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The True Harbinger of Spring: Baseball and America in the Age of Trump

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Nine days ago Punxsutawney Phil predicted another six weeks of Winter, but on Wednesday spring begins. Not the actual season of Spring but real spring, as pitchers and catchers begin to report to Baseball Spring Training. My long winter of dealing with the monotony of Up Armored Slowed Paced Rugby, also known as American Football is over. Thankfully during that period I did have European Football, particularly Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga to help me through the winter.

Spring is a good thing unless you like me are very concerned with what happens on the Korean Peninsula following the Olympic Games in particular what is a very real possibility of war that easily through intent or miscalculation on the part of the North Korean, or maybe more so the Trump administration could escalate to to something that none of us want to contemplate; thus I can agree with Sharon Olds who wrote during the height of the Cold War, “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.”

This week is the true beginning of spring. I know that spring does not actually begin until March, but even so amid the continuing winter, spring is showing its first sign of dawning as pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training. As Bill Veeck once said, “That’s the true harbinger of spring, not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on a ball.”

I grew up with a love for baseball that was cultivated by my late father, we didn’t always agree on much, but he imparted to me a love for the game that knows no bounds.

For me that is true. From the day the World Series ends I wait in anticipation for the beginning of Spring Training and I can agree with the great Rogers Hornsby who said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Now don’t get me wrong I really love Soccer, I like Hockey, and American Football is just a diversion to hang out with friends over a beer, but in the end they are merely sports, were Baseball is a refuge with profoundly religious meaning to me. As Bryant Gumbel once said, “The other sports are just sports. Baseball is a love.”

I think that unlike so many other sports and entertainment that baseball has a healing quality that is good for society. Walt Whitman wrote, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

In a time like ours when the United States is wracked by the chaos of the daily Twitter rampages of President Trump and his defiance of all the norms of society, his disrespect for the Constitution, law, and simple human decency it is nice to remember that as Bill Veeck noted: “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.” I wish that was the case in Washington D.C. where the President and his gang of supporters in Congress and the Right Wing media is doing their best to re-write both American history as well as every political and society norm that has held the country together during even the most perilous times. They would be called cheaters in baseball, they are worse that baseball’s PED users because they are not just cheating they are trying to re-write the rules of the game to cover their misdeeds.

Conservative and former Republican commentator George Will wrote:

“(Barry) Bonds’ records must remain part of baseball’s history. His hits happened. Erase them and there will be discrepancies in baseball’s bookkeeping about the records of the pitchers who gave them up. George Orwell said that in totalitarian societies, yesterday’s weather could be changed by decree. Baseball, indeed America, is not like that…”

The only problem is that Will wrote that before Donald Trump. I just wonder if indeed Trump will succeed in changing the very fabric of the American experiment.

When I came back from Iraq the ballpark was one of the very few places that I could go and feel absolutely safe. There is something comforting in looking out over that beautiful diamond, smelling the freshly cut grass, the carefully manicured infield, and taking it all in. In fact for me tit still is one of my few truly safe refuges where war, terrorism, political and religious hatred, and the endless ideological battles of conservative and liberal pundits and politicians take a back seat, even those of Donald Trump. As the concerns of the moment fade away as I take in the beauty of that beautiful green diamond I find a peace that I seldom find anywhere else; and yes, that includes most churches where I find neither peace, nor God. Maybe that’s why I believe in the Church of Baseball. Unlike church there’s no guilt and it’s seldom boring.

I guess that is why it baseball matters so much to me, and why in spite of all the terror that the President triggers within my soul, that the seemingly insignificant act of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training means so much. For me it is a symbol of hope.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, Political Commentary, PTSD

Seven Days Until Pitchers and Catchers Report: Patriots Win Super Bowl

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My friends there are only seven days until pitchers and catchers report and life really begins again, for this my friends is the true harbinger of spring. If you like me need to keep track a link is provided below, but I digress…

http://whendopitchersandcatchersreport.com/

But anyway, in a world of so much uncertainty and woe, baseball is what helps keep me sane, or at least some semblance of sane. As Sharon Olds said back in 1987 “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” Since Donald Trump now has access to our nation’s nuclear weapons, this is a very important thing to me.

But truthfully I am thanking whatever deity may be out there baseball is coming back, even though it is just spring training. You see for me, that is comforting because baseball is more than a game to me. I agree with George Will, the vociferous conservative critic of President Trump, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”

By the way speaking of games I watched one last night, the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime at a magnificent and inspiring concert starring Lady Gaga.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Midsummer Night Dreaming 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night was nice, I took a break and watched the MLB All Star Game. Baseball has always been a big part of my life but recently I have been so busy that I have been scarcely doing more than checking the box scores. But then there is nothing wrong with that, as Fox Mulder told Dana Scully in the X-Files episode The Unnatural  when Scully told him that she couldn’t believe that he had been reading about baseball: “Reading the box scores, Scully. You’d like it. It’s like the Pythogorean Theorem for jocks. It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all of baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947. It’s like the numbers talk to be, the comfort me. They tell me that even though lots of things change some things remain the same….” 

Baseball has always been a part of my life, I have recounted that many times on this site. It is something that has grounded me throughout life ever since I could remember, and like it does the fictional Fox Mulder, baseball reminds me that in an era of massive change that some things, some really good things, remain the same, and it is reassuring as Sharon Olds wrote, “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” 

I know that some people find baseball boring, it isn’t fast enough, or violent enough for their taste. It’s not played on a standard sized gridiron or court, it’s not bound by the same rules of space and time as other sports. Theoretically a baseball game could last for eternity, just as the foul lines that angle out from home plate theoretically exetend to infinity, while any statistic in the game can be plotted to the most accurate decimal. It is a curious blend of sport, life, mathematics, philosophy, metaphysics, and faith, and it is a part of who we are as Americans. It is woven in to the fabric of the country, soldiers in Blue and Gray broke up the monotony of camp life during the Civil War, it helped people get through world wars and the Great Depression, and when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier it signaled the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. Kids played it in farm fields, on sandlots, and in big city neighborhoods with makeshift balls, sticks and whatever they could use as gloves. There were times when it captivated the nation even when cities were burning and wars were raging. There is something magical about a pennant race, a perfect game, the crack of a bat and a ball that travels into the center field seats. 


On a visit to Capital Hill during a contentious legislative session, the legendary Negro League player and manager stopped to talk about what it would be like if instead of preaching virulent hatred and division, the television was showing the great catch made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. O’Neil grew up in the Jim Crow era, in segreation, and played his best ball when he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues, or even enter certain restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, or public rest rooms simply because he was black. But he never became bitter, and he never stopped working for full equality nor continued to work for peace, he told the people watching a television which had the news on: “If Willie Mays was up there, people would stop making laws. They would stop running. They would stop arguing about big things, little things. No Democrat or Republican, no black or white, no North or South. Everybody just stop, watch the TV, watch Willie Mays make that catch. That’s baseball man.” 


Me with California Angels Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970

When I watch the All Star Game I am reminded for playing catch with my dad, playing in little league and going to ball games to see my heroes play in those, lush, green, and beautiful diamonds, well except for the Astro Turf ones. We can thank whatever deity convinced baseball executive to go back to grass that most of those are gone. In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones, playing the reclusive writer Terrence Mann, modeled on J.D. Salinger said to Ray Kinsella, a character played by Kevin Costner, “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been 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 was once good, and what could be again.” 

Well last night the American League beat the National League 4-2. Zach Britton, the closer for the Baltimore Orioles who I got to know a bit when he pitched in Norfolk got the save. My favorite teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Orioles lead their divisions going into the second half of the season. It was, despite all the chaos, violence, political division, and uncertainty in the world, a perfect misdsummer night. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve +

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Designed to Break Your Heart: Baseball Season Ends

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late commissioner of baseball and literary giant A. Bartlett Giamatti once wrote:

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

Last night when the Kansas City Royals came back to defeat the New York Mets in extra innings, the won their first World Series in thirty years and ended the 2015 baseball season and with it a lot of hearts broke, as they do every year at this time. It is not just that somewhere along the way our favorite team loses, but it is the how for many people, like me, that baseball is more than a game, but has an incredible spiritual component.

This year none of my teams made the playoffs, except for our local Triple-A International League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, the Norfolk Tides. That being said the post-season was interesting and had a lot of great stories within the story of the post-season playoff series and the World Series. The Royals picked up where they did last year after they lost a heartbreaker to the San Francisco Giants and continued to win even when it looked like the opposition, whether it was the Astros, Blue Jays or the Mets was poised to win. I am not a Royals fan but as a lover of baseball I have to say that they are an amazing team.

However, the season is now over, and for me winter is now officially here, and yesterday was dreary with a lot of rain. The official beginning of winter for me starts with the end of the Fall Classic.

With the end of the season one of my places of solace from the cares of the world. Really, when I came home from Iraq, baseball was one of the few things that helped to calm my soul from the demons of PTSD, TBI, major depression, anxiety, and often-suicidal thoughts. I can agree with Sharon Olds who wrote back in the early 1970s “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.”

In a world where so many things are unsettling baseball is reassuring. In the run-up to the 2016 general election where the politicians, pundits, and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” use every means available to raise the levels of fear and anxiety of people, it is even more so. In such a world baseball is a safe-harbor for me, as Mark Kramer wrote, “Baseball is a harbor, a seclusion from failure that really matters, a playful utopia in which virtuosity can be savored to the third decimal place of a batting average.”

Now I wait for Spring Training 2016 begins and the pitchers and catchers, including a number of friends start reporting, and with that my spring will begin.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Only Church that Truly Feeds the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

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The Home Opener: Images of Opening Night at Harbor Park

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“A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.” — Yogi Berra

It is the day that I have waited for since the last September, baseball returned in the form of Opening Day at Norfolk’s Harbor Park. Major League Opening Day is always great, especially if you live near enough to a Major League club to attend. For many of us we have to wait for Opening Day at one of the Minor League ballparks. In Norfolk our Norfolk Tides are the AAA level affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

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This evening the Tides hosted the Charlotte Knights, the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The Tides fell to the Knights by a score of 3-0. Of course wanted the Tides to win but more important for me was the fact that I was back in my refuge with the people that I have gotten to know each season for the last ten years.

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For me there is something amazing about a ball game. In a way Norfolk’s Harbor Park for me is like Hemingway’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place. I fully understand the feelings of the older waiter in that short but poignant story of life, meaning and a place of refuge. As Sharon Olds wrote: “Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.”

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So today with contractors still banging around the house I give you these images from my place of refuge.

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Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Unsettled Saturday

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I am attempting to relax today and while I am still working on doing research and writing for my upcoming Gettysburg Staff ride with our Staff College students my mind is unsettled today. It appears that I have a lot going on in it. As Hedley Lamarr said: “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”

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As I said I have a lot more work to do on Gettysburg to prep me and my students for the trip. In the next few days I need to write a few articles as well as do some editing on others that they can use for the trip and their future reference. Likewise I need to take my materials and decide exactly what events and people I want to focus on as we walk the battlefield Saturday and Sunday.

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Because of that I have not been doing much writing on other subjects that I think are important. These include the recent focus some to attempt to use their religious beliefs to legislate discrimination by the state on those that the disapprove. I did write about what was happening in Kansas a couple of weeks back but have not had any time to write about the situation in Arizona as well as other battleground states in the struggle of the LGBT community for basic civil rights that others enjoy.

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Likewise I am very concerned with what is going on in Russia and the Ukraine and worried that the West and Russia have entered a new Cold War. When I think about that I remember the euphoria of the Iron Curtain falling, and how the West missed the opportunity to embrace Russia and instead treated her as a defeated power. In a sense I can understand the Russians taking advantage of the West’s weakness to re-stake in some manner its claim to Crimea. Whether they outright annex it, use their military and economic leverage to get the region autonomy or divide it along ethnic lines is not the point. The point is that this goes back long before Putin and is the product of centuries of intrigue and political calculation going back to Catherine the Great.

In a sense the end of the Cold War was a defeat for the old Soviet Union.  But I think that the West in its triumphant celebration and euphoria about “democracy” taking over failed to remember something that is common to the end of all wars that beget new ones. Eric Hoffer wrote: “A war is not won if the defeated enemy has not been turned into a friend.” Sadly to say we did not attempt in any real way to make Russia a friend, and now it appears they are once again an enemy.

I certainly do not condone what Putin and the Russian legislature is doing to ratchet up the tensions by sending in troops, moving naval forces and potentially recalling their ambassadors to the United States and maybe the EU. It is very dangerous and any time a nation embarks on military conquest to solve a problem it almost inevitably produces undesired negative effects. It is my hope that the crisis will be defused and that Ukrainians and Russians in the Ukraine can sort this out. Unfortunately I think that things will get worse before they get better. At best I think we can hope for is a partition of the region and a Cold War, at worst a regional war between Ukrainians and Russians that could draw in others.

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However, amid the din of these crisis, as well as the continued disruption of home life as we wait for the repairs and reconstruction following our great household flood there is hope. Baseball spring training games are beginning and opening day is a mere 30 days away.

As Sharon Olds wrote back in 1987: Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” 

With that in mind I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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