December 16, 2017

Take Me Out

By Chaplain Mike

When Michael Spencer discovered he had cancer, I made a deal with him. We set a goal  to try and go to a Cincinnati Reds baseball game together this spring. Sadly, the weekend I had set aside to go ended up being the weekend of his funeral.

Michael died on April 5, the day after Easter. At his memorial service, the pastor said he thought the iMonk might pass on Easter Sunday, and how fitting that would have been. After the service, I approached him and said, “Pastor, you know why he waited until Monday, don’t you? Monday was Opening Day, the Reds’ first game. Michael couldn’t go to heaven without one more baseball game.”

Apart from the grace of Jesus and the love of my family, few things have brought me more joy than the game of baseball. You can be sure I will be writing about this on Internet Monk. Starting…NOW!

This essay was originally penned in 1996. Since then my boys have finished their baseball careers. Now I am working with my grandson’s Little League team.

Take Me Out
One day this summer, I had the rarest of treats: a free evening. The kids were off staying with family or friends. Gail had an outing with some of her women chums from church. I was free! What would you do? I took in a baseball game.

Here in Indianapolis, we have a magnificent downtown stadium where our Triple-A team, the Indians, plays. Victory Field offers the best view of the downtown skyline available. It is one of those “new-old” stadiums that came into vogue after the Baltimore Orioles built Camden Yards—with outdoor concourses, seats close to the field, real grass, nostalgic decorations, along with modern conveniences, comfortable seats, easy access to concessions and services. The “bleachers” behind the outfield walls aren’t seats at all, but rather banks of grass where families can bring picnics and enjoy the game. There is an open, airy, satisfying feel about it all.

On this day, I arrived early, during batting practice, and discovered, to my delight, that one could stand in the outfield picnic area and retrieve balls hit over the wall. Only few kids were chasing them down, so I joined in and soon had my first-ever souvenir from a professional ball game. I stuck the ball in my pocket and schemed how to get some autographs for my son.

Next step was to buy a drink and a Baseball Weekly, take my seat in the upper deck along third base, stretch out and relax. There in the soft breeze, beneath late afternoon fair skies, I breathed deeply and scanned the paper while listening to some of the most wonderful sounds in the world—crack of Louisville Slugger on horsehide, smack of well-thrown ball in the mitt, banter of the boys of summer around the infield and batting cage.

I had forgotten how much I missed those sounds. A pretty fair pitcher when I was a kid, I quit after high school. It seemed right then, but occasionally, it’s a decision I regret.

In season at least, baseball was my life. Once, a teacher gave our class the assignment of making a collage depicting various facets of our lives. She made the mistake of assigning this project in March, just as spring practice was commencing. My collage consisted of dozens and dozens of baseball pictures, period. “Is that all there is to your life?” she exclaimed. Yep.

My folks tell of the time I was a tot, dressed in my Cubs uniform at the airport. I caused a large African-American cleaning lady laughing fits by proclaiming to her that I was Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great black ballplayer.

I can still see the backyard lots in Galesburg, Illinois where I played (every day?). I lied to my parents and told them my watch stopped when they upbraided me for being late for supper. The Cubs once reached the lofty height of fifth place in the N.L. standings, and I can still hear Jimmy Sandberg screaming with joy as he ran over to our house with the paper in his hands to show me. Two of the older guys down the street had daily fast-pitch wiffleball games in their driveway, Yankees vs. Dodgers.

When we moved to the Chicago suburbs, the high mounds of dirt nearby from constructing our subdivision formed perfect stadiums for hard ball games. Driveways served as home run derby arenas for wiffleball warriors. The court on which we lived, sloping down to the next street, provided my dad with plenty of exercise as he chased my errant pitches when we played catch.

I played organized ball every year except for the summer between seventh and eighth grades, when exploding hormones made other things seem more important, like laying around the pool to talk with intriguing female creatures I’d never noticed before. But that was merely an aberration, a blip on the screen. Nothing, not even sex, could ultimately usurp the place of baseball.

And here I was, with an evening free. Take me out to the ballgame! All in all, it was a remarkably refreshing experience. I spent about five hours there alone in the crowd. The night stayed clear. Autographs were secured, hot dogs and nachos consumed. Pretty good pitching, a few close plays, a couple of home runs-our team won. I remembered again why I love baseball so much.

A few weeks earlier, I had taken my two sons, ages 8 and 5, to another Indians game. It was their annual baseball clinic night. They enlist coaches and players to give demonstrations of proper pitching, hitting and fielding techniques, then they invite the children to come down on the field where they get to run through some simple drills with their instructors. What I would have given for the chance to go down on a field like that when I was a kid!

I sent the boys down. Jesse, the older one, went out to the outfield to catch some flies. Isaac, who has not even started playing organized ball yet, went with him. I noticed some parents had joined their kids to help guide them around the stations, so I ambled down the steps, through the gate, and onto Victory Field.

Slowly I wandered up the baseline, looked around, and tried to take in my surroundings. A profound wave of longing and something like grief poured over and through me. For a moment I was stunned. I regained my bearings somehow and, finding Isaac, I led him to the infield and encouraged him to take some grounders from Don Buford, a player I had watched and rooted for as a kid in Baltimore. I shook his hand, thanked him for helping my son and told him of my youthful loyalty to his team. Pointing to one of the young Indians’ players, he said, “These kids don’t even believe I ever played ball.”

You did, Don. I was there.

Next day, the boys’ pictures were in the Indianapolis paper. A photographer had caught them while waiting to go on the field. He captured their personalities perfectly and provided me with a lasting reminder of not only my boys but also a deep part of my own life. Two kids in baseball caps, one with the bill half-chewed by the dog, gum filling their cheeks, chins resting on their mitts. It coulda been me. It was me. Now it was them—genes don’t lie.

I stayed until the last out. Then, down the stairs, slowly around the concourse, through the gate. Eight or nine thousand other pilgrims and me, on our way home. A rare free evening well-spent.

Ernie, it was beautiful enough; we shoulda played two today.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack—I don’t care if I ever get back!

September 10, 1996

Comments

  1. In other news, Montreal beat Washington 2-1 in a hockey upset of momentous proportions, to take their best of seven 4-3. For those who would rather watch paint dry, baseball is a good fourth option. 🙂

    😛

  2. National pastimes bring out those kinds of passions, Michael. You are forgiven for dissing mine. : )

    • Jeff Dunn says:

      Hey–my Reds have won three in a row. Hope springs eternal…until they are officially eliminated in June, that is.

      Could baseball be the national passtime of heaven as well? If so, I’m sure Michael has box seats and an endless supply of popcorn.

      • Jeff, because of Michael, I’m even rooting for the Reds to do well this year. The Cubs have already broken my heart several times, and we’re not to May yet.

    • Hey Michael Bell, what do you think of the Winter Classic game they’re playing every year on New Year’s Day outside in one of the baseball stadiums?

      Maybe best of both worlds! U.S. and Canada exemplifying the unity of the Spirit?

      • Seems to be more marketing than anything else. Though it does harken back to the good old days of skating out doors on ponds. Something I haven’t done in 3 months now. When I was growing up Montreal would play the Soviet Red Army team on New Years Eve, which was incredibly exciting hockey as it featured many of the best players in the world at the time. We would always gather to watch as part of our church celebrations.

  3. Cynthia Jones says:

    WOW! You had me right there in the stadium, on the field! 🙂 Every once in awhile I score a couple of free tickets to a Reds game through an organization that ministers to families with Deaf children. Although my daughter will never HEAR all the wonderful sounds you brought to life, I LOVE taking her to the games and letting her experience the ballpark! (Who can resist a hot dog at a ballgame?!) I also live about a 5 minute drive from the Florence Freedom’s ballpark and have never been to one of their games. I do believe you’ve inspired me to make a point to get there this year!

  4. Great writing, Chaplain Mike. I have noticed that people who love baseball seem to love it with a passion that I don’t quite see among fans of other sports. But it just may be that I haven’t met up those other passionate fans yet.

  5. Yeah, I think I’m going to hope the Red’s do well too, just for Michael’s sake. But I’ll still “have to” go to some Brewers games with the fam as my wife and son are big fans. Give me golf or kayaking anyday.

  6. Victory Field is a very cool place to be to watch THE GAME. I live across the street from a little league park and have a blast watching the T ballers learning and seeing the older kids hone their skills. Reminds me of the bygone days that I played. Great memories. My only problem with the game today is PING…aluminum bats.

  7. meanwhile the KC Royals fans are mired in the apocalypse……waiting on Jesus or decent middle relierf pitching….looks like Jesus will return 1st…….

    • Greg, I’m looking to make a trip to KC this summer to catch a game or two with my friend, the chaplain for the Tulsa Drillers. Do you live in KC? It would be great to meet you there. Or at Arthur Bryant’s before the game…

      • SearchingAnglican says:

        Yum! Arthur Bryant’s!!!! Love going to Royals games for that reason (and Boulevard beer). And while you can get it in the stadium, nothing beats the original location near 18th and Vine.

        I live halfway between the Royals and the Rockies, and make a pilgrimage each direction at least once a season.

        I am a rabid Cardinals fan, but caught a (winning) Cubs – Astros game from the bleacher seats a few weeks ago. I’ve decided that nothing in the world beats a sunny, warm Friday afternoon game in April. Other than seeing the Cards clinch the central in September 🙂

  8. If you want to see miracles, watch the Mets sweeping Atlanta and LA! Mets one run victory over the Braves Sunday night was fantastic.

    • YESSS I want to see miracles….I want to see more than one stinkin’ run for Zack Grienke……before his arm falls off trying to get his first win; hope you are enfoying Carlos Beltran…who should NEVER have been traded (among others). Not that I’m bitter about that or anything… 🙁

  9. Good memories written down. Thanks for the post.

    Giants fan, here. Life long love of baseball, too. Now that we’ve had one winning season in a row, and with Barry Zito pitching like Tim Lincecum might actually finish second in the Cy Young voting, a decent offense might mean making the playoffs.

  10. My son and I just returned from a Cleveland Indians game together. It was even a win for us (rare this year). Then we went out of the game in time to hear that the Cleveland Cavaliers won the first game of the second series of the championship rounds. The stadiums are right nest to each other, so two jubilant crowds left their venues and ran celebrating into each other.

    A foretaste of heaven perhaps?

    He is 23 and we share a 20 pack two seat season ticket package. We have had many memories of watching games together and talking with one another. When I go the way of Michael Spencer (please God, not soon) I know those times together will be the most precious. Mostly for our talks and jokes and playful banter as we watch the games.

    As my son said today, “Only baseball lets you truly get to know someone as you share the time watching the game together. All other sports are a distraction. Only baseball is a community.”

    • I like that a lot, Caine. “Only baseball is a community.”

      Many people today think baseball is boring. IMHO it is because they have been trained by modern culture to move too fast, to value spectacle over steadiness, to downplay the enjoyment of leisure at a pace that allows one to breathe.