled up humanity” especially women and homosexuals; baseball caters to our hopes and dreams while recognizing that none of us, even those who play at the Hall of Fame level are perfect.

Unlike the false religious message preached by so many members of the Trinity of Evil, baseball deals with reality and life so well because of its ebb and flow. It deals with the grind of the long season, the constant demand for excellence and quest for perfection; but there is a realization that most of the time you won’t get there, and if you do, tomorrow you won’t and that is part of life.

Personally I don’t understand why if the Gospel of Jesus and God’s grace and love is actually true that we can’t apply this to our faith. Jesus, at least in the Gospel accounts seemed to accept the imperfections and foul ups of his followers, and not only that seemed to accept the people who the really righteous, religious leaders rejected and treated as less than human.

In fact, my paradigm of understanding the Christian faith comes from baseball. In baseball perfection is illusory and that life is full of times when things don’t go our way. It is much like real life and what is presented in Scripture. Ted Williams, the last player to hit for .400 said “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

For some of us it seems like reaching the Mendoza Line* is the best we will ever do, and if we believe in God’s grace, that is probably okay.

Tommy Lasorda the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager put things in excellent perspective “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games.  No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.  It’s the other third that makes the difference.”  That is true in life and faith.

While I am definitely a Christian I struggle and I admit it. I have enough of my own problems to empathize with others that struggle, but who in embracing the wacky formulas offered by greedy self-serving preachers treat Jesus and his message like some sort of magical talisman or good luck charm. But sorry, I agree with what Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) said in the movie Major League: “Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.”

Thus I have many problems with the perfidious political and prosperity preachers that seem to have forgotten the Gospel, who are basically Elmer Gantry like snake-oil salesmen more attuned to keeping their market share than tending their flock. In fact, I think are actually driving people away from Jesus, and the polls of Barna, the Pew Religious survey, Gallup and others as well as the statistics kept by various denominations say that I am right.

When I watch baseball I feel renewed. As Sharon Olds wrote back in the early 1970s “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” That my friends is why I agree with Annie Savoy that the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out is baseball.

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The late great and legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell said: “Baseball?  It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat.  Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It’s a sport, business – and sometimes even religion.”   Yes, for me, the heretic that I am it is the latter, and tonight I am happy to be going to the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

*Mario Mendoza was a Major League Shortstop who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and other organizations. He was an outstanding defensive player but was not much of a hitter. His career batting average was only .215 but a batting average of .200 is considered the minimum that a player can have to remain at the level that he plays.  I think that my career batting average in both baseball and softball barely clears the Mendoza Line. 

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The Only Church that truly Feeds the Soul…

The Only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham (MGM 1989)

When I read or hear some of the vile things being said by allegedly conservative Bible believing Christian leaders I become more convinced that Annie Savoy was right.  In fact when I hear the likes of the Partisan Political Parsons, any of the big Mega-Church Pastors or television ministry hosts, or even some Catholic bishops start spouting off I feel like I have left this country and ended up in Medieval Europe or maybe Saudi Arabia. I wonder where the love has gone.  Jonathan Swift once mused “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough for us to love one another.”   

Now of course in addition to being a Christian and a a rather miscreant Priest and Chaplain I also belong to the Church of Baseball as the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti said “there is nothing bad that accrues from baseball.”  While I may become frustrated at what I see going on in the Christian church as well as in other religions that dominate other countries or cultures I know that God still cares every time that I look at that beautiful green diamond that sits in the middle of the great cathedrals and parish churches of the Church of Baseball.  

To some that may seem like heresy but God even loves heretics that love football or basketball more than baseball.  But really I don’t know of a game that can speak to the soul like the game of baseball, maybe it is because baseball is more than a game.  Conservative political commentator and long suffering Chicago Cubs fan George Will said “Baseball is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes or games are created equal.” 

But then what is heresy? I mean I don’t think that Jesus would recognize a lot of what we Christians do as even Christian.  I could be wrong but I recall Jesus was really big into the whole “love your neighbor as yourself thing” and not real cool with pompous religious leaders that seem to give preference to the rich and powerful and . Forgive my rather casual language there but I did grow up in the 1970s and who could forget “translations” like The Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man.   

I am a devoted fan of the San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles and admirer of the Oakland A’s.  I like some other teams as well but I am a fan of teams that seem to suffer much, although unlike my brother George Will I do not quite know his suffering as a Cubs fan.  For fans like like me and others that suffer with their teams through bad times and good baseball is a love affair with our teams and the players that play for them. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 for the first time in over 50 years in San Francisco. The Orioles are now up to 14 straight losing seasons.  The A’s have not won a series for two decades but their GM Billy Beane helped revolutionize the way that players are evaluated.  

There is something right about baseball, even more right than the height of the trees in Michigan.  Unlike the hyper politicized preachers who also specialize in making themselves rich and protecting their market share instead of shepherding their flocks baseball caters to our hopes and dreams while recognizing that reality exists. 

Baseball deals with reality and life so well because of its ebb and flow, the grind of the long season and the constant demand for excellence and quest for perfection but the realization that most of the time you won’t get there. 

In baseball perfection is illusory and that life is full of times when things don’t go our way. It is much like real life and what is presented in Scripture. Ted Williams said “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” For some of us it seems like reaching the Mendoza Line* Tommy Lasorda the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager put things in excellent perspective “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games.  No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.  It’s the other third that makes the difference.” 

That is life and faith. While I am definitely a Christian I do have many problems with the perfidious political and prosperity preachers that seem to have forgotten the Gospel and who I think are actually driving people away from Jesus. At least when I watch baseball I feel renewed. As Sharon Olds wrote back in the early 1970s “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” 

I think that is why I agree with Annie Savoy about baseball being the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out as well as the late legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell who said: “Baseball?  It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat.  Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It’s a sport, business – and sometimes even religion.”  

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

*Mario Mendoza was a Major League Shortstop who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and other organizations. He was an outstanding defensive player but was not much of a hitter. His career batting average was only .215 but a batting average of .200 is considered the minimum that a player can have to remain at the level that he plays.  I think that my career batting average in both baseball and softball barely clears the Mendoza Line. 

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Facing the Winter Alone….another Baseball Season comes to an End…

“It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”  A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” Yale Alumni Magazine, November 1977

Unlike any other sport baseball has a rhythm, a cycle that is so like life.  The first inklings of life come when it is still winter when in many parts of the country snow is still on the ground but in Florida and Arizona small numbers of players begin to arrive on lush green fields. The game’s arrival is imperceptible to most but by April  It proceeds through the spring and then the heat of the summer and as August ends and September begins the game bathed in all of its glory captures our imaginations in ways little else can.

The fading warmth of September fades into the autumn chill of October even as the temperature of the game reaches its apex.  The tension builds and legends are made.

Ernie Harwell said that Baseball is “a ballet without music, drama without words.”  The stories of individuals, teams and even cities engage us, draw us in and are played out on a national stage before our eyes just as they have done for a century and a half.   As this glorious game reaches its climax these stories unfold as teams and individuals become immortalized with the crack of a bat that evokes a collective gasp before the hopes and fantasies of individuals, teams and cities are realized or crushed as a small sphere with red stitches sails over a wall and is caught by a young boy who imagines that he will one day do the same.

The cheers of fans and celebration of the victors mask the agony felt by the other team and its fans, their hopes dashed who must wait until next year.

Then it is over and for a while the game fades away except for the endless retelling of the story.  Some tell the story with joy and others with disappointment as the Boys of Summer exit the national stage. The cold of winter which seemed so far off descends on the empty ballparks even as the last red, yellow and brown leaves fall from the trees.

If there is one thing that allegory that is baseball shows, that life is more about often about losing than winning and that life, despite defeat and disappointment still goes on.

Now those whose hearts are enmeshed in this game, this allegorical play on life which is so much more than a game wait until the spring when the cycle begins again with that magical incantation “Play Ball.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Meaning of Opening Day

“No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games.  No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.  It’s the other third that makes the difference.”  Tommy Lasorda

At long last it is Opening Day, the first day of a long and arduous 162 game regular season and three tier playoff series system that can extend the season by up to 19 more games for teams that reach the World Series. Beyond the pageantry of opening day, which will be repeated tomorrow for the teams that did not play today and next week for the Minor Leagues and which is something akin to New Years Day the meaning of Opening Day is that baseball is back and Winter is over, even if it tries to hang on a few more weeks.

Over the past few days all the experts have weighed in on their picks of who will make the playoffs and even win the World Series. The good thing is that like Bible prophecy “experts” their predictions are often woefully wrong.  Baseball is about sustained performance of teams and individuals over the long season. In no sport do players and teams have such a punishing schedule as in baseball. Day in and day out the players take the field, travel across country and play the next day.  As the legendary Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said “This ain’t a football game, we do this every day.”

The team rosters on opening day often are far different than those in September, injuries and slumps can get players traded, released or sent to the minors while unheralded players, journeymen, players called up from the minors and players that had been written off by former teams bask in the sunshine of success.  Teams which were expected to do great things sometimes collapse due to injuries, unexpectedly poor play by players that have to have a good season or a failure of on field leadership and trouble in the clubhouse or in senior management.

For these reasons I take all predictions made on opening day by experts with a grain of salt. I do not think that any of the experts picked San Francisco and Texas to meet in the World Series and right up to the end most of the experts picked the Giants to lose their division, then the divisional playoff series, then the NLCS and finally about half thought that the Giants would win the World Series.  I really think that experts show their bias, especially for East Coast teams over those in the West or Central and for teams with a lot of money and media clout such as the Yankees and Red Sox.  I have my thoughts on who might win their divisions and go on to the playoffs but anything I say now will be rendered moot by events on and off the field.  Do I think that the Giants can repeat? Of course, but no one has repeated since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees.  That is reality and what makes baseball so much fun, you never know how this long campaign will play out.

I love baseball because it really is an allegorical play about America and life. There are the highs and lows, the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations and the excitement of the underdog team that pulls it all together to win.  The meaning of Opening Day is that it is a beginning not an end, the end will only be seen when the last out of the World Series is recorded. Ernie Harwell said “Baseball is a lot like life. It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Bobby Thomson and the Shot Heard Round the World

Baseball great Bobby Thomson died yesterday at the age of 86 at his home in Savannah Georgia after a long illness.  Thomson was immortalized when he hit the “Shot heard round the World” for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951 to cap an epic comeback in the final game of a playoff to see which team would face the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrI7dVj90zs&feature=player_embedded

Baseball has many memorable moments but few are more memorable than the home run hit by Bobby Thomson to clinch the 1951 National League Pennant for the New York Giants, before they were the San Francisco Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951.

As anyone who reads this site knows Padre Steve is a Giants fan and believes that the Dodgers and about everything associated with them are evil.  I cannot call myself a “Dodger hater” for in spite of all I admire the history of the franchise and many of the players that played for or managed the team that I call the “Evil Dodgers.”  Given a choice if the Dodgers were in the World’s series against anyone other than the A’s, Angels or possible the Yankees, Rangers or Rays I would probably hope that they won. I must add the caveat that this would be condition if I felt that the Dodgers had won the National League Pennant by some underhanded means or that the Giants really deserved to be in the series. It would be as painful for me to cheer them on as it would for me as a UCLA Bruin (ROTC) alum to root for Troy Tech (USC) when they against the Ohio State University Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. It would be painful but there are exceptions to every rule.

For a baseball fan, any baseball fan what the Giants did in 1951 and Thomson’s roll in that final game of a 3 game playoff after a dramatic end to the regular season that left the teams tied was and is an epic story.  It is considered the most famous home run ever hit and is called “the shot heard ‘round the world.”  The Giants trailed the Dodgers in the pennant race by 13 ½ games on August 11th but went 37-7 to force a playoff against their blood rivals from Brooklyn.  In the final game of the series the Dodgers were up 4-1 in the 9th inning and things looked bleak for the Giants who had not generated much offense against Dodger’s pitchers during the game. Thomson’s 3 run homer off reliever Ralph Branca with 1 out in the bottom of the 9th to left field just above the 315’ marker at the Polo Grounds capped a 4 run rally to give the Giants one of the most fabled victories in all of sports history.

The rally was in keeping with the season for the Giants.  The rally started with a single by Alvin Dark who was followed by Don Mueller who singled to send Dark to third.  Monte Ervin who had led the league with 121 RBIs popped out.  Whitely Lockman doubled to score Dark and put runners on second and third with 1 out.  Dodgers’ starting pitcher Don Newcombe who was showing signs of overuse in the closing days of the season was pulled from the game obviously spent.  He was replaced by Ralph Branca who had given up a game winning home run to Thomson in game one of the series and surrendered several others to him in the regular season.  Branca was picked because Dodgers’ bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth saw Carl Erskine bouncing his curveball in front of the plate and instructed manager Charlie Dressen to send in Branca.  The move would cost Sukeforth his job shortly after the season ended.

Branca’s first pitch was a fastball down the middle that Thomson took for a strike.  Branca came back with another fastball up and in and Thomson ripped a line drive that cleared the wall just above the 315’ marker in left. Andy Pafko chase the ball to the wall hoping that it would not clear it and as Thomson hopped and skipped around the bases with only Jackie Robinson remaining on the field for the Dodgers making sure that Thomson touched all the bases.  Waiting on deck was another legendary Giant named Willie Mays who with the rest of the team mobbed Thomson as he touched home plate.

Giants’ radio Broadcaster Russ Hodges calling the game on WMCA-AM radio immortalized the hit:

“Bobby Thomson… up there swingin’… He’s had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line… One out, last of the ninth… Branca pitches… Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner… Bobby hitting at .292… He’s had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants’ first run with a long fly to center… Brooklyn leads it 4-2…Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances… Lockman  with not too big of a lead at second, but he’ll be runnin’ like the wind if Thomson hits one… Branca throws… [audible sound of bat meeting ball]

There’s a long drive… it’s gonna be, I believe…THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!” [ten-second pause for crowd noise]

I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson… hit a line drive… into the lower deck… of the left-field stands… and this blame place is goin’ crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it… by a score of 5 to 4… and they’re pickin’ Bobby Thomson up… and carryin’ him off the field!”

Legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell called the game and the shot on WPIX-TV which was being telecast nationally.  It has been immortalized in various cultural and entertainment venues, I remember it in the TV series M*A*S*H episode “A War for All Seasons” where Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) persuades the non-baseball fan Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers)to bet heavily on the Dodgers winning the pennant and with the unit watching the game film with Hodges’ recorded commentary Winchester cut his way through the screen shouting “Where is that Lebanese Mongoose?”

The Giants would go on the World Series against the Yankees losing in 6 games to the Bronx Bombers but that series has been overshadowed in history by the “Shot heard round the world.”

In 2001 Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager reported that the Giants had been stealing signs enabling batters to know what pitch was coming. While this was confirmed by a number of Giant’s players Thomson himself said that he had no foreknowledge of the pitch. Sign stealing was a common practice by many teams since the inception of the sport and has never been outlawed by Major League Baseball. The ball itself has never been found with one writer determining that a Franciscan nun recovered the ball and kept it in a shoebox until her death bequeathing it to her sister who deposited the box in a landfill.  Obviously the sister was a Dodgers’ fan.

Thomson was born in Glasgow Scotland and immigrated to the US with his parents when he was 2 years old growing up in Staten Island and served in the Army Air Force in the Second World War. He played 14 years in the Major Leagues and after retirement worked for a paper company.  He would remain a lifelong friend of Ralph Branca appearing at card shows and other baseball events.  Thomson retired in 1960 finishing his final season in Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles but would play one last season in 1963 with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. He hit .270 for his career with 264 home runs and 1026 RBIs and was elected to 3 All-Star teams.  A Scottish baseball team the Edinburgh Diamond Devils named their field “Bobby Thomson Field” in 2003 when he was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.

As for Branca he remembered the shot as well and the long walk to his car where his wife waited. “I remember going out to the parking lot. Ann was in the car with a friend of ours, Father Paul Rowley from Fordham. And I said to Father Rowley, ‘Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?’ And Father Rowley said, ‘God gave you this cross to bear because you’re strong enough to bear it.'”

For me the timeless memorial of this event, besides the Giants defeating the Evil Dodgers is the testament to friendship and the understanding that things are never over until they are over. Ask the 1951 Giants.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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