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Shoeless Joe and the Healing of the Soul

“Success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.” Eddie Scissions in Shoeless Jo

I don’t read much non-fiction. However I do appreciate writers that can tell a story and make it feel real and bring the wood pulp that becomes the pages of a book to life.  I appreciate the writers who are able to blend fantasy and reality, history, religion, faith and mystery and in doing so bring me into the world that they create. It is quite amazing when I think about it.

Before Iraq the fiction I read was historical fiction or the genre of “alternative history.” I gravitated toward military fiction like Anton Meyrer’s Once an Eagle or W.E.B. Griffin’s The Brotherhood of War series and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. All dealt with a military culture that was part of me and that I could relate to because of that shared culture.

But took going to Iraq for me to start reading the occasional work of fiction that was not related to the military. When I was in Iraq I started reading Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries. I was beginning a crisis in faith and couldn’t sleep at night I found that somehow the stories touched me with the grace of God.  But I also read a little book called The Perfect Game by Michael Shaara which was a novel about a baseball player, a pitcher named Billy Chapel in the final game of his career. The book  later became the basis of the movie For the Love of the Game. It also resonated in me because it dealt with a man looking back at his life, his successes and failures and how they all flowed through his mind in that final game.

I finished reading W. P. Kinsella’s masterpiece Shoeless Joe last night. It is not the first time that I have read it The book is the novel that the film Field of Dreams is adapted from. Kinsella is a wonderful writer who manages to write in such a way that if you pause for a moment and close your eyes that you can enter into the vividness of the story. Sights, sounds, scents and even touch are imaginable in what he writes.

I saw the movie before I ever read the book. I drove Judy a couple of hundred miles out of our way back in 2004 to visit the actual Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa. But the book touches me in a very deep way. I read it the first time during the summer of 2008 when I returned from Iraq. I remember hunting through the shelves of the local bookstore until I found a copy. Every page that I read came to life and there were times that I had to stop reading because tears filled my eyes.

This time I read it on my I-Phone courtesy of the Amazon Kindle App. I have been doing a lot of my reading on my Kindle or I-Phone lately and despite the lack of pages to turn and spill coke or beer on as I read, the ability to have a lot of books at my fingertips instead of weighing down my trusty Blackhawk “Three Day Pack” that has been with me since I went to Iraq with more books that I should reasonably carry. People have always been amazed with the number of books that I have lugged around ever since I was a kid going to the public library or the school library.  Believe me the trade off is worth it, but I digress….

Once again Kinsella transported me to the world of Ray Kinsella, J.D. Salinger, Moonlight Graham and Shoeless Joe Jackson and the “Unlucky Eight” of the Black Sox scandal that rocked baseball in 1919.  I feel like I know them. But then in a way I do. I know so many ballplayers and baseball has been such a big part of my life that there is something that transcends the pages.  Like the characters in the book whose lives are tied to certain teams, in particular the 1919 White Sox and 1908 Cubs I have that sense of connection with the 1970 California  Angels and players like the late Jim Spencer and Third Base Coach Rocky Bridges. Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman and I met him at an autograph signing session at a local Von’s supermarket in Long Beach. that year. I wrote an essay for a contest on why he was my favorite Angel. I was one of the runners up and ended up as a runner up and got tickets to a game, my name in the newspaper and announced by Dick Enberg. I met Coach Bridges that same year and have a picture of him with my brother Jeff and me. That year at Anaheim Stadium and those fleeting encounters with the ball players and coaching staff of the 1970-71 Angels made me a believer in the game of baseball.

So whenever I read the book Shoeless Joe or see the movie Field of Dreams I end up crying. I do that a lot more of that than I used to and as always by the last few pages of the book I was wiping away my tears in order to read.

I think this is because it is a story that really is about the healing power of that lush green field, that perfect diamond that the game of baseball is played. It is a story of reconciliation of fathers and sons, brothers and even strangers. It really is a story of life touched by grace, of infinite possibilities. As Ray Kinsella, the teller of the story in the novel said:

“Baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds. If only life were so simple. Within the baselines anything can happen. Tides can reverse; oceans can open. That’s why they say, “the game is never over until the last man is out.” Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.”

It is a healing balm to my soul.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s First All-Star Game Memories

My dad taught me to love the game of Baseball and art of that love was the annual experience of watching the All-Star Game. I continue that tonight with the National League has just one by a score of 5-1.

I first remember doing this in the late 1960s but where the All-Star Game became etched in my mind was in the summer of 1970.  We were living in Long Beach California about a 15 minute drive from “The Big A” as Angel’s Stadium was known back then. Dad was taking me to every game that he could and back then tickets were easy to come by and players were very accessible to fans, especially 10 year old kids like me.

Riverfront Stadium

I remember going the Anaheim Stadium and getting to vote for the players. I didn’t know it then but it was the first time since 1957 that the position players were voted in by fans.  I don’t remember all the players that I voted for but the one that I do remember voting for, Angel’s First Baseman and Gold Glove winner Jim Spencer was not elected or named as a reserve.  Later that year I wrote a short essay for the “My Favorite Angel” contest telling why Spencer was my favorite Angel and ended up being one of the runners up for the contest. My name was in theLong Beachpaper, I still have the clipping and my name was announced by Angel’s announcer Dick Enberg during a game and I got two tickets directly behind home plate.

I do remember some of my other picks that made the rosters as elected players or reserves, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Boog Powell, Harmon Killebrew, Johnny Bench, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Alomar, Tony Perez, Jim Fregosi and Pete Rose.

I was the first election that I ever voted in and certainly more worthwhile than most political elections that I have vote in since.  When the game came on July 14th we gathered in from of our television to watch.  I was transfixed as I watched the action. We still had a black and white television and antennae as cable TV was not available.  It is hard to believe that back then we had only the three major networks ABC, NBC and CBS, no ESPN, MLB Channel or any of the region sports networks that air Major League games today.

Left Phillips California Angels Manager and me in 1970.He was one of Earl Weaver’s American League Coaches in the 1970 All Star Game

The game as was telecast on NBC which also televised the Saturday “Game of the Week” and called by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Mickey Mantle who had been out of the game for a season and a half.  It was played at the brand new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati a dual purpose stadium designed for the Reds and the Bengals covered in some of the most horrible artificial turf imaginable with cut outs for the bases, home plate and the pitcher’s mound.  It was very similar to Three River’s Stadium inPittsburgh; Veteran’s Stadium inPhiladelphiaand so unlike the nicest field built in the 1970sKansas City’s Kaufman Stadium.  It should come as no surprise that Riverfront,Three Rivers and the Vet are gone and Kaufman is as beautiful as ever.

It was a great game certainly one of the epics in terms of All Star Games.  The American League had a 4-1 lead in the top of the 9th as Jim Catfish Hunter gave up a lead off home run to Giant’s catcher Dick Dietz. Two more runs would score the last being Joe Morgan, then with the Houston Astros who scored on a sacrifice fly by Roberto Clemente off Yankees’ pitcher Mel Stottlemyer who was credited with a blown save.

The game went to the 12th inning tied 4-4 Earl Weaver sent Angel’s ace Clyde Wright who had thrown a no-hitter in Anaheim against the A’s just 11 days before for a second inning of relief work.  Wright got the first two outs and then gave up consecutive singles to Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz. He then gave up a single to Jim Hickman which was fielded by Royals outfielder Amos Otis. Otis got a great throw to Indians Rookie Catcher Ray Fosse who dropped the ball when he was run over by Rose at home plate.

The Pete Rose hit on Ray Fosse that gave the National League a 12th Inning Walk Off win

Dad was torn on this. He loved Pete Rose but he had come to like dare say an American League team, the Angels.  He hated to see Clyde Wright get the loss.  I still remember that collision as if it were yesterday and despite his being banned from the game I still admire the playing ability and hustle of Pete Rose.

That was my first All Star Game.  The only ones that I have missed since have been those when I was deployed and unable to watch.  I love to see the players there and though the All Star format has its flaws I still love it because it takes me back to that magical summer of 1970 and fond memories of my dad teaching me the game at Anaheim Stadium and in our back yard.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Opening Day 2011: How Baseball Helps Padre Steve Make Sense of the World

The 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)

We are approaching Opening Day for baseball and in a couple weeks more the Norfolk Tides will play their home opener at Harbor Park against their rival the Durham Bulls. Unfortunately this year I cannot keep my season tickets in 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.  My assignment at Camp LeJeune will keep me from this place 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 2008 but Harbor Park has a special place in my heart a place of solace and community that has been a constant for me. While I will not have my season tickets this year I will still make games whenever I am in town at the same time that the Tides are at home and I will catch some games in Kinston North Carolina where the K-Tribe, the Kinston Indians will play their last season before moving to Zebulon and it’s wonderful ballpark.

Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.  ~Sharon Olds

The ball park is important to me.  When I was really suffering from depression and a major crisis in faith related to my tour in Iraq and battle with PTSD and feelings of abandonment after the tour 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 with California Angels Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970

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.

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.

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, Andy Messersmith, and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

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.

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.

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.  Last year the Vietnam Vets and the Veterans beer stand were moved down the first base concourse where they were relegated to the boring beers.

Even still there is some sadness in baseball this year as there was last year and the year before.  My dad passed away last year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  I miss talking baseball with him and wish he was alive and in good enough health to play catch.  However that will have to wait for eternity on the lush baseball field that only heaven can offer.

The season is about to begin 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, natural disasters 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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A Tangled Mass of Emotions: Dad, the Boss, an ICU Death and the All-Star Game

The Big “A” that I knew

I am a mess the past day or so. Not that anything is bad or going wrong it is just that emotionally I am a mess.  As I try to get back into normal life I find emotions brought up by my dad’s death three weeks ago going all over the place.  Today was so strange; it actually began a couple of days ago when I finished the third chapter of my series on “Meeting Jesus and the Team at 7-11” entitled “A Death, a Rain Delay and a Visit from Saint Pete.” Since my dad’s death due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease I have experienced number of things that sent my emotions into overload because they somehow connected with dad and his death.  Over the past couple of days these intense emotional surges, I cannot call them swings because they are not swings, I am not going between depression and elation but rather experiencing strong emotional impulses as things remind me of my dad or of childhood.  I know that I am okay because grief and the emotions that follow the loss of a parent particularly your father if you are the oldest son are guaranteed to mess with you. They are normal, I am a highly trained pastoral caregiver but since I am not a Vulcan but a Romulan with probably a bit of Klingon mixed in the emotional surges that well up from under my normally cold and logical exterior are a real bitch, no wonder the Romulans wage war with such ferocity and the Klingons appear to be in a perpetually foul mood.  But I digress…

The past couple of weeks have been weird because I never know when something is going to trigger emotions that remind me of my dad.  Much of this of course revolves around baseball as it was my dad that taught me to love the game and through the connection between baseball and dad there has been, even when he was no longer himself due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s something that brought a sense of stability and peace to life, even when I was a post-Iraq PTSD mess.

Now I am a mess again as things that I see, hear and experience things that bring me back to dad.  At this moment my excrement is together but I have no idea what or when the next emotional surge will hit and I will be blubbering like I girl, not that there is anything wrong with that.

The past few days are a case in point. I went to Harbor Park on both Saturday and Sunday and had a great time, at the same time I felt like my dad was there. He never came to Norfolk during my time here because of his physical and deteriorating mental state but now since his death it almost feels like he is there with me.  I went to work Monday and had the on-call overnight duty at the Medical Center and was doing pretty well but in the late afternoon I was called for a cardiac arrest of an 81 year old man and off and on throughout the evening was called back as he continued to get worse to take care of his family, a wife of 63 years and a son a couple of years old than me.  I really wanted this man to live but it became apparent as the night wore on that he would not survive the night and his wife asked me to perform the Sacrament of Healing or what some used to refer to as “Last Rights” which I did with she and her son present using the rite form the Book of Common Prayer.  With his condition somewhat stable I went to our call room where I attempted to get a little rest on the bed from hell.   Of course getting to sleep on said bed is difficult at best and since when I am on duty the hyper vigilance factor is real and present it takes a while to get to sleep.  About 0215 my fitful sleep was interrupted by the pager going off and with it the message to come back to the ICU as the patient was dying.  I went back and was with the family when he died and until they left the building about 0315.

The next morning or rather later in the morning, but not much later I was back up and preparing for a meeting across the bay at the VA Medical Center. While I prepared I found out that George Steinbrenner had died.  When I felt the emotions well up in me, especially while I was watching ESPN’s Sports Center and various players, managers and other sports figures were interviewed about the Boss the emotions started coming in waves, funny how that happens.  As I reflect on this I guess it is because in many ways my dad and Steinbrenner were similar, passionate, outspoken, driven but also caring and good fathers who often showed compassion to others but in a private manner. Now my dad was not a fan of Steinbrenner or the Yankees, but the Boss engendered such emotions in people, positive and negative I am not surprised my dad had little regard for the American League after all he was a National League man.  When I heard Derek Jeter, Joe Morgan, Paul O’Neil and so many others talk of their relationship with Steinbrenner I laughed, cried and reflected on dad.  Strange connection but a connection anyway.

Photo Day 1970 with Angels Manager “Lefty” Phillips

Later in the evening I went to Gordon Biersch for a salad, beer and to watch some of the Major League Baseball All-Star game which was being played at the home of the Los Angeles Angels, at one time th California Angels, Anaheim Stadium, the place where more than any my dad taught me a love and respect of the game of Baseball.  As I looked at this cathedral of baseball, now expanded and Disneyfied since I was a child shagging foul balls and collecting autographs I was taken back in time.  I remember the very first game that dad took us to at Anaheim Stadium as it was then known as the “Big A” like it was yesterday, July 4th 1970 the day after Clyde Wright pitched a no-hitter. On this day the Angels did not win, the A’s won 7-4.  I saw the first major league home runs that I can remember seeing in person that night as we sat in the lower level of the right field corner near the foul pole. At that time the bullpen was adjacent to the grandstand and there were no mountains, valleys, palm trees or whatever else is out there, a log ride perhaps, but I digress. Back then there was a warning track and a fence as well as an amazing scoreboard in the shape of a big block “A” with a halo near the top.

That night I saw home runs by Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris and Sal Bando for the A’s and Jim Spencer for the Angels.  Jim “Catfish” Hunter got the win and Jim “Mudcat” Grant got the save. Rudy May took the loss for the Angels.  The fact that I saw two future Hall of Fame players in this game was amazing, the winning pitcher, Hunter and Reggie Jackson.  Later in the year I entered a contest and wrote why Jim Spencer was my favorite Angel.  I had met Spencer at an autograph signing event at the local Von’s grocery store and when the contest winners were announced I was a runner up. I got tickets behind home plate and my name announced by legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg on the radio and my name in the Long Beach newspaper that sponsored the contest.  Dad took us probably to 30 or more games that year and I fell in love with the game.

Back in those days teams still had photo days where players would be available on the field for pictures and autographs and on autograph day in 1970 my dad took my brother and I onto a major league ball field for the first time and I was in awe.  The warning track was a red clay and the field was lush green as I looked back in toward home plate I wondered what it would be like to play in such a place.  From that season on the game had a hold on me. Dad and I did not have much in common, my brother I think is actually more like him than me but Dad taught me about the game at the stadium and in our back yard and gave me a gift that connected him to me more than anything else, something that I didn;t realize until much later in life.  I looked at that stadium on television and I saw the field, the main part of the stadium is still so much like it was when dad took us there and as I looked at it and remembered him I was in tears, I had a hard time keeping my emotions in, kind of embarrassing to be in tears at a bar during a baseball game but I was doing my best to hold it in.  Judy told me that I probably needed to talk to Elmer the Shrink about this but he is out of town until next week.  So I’ll wait, everyone deserves time off.

While we were still there and I was working on my second Kölsch style sömmerbrau a friend came up to me. He was a bit lit up having consumed his fair share and maybe more for the night but God used him and in his own way to bring comfort to me in what appeared rather earthy and even ludicrous manner but when he was said and done I felt better.  I think that he will need to serve as a model for some character in the Meeting Jesus and the Team series, I have no idea which figure from the Bible or Church history just yet but I will look around because what he said even though a tad under the influence of decidedly good beer was profound.  God does use people in strange and mysterious ways.

So I will continue I am sure to have emotional surges whenever something reminds me of my dad and I guess in the long run that is a good thing as my friend said it would make me better at what I do, I have now experienced the loss of my dad and am that much closer to the time that I will pass away, a generation has been removed between me and the end of my earthly life. This is something that so many people that I know already deal with.  It allows me to be connected to them in a way that just a few weeks back that I could not be.  It makes me a bit more human and more connected.

Dad, the Boss and the All-Star game at Anaheim Stadium, it is amazing what this concoction of images, memories and feelings can turn me into, a blubbering girl, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Peace,

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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Filed under Baseball, faith

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

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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