Thursday, October 02, 2014

Redemption Cometh - Baseball and the Soul

The Sports Page of the Kansas City Star says it all in one word following the Royals stunning victory
over the Oakland A's in the AL Wild Card Game of Major League Baseball's 2014 Post Season
(Photo by John Sleezer, The Kansas City Star)

In the end, the cast of characters was as improbable as the game--a booming triple off the top of the wall by a season-long underachieving first baseman, a high bouncer in front of the plate by a rookie infielder with a broken finger, and then a screaming line drive down the third base line by a much-coveted young catcher, but one mired in a horrible 0 for 5 in the game, sometimes swinging haplessly at pitches, looking completely lost. But this ball smacked against the wall and ended a four hour and 45 minute classic, propelling the Kansas City Royals past the Oakland A's 9-8, and extending to another day their first post-season tournament appearance in 29 years.

The catcher: Salvador Perez. The headline: Salvation.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Once was lost, but now is found.

There must be some reason why baseball attracts some of the best writing in all of sport. Names like Red Smith, Roger Kahn, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Breslin, Roger Angell (the best of all), and W. P. Kinsella have for decades graced newspapers, magazines, and anthologies with poetry masquerading as baseball stories. Unlikely contributors like the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the political columnist George Will, and the novelist John Updike have all written signature books or essays demonstrating that this is more than just a game. 

The titles of some of the most notable baseball books point to a reality beyond the stadium: 

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball
The Boys of October: How the 1975 Boston Red Sox Embodied Baseball's Ideals -- and Restored Our Spirits
The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture
Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son 
Baseball: A Literary Anthology
Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game
The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream
Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art and Writing About It a Game

There is something about this game of baseball that transcends bats and balls and gloves. It has something to do with a dad tossing a baseball to his son--and thankfully these days to his daughter as well--but that isn't all of it either. It is about the rise and fall of heroes--"There is no joy in Mudville, Mighty Casey has struck out." It is about moments frozen in time--Bobby Thompson's home run, Willy Mays basket catch with his back to the infield, Jackie Robinson's first step onto a Major League baseball field after which everything is different.

It is about historic team rivalries and nail-biting match-ups between Cy Young Award pitchers and MVP hitters--two men all alone it would seem as a blazing orb collides with a pine bat, launching it to God knows where--the extended leather hand of a diving shortstop, or that sweet spot between the racing outfielder and the unmovable wall, or perhaps beyond the wall, into the seats where suddenly everyone becomes an outfielder, $10 beers splashing into the wind, popcorn tubs converted to mitts, and hopefully a ball ending up in the hands of a kid, now a baseball fan forever.

Transcendent themes weave through every game--hope and dreams, failure and loss, tragedy and comedy. It is about odds that are overcome and statistics that lie, surgeries and rehabs, youthful exuberance and veteran wisdom. It is about blown calls and managerial missteps, rules and reviews, hirings and firings. It is about patience and waiting for your chance, one that may never come.

In other words, baseball is about "life writ large."

Cardinal fans have never forgotten "The Call" in Game Six of the 1985 World Series
while Royals fans patiently remind them of the 11-0 thumping delivered in Game Seven.

I was there in 1985. It was Game One of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals--the I-70 Series they called it, after the freeway connecting the two Missouri baseball franchises on opposite sides of the state. We lost the game, but there was magic crackling in Royals Stadium that day. Six games later the Royals scrapped their way back, winning Game Seven after a blown call of epic proportions effectively snatched Game Six from the Cardinals' grasp. They never got back on their feet and the Royals cleaned up in a runaway.

In the 29 years since that jubilant final out the Kansas City Royals have never sniffed a playoff game, the longest playoff drought of any major sport in North America. Not even a sniff!

That is why the response to a play-off clinch on Saturday night triggered the expected celebration. It was loud and reckless, champagne bottles spraying their eye-stinging contents into a surreal, Star Wars-like locker room with players donning goggles and slickers to protect their eyes and skin from the burning liquids. If it seemed a little kissy-sissy--can you imagine Mickey Mantle with goggles and raincoat in a playoff celebration at Yankee Stadium? But it did not blunt the sheer sporting achievement of this historic win. It was a grand day in Kansas City.

But then came Tuesday night and the wildest of wild cards, the most unbelievable of scripts, and the most unfathomable of outcomes. Tuesday night became... well, it became downright theological.

The wonderful "Salvation" headline was much more than a clever spin on the name of a redeemed player. It was about this city, this team, these individuals. And if the cable sports channels, the radio talk shows, and the social media have it right, it would seem to be a time of redemption for us all.

I've got an M.Div. and I can only imagine my seminary professors snorting and snarling upon hearing the subject of many thousands of treatises being likened to a baseball game.

Well, maybe not Dr. Tex Sample. I thought of him while fingering some books and pondering the meaning of this baseball season, and darned if I didn't stumble across a piece by Sample, one of my favorites, now Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. His essay, "Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence," is collected in a wonderful book, The Faith of  50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture. Sample, an accomplished athlete and one-time semi-pro baseball player, writes movingly of a spinal condition that prevented him from playing football and redirected those talents to a baseball field. There he experienced the range of human emotions, likening a time when he walked the bases full to "being gutted," (p. 208) or describing his inability to play at the level he thought possible as a "failure of being, a failure to be a man" (p. 209). His reminiscence is often more tortured than redemptive. He recognizes that one can take it too far:
Yet baseball is not war; it is not a struggle over dignity; it is not the ultimate stage on which the reason for life is lived out...Turning baseball into a life-and-death struggle destroys it as a game, and it is the love of the game that makes it so right. (page 213)
Undoubtedly so, but the mere fact that Sample chose the game of baseball as a metaphor for his life journey clearly illustrates its power to define and describe one's very soul.

The fine writers listed above, and many others, have written about baseball as cultural history, social transformation, religious fervor, and literary achievement. Though an unrelenting fan throughout these insufferable 29 seasons, I might be a bit jaded about all of that had I not been listening to the voices in Kansas City this week. Women calling in to the radio shows and weeping in gratitude that the long ordeal is over. Hard-bitten sportscasters, choking up as they reached for words to describe the moment, and failing. Kids out in their driveways throwing the ball against the wall, imagining themselves in the bottom of the 12th at "the K" ripping that line drive just inches past the outstretched hand of the diving third basemen.

Silly or not, people got out of bed on Wednesday morning and life was different. If Kansas City's version of the Boys of Summer could pull off that most unlikely of achievements, how bad can my problems be? There is joy and hope in Royals Land and now we will see where it takes us. But no matter where it goes nothing can take back what has been done this week. It is here for the ages.

There is just one little troublesome thought burrowed into a corner of my mind, one that I can't seem to shake, one that keeps nudging itself into these theological ruminations.

Tonight is Game One of the American League Division Series. The Royals are in Anaheim and ready for the first pitch about 8pm CST.

Their opponent:  The Angels.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Looking into Each Other's Eyes: Violence, Sport, and Home

I like football. It's not my favorite sport. I much prefer baseball because it is more nuanced in its play, the strategy more evident, the competitive match-ups right out there for all to behold. And, most of all, I like it because you can see the player's eyes.

I never played football, so I don't know what it's like "in the trenches." That's where they say the game is won or lost. It is where men weighing about 300 pounds play smash mouth, pounding each other to the turf, grabbing each other illegally and avoiding a penalty almost every play. It is where vicious, hard-hitting linemen vie against each other, striving to open a hole in the line where the fleet-of-foot back can gracefully dance through and run for daylight. Or it is where those lineman hold off the incoming defenders to give the quarterback time to launch the perfect spiral downfield to the streaking receiver. It can be beautiful or brutal. It can be elegant or awful. And, helmets and masks being what they are, you can rarely see the player's eyes.

We should make no mistake about the current debate over domestic violence and the National
Football League. This is not fundamentally about football and its violent play. It is not about forms of corporal punishment appropriate for disciplining children (although I don't want to hear a single argument defending punishments that leave welts on the backs of four-year old children). It is not about the vastly underreported culture of violence inside the homes of America. It is not about the simmering climate of distrust in our urban centers where teenagers live in fear of those sworn to protect them.

All of these are in the mix, of course, but none of this will be addressed until we look each other in the eyes and start being honest about our violent society.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Derek Jeter Day

I was glad to watch from the comfort of my home as Derek Jeter was honored at Yankee Stadium yesterday. He has been a fine player and he is a fine human being. I was glad to see the assemblage of athletes and celebrities who turned out to recognize him. I was glad to see him get a base hit on his first at bat. I was glad to hear the roar of the crowd who had watched him play his entire career in Yankee pinstripes. 
And most of all, I was glad to see my Kansas City Royals recognize Jeter by pasting the Yankees 2-0, and continuing their march to a playoffs that could very well include the Royals and exclude the Yankees. Now there is something to celebrate, eh Derek?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

From Free Libraries to Free Birth Control: The Stranglehold of Rigid Literalism

Spencer Collins, 9, stands in front of his Little Free Library before leaders
of his hometown of Leawood, Kansas, shut him down.
An updated and somewhat expanded version of this post appears on

Perhaps you've heard the story of Spencer Collins, the nine-year-old boy who got crossways with the civil authorities when he erected a "Little Free Library" in the front yard of his home. It seems that the city codes in the plush suburban environs of Leawood, Kansas, prohibit structures that are not attached to the primary residence--things like tool sheds, side-buildings, detached garages, and such. They don't specify free lending libraries operated by nine-year-old kids, but clearly it's the same kind of crime.

The gravity of his offense did not occur to Spencer when the avid reader built his roadside stand as a Mother's Day gift. He figured that the love of reading instilled in him by his mother could be shared with other kids in his neighborhood. So imagine the surprise of Spencer, not to mention his parents, when they returned from vacation and found an official-looking letter providing a few days to dismantle the library or face a citation and attendant penalties.

The issue with the city officials isn't content; no books on evolution or other insidious topics deplored by many Kansans are to be found here. It isn't a matter of licensing businesses; this isn't a blood-sucking, profit-making enterprise like a lemonade stand or its ilk. No, the sole issue here is consistency in enforcing laws and codes. If you make an exception for a kid the next thing you know some developer will be running an outlet mall in his backyard. Enforce the law!  Who can argue with that?

I'd like to give it a try.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Mortality and Other Annoyances: When the Body Speaks the Soul Listens

This is a substantially revised version of a piece I posted on this blog on March 14, 2012. It is published simultaneously on, an interesting new venture in blogging. 

They tell me that I’m going through the “aging process.” I always thought of that as something that can be fixed with a pad of steel wool and a can of Rust-Oleum. I’m now informed that it is far more cosmic than that—something I had begun to suspect a few years ago after a round of doctors appointments to check on a few maladies of seeming little consequence.

What I discovered is that the “aging process” is a default disease. Floaters in your eye? Just part of the aging process. Ringing in your ear? Yeah, that just goes with age. Bladder not fulfilling its part of the deal? Growing old has its issues.

The thing is that while there may be a default diagnosis there is no default treatment. While I am a reluctant pill popper, I figured that surely something as universal as this “aging process disease” could be annihilated by a fat pill, pink in color, with letters like 6YTK inscribed on them. Far from it. Turns out that everything requires a different pill and each one costs something like $357.62, unless you inquire about a generic version, in which case it costs $4.98. Glad I asked.

I’m starting to get annoyed, however. It’s the little things. I’m always happy to get those 10% senior discounts; my longstanding reputation as a good steward (which my kids translate as “cheap”) overcomes admitting that I am old enough to be worthy of this act of benevolence on the part of the local merchants. But just once it would be good to have them inquire as to my eligibility rather than have it assumed. I want to be carded when ordering Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast.

It may be that part of this is punishment from beyond. I used to travel a lot and that put me sitting across many hundreds of tables accompanied by many more hundreds of people, often seniors. Most of these dear folk seemed able to talk only about the side effects of their various prescriptions, the bedside manner of their physicians, and the latest Medicare loophole to exploit. I know my eyes glazed over. I know I muttered silently something to the effect of “Dear God, why me? Why oh why me?” I’m now wondering if this is the Affordable Health Care version of the Myth of Sisyphus, whereby one is sentenced for all eternity to push a Tylenol up a long hill with the tip of his nose, only to reach the peak and watch helplessly as it rolls back down again.