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What Makes Padre Steve Tick: My Vocation, Life, Love and Baseball

I’ve always related to the characters in Kevin Costner’s baseball films, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. The main characters in each of the films touch me each in different way.  Crash Davis and Billy Chapel are players at the end of their careers.  Davis is a career Minor Leagues journeyman who “played 21 days in the show.” and Chapel is other a future Hall of Famer at the close of a final season filled with disappointment.

The character of Crash Davis strikes a particular chord in me.  Crash Davisis a journeyman minor league catcher with the dubious distinction of having the most minor league home runs, 227 to be exact. The real life Minor League Home Run King is Mike Hessman who played for 15 years in the Minors with a few trips to the Majors and the U. S. Olympic Baseball Team; he had 329 home runs and is now playing in Japan) I have seen Hessman belt numerous home runs and the man is a beast, but I digress…

Davis also played “21 days in the show.” In the film Davis is a consummate professional. He loves and respects the game and actually cares about the development of the young guys, even if they try his patience.  His dealings with Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLooche played by Tim Robbins are case in point.  Crash is demoted by the big team from his AAA contract to the single “A” Durham Bulls, back when Durham was in the Carolina League in order to help the team develop the young bonus baby.  Crash is not happy with the job, he’s proud, and threatens to leave the team, only to ask his new manager what time batting practice is.

He takes the new assignment on with a mixture of skill and humor in a manner that benefits not only the young pitcher but motivates the rest of the team.  It does not matter that he is in the minor leagues as he still plays his heart out and spends his time teaching the next generation.  He even gets thrown out of games if it helps motivate his team.  Likewise he is not hesitant to let his young charge learn the hard way when young “Nuke” decides to ignore his advice.  The thing that Crash has the hardest time in dealing with his young charge is that he feels that “Nuke” doesn’t respect the game. Respect matters to a professional.

Mike Hessman

The comparison fits for me in more than one way. In a sense my life has been like a journeyman ball player.  I started my military career in the Army almost 30 years ago.  I come from a different generation of military than the vast majority of the Sailors and Marines that I serve with today.  I am “old school” in some ways but have learned to adapt, just as the men who were the old soldiers when I was a young enlisted man and officer. My career has been quite diverse and I have not always done the same job on the same team or at the same level.  I think this is the mark of a true journeyman, to keep playing because you love the game. Mike Hessman is doing that in Japan.

To continue the baseball journeyman analogy I played one position for a number of years and then so to speak left the big team to train for a new position while playing in the minors.  I left my active career as a Medical Service Corps Captain and transferred to the National Guard to attend seminary. When I graduated from seminary I became a National Guard and Reserve Chaplain.  I did not go on active duty. Back then the reserves were kind of like the minor leagues. Being a Reserve component Chaplain while doing my hospital residency and first hospital chaplain jobs it was like working my way up through the minors.  When I was promoted to the rank of Major in the Army Reserve it was like moving up to AAA ball.  When I got mobilized to support the Bosnia operation it was like getting called up during the regular season by the Major League team.  When that time ended and I returned to the reserves it was like being sent back to the minors.  I honestly thought that I would spend the rest of my career there, maybe getting called up for brief periods of time but knowing that my career was destined to end in the minor leagues.

That all changed when I was given a chance to go into the Navy.  I took a reduction in rank and came in with no time in grade. This meant that I was starting from scratch with a new team.  I had all of my experience but I was starting over.  It was like when a player gets traded or is sent back to the Minors by one team and has his contract picked up by another team in a different league in mid season. His slate is clear; it is a new start with the new team. That is what happened to me.

The analogy also fits because I do not like it when I feel that people do not respect “the game.”  By game of course I mean the vocation of serving as a Military Chaplain as a calling as well as their attitude toward the organization in which they serve. I have little tolerance for clergyman or women who enter the military with better education and natural or God given abilities than me who do not respect the institution, those in it and are out to push their agenda. This is how Crash feels about “Nuke” and I love this exchange from the film:

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: How come you don’t like me?
Crash Davis: Because you don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem. You got a gift.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I got a what?
Crash Davis: You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you’re pissing it away.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: I ain’t pissing nothing away. I got a Porsche already; a 911 with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt.
Crash Davis: Christ, you don’t need a quadraphonic Blaupunkt! What you need is a curveball! In the show, everyone can hit heat.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Well, how would you know? YOU been in the majors?
Crash Davis: Yeah, I’ve been in the majors.

Looking at Billy Chapel, the central character in For the Love of the Game I also find some connection though not quite the same as Crash Davis.  Billy has played the game a long time for the same team, 19 years. He came back from what should have been a career ending injury.  In the film and in the novel he pitches in what for his team is a meaningless last game of the season against the playoff bound Yankees in New York.  The story focuses on this last game, Billy’s relationships with current and former teammates as well as his long term relationship with the team’s owner who is selling the team.  The new management wants to deal Billy to another team in the off season and is asking him if he wants to continue in baseball.

While the game is going on, Chapel knows this is the end and spends a lot of time reflecting on his life, his parents, his World Series appearances and friendships. He thinks about things that have gone well and things that he regrets. He especially regrets his relationship with the woman he loves but has messed up.  While his mind visits these subjects he tries to maintain his focus on the game and block out the thoughts as well as the near hatred of the Yankee fans. “Clear the mechanism….”

The thing that hits me the most is relationship between Billy Chapel and Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston.  I have done a lot in my military career but at the same time have missed a lot of time with Judy.  From 1996-2001 we spent most of 40 of 60 months apart. Since September 11th 2001 we have spent many more months apart. We have only spent 12 of 28 wedding anniversaries together not to mention birthdays and other holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.  So many times Judy has missed the high points of my career and I have missed out on being with her to celebrate her achievements and to be there when times were hard.  But as anyone who serves a full career in the military knows it goes with the game. Chapel’s words to Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston after his perfect game strike a chord with me, I don’t ever think that I have said that I didn’t need Judy, but I spent a lot of my life not needing anybody, so she probably thought at times that I didn’t need her. Thus Chapel’s words to Jane do get me and when I first saw the movie put tears in my eyes:

“I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there. So I just wanted to tell you, not to change your mind or keep you from going, but just so you know, that I know, that I do need you. “

The second thing that really gets me is where the owner tells Billy Chapel that he is selling the team and tells Chapel that “the game stinks.”  I’ve seen a lot of people throughout my career with that kind of attitude about the Church, the military, their vocation and life in general that I want to scream.  Yes there is much that is not perfect in life and the institutions that we serve, but neither life nor serving God one this country stinks. Chapel’s words back to him echo how I feel about so much of life.

“The game doesn’t stink, Mr. Wheeler. It’s a great game.” After all these years I still love the game, my vocation, my service as a chaplain in the military and the young people that I get to work with.

Since coming back from Iraq there have been plenty of times that I have felt like I had nothing left to give. In the times that I was really struggling I made my transfer to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where I ran into a number of guys who were like Chapel’s catcher Gus Sinski (played by John C. Reilly) and let me know that they were not only with me but were going to take care of me:

Billy Chapel: I don’t know if I have anything left.
Gus Sinski: You just throw whatever you got, whatever’s left. The boys are all here for you. We’re gonna be awesome for you right now!

There are times in life where we think that we have nothing left and when we have people that challenge us and stand with us even painful situations where we don’t think that we don’t think we have anything left to give.

Finally there is the announcer, the legendary Vin Scully calling the game and realizes that something special is going on:

“And you know Steve you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”

Now I know that I am quite as far down the road career wise as Billy Chapel in the movie, but I do know that I am closer to the end of my military career than I was even a couple of years ago, but the thought that I could be on the last few years does cross my mind a lot.

I guess that there are three major things that I want to accomplish before the end of my military career. I want to take care of all of the people that God gives me and puts in my life.  Second is to help coach the young men and women that I meet along the way, especially clergy and chaplains as well as colleagues and friends, especially when they hit difficult patches.  In one scene Billy Chapel talks to a young player named Mickey Hart (played by Greer Barnes) who made a boneheaded play on a fly ball against the “Green Monster” in Boston.  The young man knows that his flub will be all over the news and chapel advises him:  There’s a bunch of cameras out there right now waiting to make a joke of this, Mick. So you can either stop, give them the sound bite, do the dance. Or you can hold your head up and walk by, and the next time we’re in Boston, we’ll go out there and work the wall together. Don’t help them make a joke out of you.” When I see young guys get in trouble or make mistakes I want to help them get back on their feet, especially the young chaplains and medical professionals that come into my life.

What is funny is that I am as old or older than most of our young Sailors and Marines parents.   I’ve been in the military since before many of the Sailors and Marines were born.  In a sense I’m a Crash Davis and Billy Chapel kind of guy. I want to finish well and have my last season be my best, to go out like Mike Mussina when he retired from the Yankees.

My career isn’t done yet. I should have a few more good years left. I’ll be promoted on September 1st to Commander in the Navy.

I love both films and characters and find a new connection every time that I watch them. I think that it is important when we have lived the often disconnected military life that we find things that help connect us to the people closest to us, those who have often have had to endure our choice of vocation.  Somehow in Her grace the Deity Herself allowed me to find this in baseball and somehow relate it to the rest of my life.  After all, it is for the Love of the Game.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, film, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, sports and life

For the Love of the Game and the Love of Life; Finding Meaning Life and Love in the Perfect Game

for_love_of_the_gameKevin Costner as Billy Chapel

One of my favorite movies is the baseball story For the Love of the Game which starred Kevin Costner.  This is the film rendition of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Perfect Game. Both the book and the movie tell the story of “Billy Chapel” a pitcher who played 19 seasons with the same team, in the movie the Detroit Tigers.  The story focuses on the last game of the season in which Chapel is to start.  The game for his team is meaningless; they will not be going to the playoffs as they are a bad team.  Compounding the team’s situation is the uncertainty of the team’s future as the long time owner who signed Chapel out of high school is about to sell the team.  The new ownership group wants to make changes, among the changes a trade involving Billy Chapel to the Giants. The trade would force him to play the next season in another uniform and another city when he wants to finish his career in the same city where it started.  Before the game the owner comes to Chapel to talk about possibilities and then begins to criticize the game, saying that it stinks.  Chapel responds: “The game doesn’t stink, Mr. Wheeler. It’s a great game.”

The book and the movie present a tapestry of the Billy Chapel’s life in between pitches.  Unlike most baseball films this focus’s not on a season, but a game, a single game.  Woven in this rich tapestry of this game are the lives of several people besides the lead character played by Kevin Costner.  The manager of the team has a wife with cancer.  His love, Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston is leaving him, going to London for a new job and stands him up the previous night.  She tells him “You’re perfect. You, and the ball, and the diamond, you’re this perfectly beautiful thing. You can win or lose the game, all by yourself. You don’t need me.” It is the classic cry of a woman whose true love is absolutely passionate about what he does well.

costner and preston for the love of the gameBilly Chapel (Costner) and Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston)

A friend and former team mate now plays for the Yankees who Chapel’s Tigers will play in the last game of the season. Billy’s catcher Gus is not much of a hitter and the manager wants to play a better hitting catcher but Chapel will have nothing of it as Gus is “his catcher.”  As the game goes on Chapel’s arm begins to hurt from an old off season injury, he’s tired and feeling the pressure. Throughout the game Gus helps Billy keep it together and as they go out for the last inning he goes out to the mound and says to Billy: “The boys are all here for ya, we’ll back you up, we’ll be there, cause, Billy, we don’t stink right now. We’re the best team in baseball, right now, right this minute, because of you. You’re the reason. We’re not gonna screw that up, we’re gonna be awesome for you right now. Just throw.” It’s the kind of word that anyone can need when they are exhausted but about to accomplish something great, the team is there for them.

for the love of the gameThe Wind Up

Billy chapel is old.  He has had a mediocre season for anyone else but for him a bad season.  His all star days are past.  His dad who taught him the game and witnessed his greatest moments is dead as is his mother.  He is, with the exception of Gus alone.  It is a story that could end like so many stories in sadness or despair.  Instead it is the story of triumph.  It is the story of how in spite of a whirl of emotions and a lot of pain from past injuries he triumphs.  He does so against an opponent that is going to the playoffs, the always dangerous Yankees in the venerable Yankee Stadium.  Chapel pitches a perfect game against the odds.  Supporting players who had failed during the season make stellar plays.  The team which had nothing to look forward to celebrates one of the rarest of human events, a Major League perfect game. Not just a “no-hitter” which I have been specially graced by the Deity Herself to see in person, but a perfect game of which only 18 have been thrown.  Perfect games are unforgettable and this story gets it right.  The game itself is a story of redemption, in life, love and the pursuit of excellence.  During the game the grandson of the owner is sent to get Chapel’s answer about taking the trade.  Chapel writes his response on a baseball: Tell them I’m through, “for love of the game”, Billy Chapel. Chapel the game is more than a paycheck, it is about life and relationships.

After the post game celebration he pours Gus out in his room and He then goes to find Jane, who due to a flight delay is stuck waiting at JFK in a bar watching the game.  She realizes what she is walking out on.  When Chapel finds out about her leaving the next morning he goes to the airport.  He says something that I think really sticks out to guys who have invested much in their careers but left love behind or had it go stale:

“I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there. So I just wanted to tell you, not to change your mind or keep you from going, but just so you know, that I know, that I do need you.”

Dundas at HitPadre Steve Doing What He Loves

The story of Billy Chapel is one of finishing well.  So many people start their lives full of promise and somewhere along the way give up. They exist, go through the motions and stop believing in themselves and those who love them.  For whatever reason some people, maybe a lot of people stop living long before they die. The wake up, go through the motions and stop striving for excellence and forget about love, life and friendship. They forget what loyalty means and take for granted the love of people who care about them.  They have lost their love and passion and simply go through the motions of existence.  It happens in all phases of life. In the military we have a slang term called the “ROAD program.”  It means “Retired On Active Duty.  These are the guys who have stopped trying; they know that short of committing a criminal act that they can retire.  They go through the motions.  There are these kinds of folks everywhere, not just the military and unfortunately a decent number in minstry.  Somewhere, somehow they have given up. I don’t want to do that.  I want my last game to be my best.

Billy Chapel is the epitome of a man who gives his all in what he knows will be his final game, a game that for everyone else but him is meaningless.  However in the microcosm of that game everyone finds meaning.  As he pitches and the tension builds, those who had just been along for the ride get caught up in the magic.  His manager, his journeyman catcher “Gus,” his team mates, and even the opposing players and the hostile Yankee fans discover what it is to live again.  People who had given up find inspiration and hope. Billy Chapel creates magic on the mound which in that moment of time makes life right.  Sure it is just a novel, it is just a film, but it is life just as baseball is life, a game played like most of us live, some great performances, slumps, winning and losing streaks, errors, bad calls, trades, being fired and even rain or on rare occasion Colorado fans, snow delays.  In baseball great players are still not perfect the majority of the time, baseball unlike any other sport is humanity at its best and worst.

Judy and Steve[1]_edited-1Me with My Love

I find the story of Billy Chapel in The Perfect Game to be compelling.  I love baseball and for me the story of someone at the tail end of their career achieving the next to impossible is inspiring.  I find inspiration in other old ball players who keep doing well. It is the old guys of baseball who inspire me now, guys like Jamie Moyer of the Phillies and Mike Mussina who retired from the Yankees last year at the top of his game. I could well be finishing my career in the next few years.  I want my time in the Navy to matter in my last few years. If I get promoted and remain a few more, that is okay, but even then I want to finish well.  When I’m done with that I hope that the Deity Herself will give me the grace to continue to strive for excellence in serving people as a priest.  I never want to be on the ROAD program even if I live to be 90. I want my last years, be they a military career, or the rest of my life and ministry to be my best and that means my life.

Peace, Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, marriage and relationships

One Pitch, Game or Season too Many

In 1973 Willie Mays signed with the New York Mets after being released by the San Francisco Giants at the end of the 1972 season.   It was  a mistake and was his worst season in the majors.  He showed his age, he had lost his speed.  His arm was shot and hs hitting was a shadow of what it once was. He committed errors that never would have happened early in his career.  He was unable to play on a daily basis.  He wanted to do well.  However the inability to be in the lineup on a consistant basis, lack of outfield speed, weak arm and poor hitting hurt his team.  As a Giants fan I love Willie Mays.  I believe that he is quite possibly the best player who ever lived.  It hurt to see him finish his career in that fashion.

Other players have done this as well.  They go for that last season that last chance for glory and leave not at the top of their game, but at the bottom.  They end up tarnishing their final year and a career that should have ended in triumph ends in a whimper.  A recent example is NFL great Brett Farve.  His debacle with the New York Jets after retiring from the Packers has pushed his greatness to the side.  The continuing confusion of whether he will try to return for one more year has made many former supports stop caring.  Roger Clemens in the way that he played his last couple of years, sitting out half a season to make a dramatic entrance and then not performing well in his last season left a sour taste in the mouth of many in and out of baseball.

This is not confined to sports figures it occurs in almost every career vocation.  For many this desire to stay just one more year, one more tour one more chance at glory the attempt ends in personal humiliation. They realize later that they should have gotten out at the top of their game.  When I was a young Medical Service Corps officer we had about 250 Colonels in our branch.  We only had one billet for a Brigadier General.  That was usually 3-4 year term for whoever was the Chief of the Medical Service Corps.  Additionally there were only a few actually billets for Colonel’s to command actual units.   Some of these officers would have sld their soul’s to get the star.  I’m sure that at least a few did. But with only one General Officer billet that came open every 3-4 years the chances were pretty slim for anyone to get the job. Yet we would have men well past their prime holding on, going from staff assignment to staff assignment until they hit the statutory retirement point.  Many were miserable and felt that they should have been the annointed one. Unfortunately both in attitude and for the fact that by holding on indefinitely they kept others from getting promoted they hurt the Corps.  This is not uncommon in botht he military and the civilian world, even in churches.  It often harms those that hold on, those that work for them and the institution when younger men and women with fresh ideas can’t get promoted.  Since I left the Medical Service Corps as a  fairly junior Captain to go to seminary I never had a dog in this fight, but it was intersting to observe the effect on individuals and the institution.

There are times in life as well where we go through different seasons.  Adjusting to the changes of those seasons is just as important, be they family, spiritual or vocational.  Knowing when the season is changing and having people help us through are key. Likewise for those who have a religions faith, my Christian faith is a moderate Anglo-Catholic Episcopal spirituality with a membership in the Church of Baseball.  After all the Deity does speak to me through baseball.

It takes a bit of self-awareness to know when you shouldn’t go on.  Mike Mussina retired at the end of the 2008 season.  He went won 20 games for the first time in career had a 3.37 ERA and won his 7th Golden Glove of his career.  He could have probably played for another year or two.  However, he decided to go out on top.  He left at the end of his 17th and best season.

In daily life we have the same situation.  A pitcher needs to know when to tell his manager that he can’t pitch.  Likewise the manager and pitching coach have to be able to tell when their pitchers are losing their edge. My department head knows what I have been through in my life and what I have been dealing with both personally and physically.  He trusts me to tell him when I am having trouble.  He knows how to get the best out of me without wiping me out to do it.

Sometimes people not only stay too long, but in staying to long end up hurting their team, political party, business organization or religious organization.   We have all probably known people like this.  They finish badly and seldom does someone gently come alongside and say, “Friend, you had a great run, it’s time for you to step aside and let others carry out the mission.”

I for one know that I desire to go out on top when it is time for me to leave the military.  I will be retirement eligible in about 2 ½ years.  I want my tour where I am to be the best of my career regardless of whether I retire or get promoted and remain in service.  I want people to remember me in the best possible way. If I know that I cannot do the job anymore it is incumbent on me to be honest enough with myself to admit it and go home before people say: “Yah, he was a good chaplain back in the day, but he’s lost something…he’s not the same.”   I trust that the Deity Herself will assist me in this; Lord knows that this miscreant Priest needs all the help that he can get.

Peace,

Steve+

Post Script: I saw the Tides win again tonight and bring their record to 28 and 13, the best in AAA baseball.  They won on a Justin Turner hit a walk off single to drive in Oscar Salazar with 2 outs in the bottom of the 10th to defeat the Rochester Red Wings.  Kam Mikalio got the win for the Tides and Bobby Keppel took the loss for the Wings.  It was a ugly game, perhaps the ugliest I have see this year.  Each team committed three errors for a total of six errors in the game.  Wings third baseman Matt Macri dropped a routine pop foul by Oscar Salazar who then singled and scored the winning run.  Wings starting pitcher Philip Humber hit three Tides batters.  Tides Manager Gary Allenson and Designated Hitter Robby Hammock was tossed in the bottom of the 8th and Wings Shortstop Trevor Plouffe was tossed in the top of the 10th.

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