October 17, 2017

Sundays with Michael Spencer: May 10, 2015

Bunt

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them,

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius,

all to no end save beauty
the eternal –

• William Carlos Williams
“The Crowd At The Baseball Game”

• • •

Monday morning, as we finished preparing for our district tournament game and prepared to load our equipment on the bus, I had several of the boys take the pitching machine out of the batting cage, and take it upstairs to winter storage. Every spring, bringing the pitching machine out of storage and into the cage marks the beginning of baseball season. As they took it up the stairs, they were quiet, pallbearers taking this symbol of our spring and our baseball season into the tomb for months of slumber, awaiting the resurrection on another day.

…Three years ago, I realized my soul was empty, and I had abundant evidence that religion wasn’t filling it up. I felt old and cornered by my failures, a dangerous feeling for a man in his middle forties. My faith speaks of rebirth, but sinking myself back into more books and spiritual disciplines was not going to meet this emptiness. God needed to be somewhere other than a church. Somehow, my mind returned to baseball; to the memories of the past, and to the lost days I would have spent playing ball if my father hadn’t been depressed and afraid.

I began going to our school games. That year, our team was exceptional, so it wasn’t hard to become a fan again. So much so that, the next year, I told the coach that I would be willing to be at all the games if he needed me in any capacity. From that came two years in the dugout and on the field as an assistant coach. Taking the pitching machine back to its resting place reminded me of these two good years, what I have learned, and God’s mercy.

Baseball is a place to lose yourself and find yourself. It is very generous with its fans. Those who know little and those who know too much can enjoy the same game. Everyone is a coach, a pitcher and a batter. The game flows through its players and fans at a pace the old and the young can tolerate. (Shame on those trying to speed the game up or make it feel like two hours of television. It is the quietness and slowness of baseball that allows so many of us to watch and become part of the game. This isn’t NASCAR.)

Baseball has a past that comes to every game. We walk in it, and feel it surrounding us. The great players hover over every field. The named and nameless memories of the elite visit every ballpark, hum alongside every pitch and shout with every stroke of the bat. The umpire’s calls and the managers’ quiet intensity all take us into the past of the game. All that is new and news recedes for a few moments, and only the ball, the field, the players and the game remain, like an island in the river of time.

BatBaseball constantly relives it’s past. It is rebirth. It takes all of us to our own past. It takes us to all that is unfinished, and less than perfect, and gives us another at bat; another inning; another game. Baseball is a sacramental moment, as we approach the perfection of the game. Two teams will reach for that perfection. In singular moments, the perfection will exist in a swing, or a pitch or a catch. But both teams will fall short of that perfect and eternal inning. One of baseball’s wonderful qualities is that our imperfection does not discourage us from playing again. We return from each defeat, from every out, from our errors and mistakes, with hope again alive in our hearts.

There is a liturgy and a rhythm to baseball. It is a liturgy of words and rules, but mostly of lines, numbers, repetitions and form. The pitcher moves in forms as ancient as the priest. The uniforms are old, and the chatter from the field and the dugout is a language that makes little sense off the field. There is devotion to the game, and honor for the players. It elevates us.

For those of us who are old, to be near baseball is to be tantalizingly close to your boyhood. We stand in the dirt, dust, lines and grass as we did when we were boys. We long to pick up the bat, to throw the ball. Within the confines of the park it seems possible to return to the moment of hitting a single or catching hard-hit shot to the third base line. Time-travel is not possible, of course, and I have little appreciation for those exercises in silliness called “fantasy camps.” But I believe that returning to the game as a fan, or a coach, has a special unction; a kind of power to make youth and old age momentarily irrelevant.

So we put away the pitching machine, and I said good-bye to the boys. I do not know much about my plans for the future- only this: I will return to the ballpark, and to baseball. I will return as often as I can until I am too old to go. It has done me much good, because there is something good in it. Something that cannot be ruined by the professionals as long as there are boys walking onto a field of dreams and memories, to lose and find themselves again in the mystery of seeking an inning that never ends.

Comments

  1. First! Let’s play two, Chaplain Mike!

  2. I hope this God is real, if it is really God. A God who can be found not just through absences – silence, solitude, prayer, giving-things-up, but through something real, ordinary, and – dare I say it – fun.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Yes.

      I’m helping my church to put on a semi-family camp over one weekend this summer. When I was talking to our potential speaker about potential themes, I told him where my prayers and conversations with God were leading me. I said, “I want some of the weekend to capture the idea of celebration and Jubilee. I want the right balance of fun and seriousness.”

      To which the man replied, “Jesus’ first recorded miracle was at a wedding ceremony.”

      If Jesus was as human as we are, I think he appreciates fun and celebration.

  3. Robert F says:

    I wish I had been caught up in something as magical to me as baseball was to Spencer when I was a boy. But I wasn’t. Now I feel I feel “old and cornered by my failures, a dangerous feeling for a man in his” mid-fifties, and without any memory of a youthful and life-giving pastime, of real play, to fall back on. I find myself desolate.

    • It could be a favorite story, or a place, or a memory perhaps. Either way, I don’t think there’s a formula for this. It might just necessitate that we ‘pay attention’, to whatever it is that is working around us, if there is anything working

    • There’s still time. Embrace the light of these days because, God willing, in twenty or thirty years you will be recalling them with warm affection and forgetting earlier woes. Find your ‘baseball’ now.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Go watch a few t-ball games. Seeing the funny mix of kids and talents and parents and coaching might do you good. Seriously.

      • Final Anonymous says:

        I second that. Baseball is beautiful, youth baseball is absolutely healing.

  4. flatrocker says:

    I just re-watched “The Natural” last night. And now this post today.
    “God, I love baseball.”

  5. Brianthedad says:

    Great post. He definitely had a way with words and expressing the essence of something. I’m helping coach my 8-yr-old son’s team this year. Not doing much more than crowd control in the dugout, 3rd base coach, and Infield practice, but it’s enough to reawaken those feelings of old, the joy of the game. Thanks for this piece today.

  6. Burro [Mule] says:

    Chaos flees before beauty.

    Thank you Michael

    …and thank you Denny McClain and Bob Gibson, Sammy Sosa, Tug McGraw, Carl Ripken, Jr. and thousands of others too numerous to mention.

  7. Ah, the pure joy of baseball. Always riding my bike with the glove on the handlebars. Our clubhouse was the ball field around the corner. We played until our moms yelled at dusk to come in. So simple, pure and fun. Listening to the transistor radio late at night to see if Mays was going to hit another homer. No matter how old I get just put me in front of any baseball game little league or pro and I am transported to my childhood dreams. Thanks be to God !!!!

  8. OldProphet says:

    Sosa, McGuire, Bonds, Bagwell, Cabrera, Braun, Manny, Clemons, Hamilton, Steve Howe, Been a fan since 1959. Drugs are ruining my beloved game. Hey Barry, pass me the clear! oh yeah Palmeiro too! Wasn’t he a Cubbie?

    • flatrocker says:

      OP,
      Griffey, Larkin, Gwynn, Glavine, Maddux, Puckett, Piazza, Henderson, Alomar, Sandberg.
      Hey Junior, pass me the clear joy of watching men play a kid’s game the way it was meant to be.
      All is not lost..

  9. Ed Brinkman, Elrod Hendricks, Duffy Dyer, Ken Henderson, Glenn Beckert, Mike Epstein, Steve Braun, Aurelio Monteagudo, Preston Gomez, Gary Thomasson.

  10. Dad was a big fan of baseball, and I grew up hearing it on the radio. “Stee-rike THREE and he’s out!” (RADIO, did you hear me, you all in your 50s and 60s? You haven’t the foggiest idea what OLD is! You’re still kids!)

    Of course I was a girl and couldn’t reach for the whole “Field of Dreams” dream, but I did love playing sandlot baseball down the alley with the other kids, hour after hour, no adults around or coaches or anybody making us feel like we were in school, just kids yelling and playing and running. Best times in the world.

    I listened to baseball as I grew up, a fan of the Pirates, and I was in college, a couple blocks away from the stadium, in 1960 when Bill Mazeroski hit one over the fence in the 9th inning to win game 7 of the World Series. I still get chills when I remember the yell that went up from the Pittsburgh stadium that day.

    It’s a great game, and Michael and Chaplain Mike are inspirations with their enthusiasm for it.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I grew up in New Orleans, which has never had an MLB team, but for some reason I became a Pirate fan. Every day I’d check the box score to see how my favorite Pirate did: Roberto Clemente. Sad, sad day for me when he died.

  11. Robert F says:

    “I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
    after the boys of summer have gone.”

  12. Christiane says:

    a memory from my family’s past:

    the setting is a small Southern town, Plymouth, in NC; the time . . . oh, so long ago . . .
    it’s the kind of place where, if you have visited throughout your life, it calls you back;
    and if you don’t return, well, there are times when the spirits call to you right up from the ground and you feel a pull that makes no logical sense except that the love of family is a stronger bond than death can sever . . .

    there are four ante-bellum homes in Plymouth and my grandmother lived with family in one of them as a baby, the house still preserved with a historical marker, still inhabited, now by a distant cousin who is devoted to its preservation, and still harboring civil war bullet holes around an upstairs window, where a sniper was shot, staggered down the stairs of the main hall and died there, his blood soaking permanently into the wood of that old floor. When my mother lived, she would visit her cousin in that house, and they would speak of family . . . photos would be brought out, and the old letters re-read, even one from Gib, a great uncle who wrote from a Civil war zone asking if someone would please make for him ‘a suit of clothes from a warm blanket’ . . .
    It was my mother’s cousin who was interviewed about what life was like in those days when the town first got electricity, and who gave this report:

    “Electric lights were installed at the major intersections in town. A single bulb hung from crossed wires topped with a metal shade. During warm summer nights, the boys got together and played baseball under them. ”

    It is hard to imagine the quiet pace of life in that time, but there is a part of me that appreciates how lovely it must have been to sit on the porch watching those boys enjoy a baseball game of a warm summer night.

  13. Patrick Kyle says:

    I only played one season of little league and more than a few sand lot games, but my boys ages 12 and 10 have played spring and fall ball every year for 6 years. My oldest son who has Asperger’s made the All Stars last year as a pitcher. Baseball will forever be indelibly etched into our family.