Friday, October 28, 2011

"Is this Heaven?" It's Baseball

I mostly write about religious subjects on this blog, so it's only fitting I should write about baseball.

There's the old joke that baseball was first mentioned in the Bible - Genesis 1:1 - "In the big inning". But there really is a theology to our national passtime. It is the most transcendent of games. We don't know everything about the after-life, but we do know this: baseball will be played in heaven.

My friend Deacon John (Scotty) Wainscott tells me, "It's because it's the only game where there's no clock." Deacon Scotty knows what he's talking about. He's given communion to Stan Musial, for crying out loud. "Baseball's perfect warrior; baseball's perfect knight". (Stan is pictured above at age 90 winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year)

In St. Louis, my home town, we have perhaps the greatest love of baseball of any city on earth.

And of course there's the fact that the cardinal bird was named after the Cardinals in the Catholic Church - thus, the St. Louis Cardinals, the greatest team in the National League, was too. Sort of like the San Diego Padres, a team named after priests.

And then there's that movie Field of Dreams. In that movie, the character played by Burt Lancaster, the character who sacrifices his life to save a child, the character who had one major league appearance but no at bat, this same character finally gets a chance to face a pitcher - and he hits a sacrifice fly. And the climax of the film is his own personal sacrifice to save the life of the little girl.

Pictured: Son Colin batting where Field of Dreams was filmed, near Dyersburg, Iowa.

Baseball is about sacrifice. It's about the patient poetry of slow motion and the headline prose of speed. It's about dexterity, stamina, force of will and dumb luck. It's the hardest of all games to play. It's a game of grit; it's a game of grace. It's a game of inches and a game of 450 foot home runs. It's a game of microseconds ("bang-bang plays") and a game of marathons that last all night. It's a game where we demand super-human objectivity and observation from umpires we'd like to kill. It's a game of tobacco spitting geniuses, back street hoodlums, city boys, country boys, free-wheeling managers dancing in the dugout and scheming vegetarian lawyer managers smoldering beside the bench.

And it's the perfect game for radio. No other sport was made for radio, and radio was made for no other sport. The Theater of the Mind and the Theater of the Word-Only. Here in St. Louis we have been blessed with the best radio play-by-play and color guys ever, Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Joe Buck and Mike Shannon. And many other radio guys along the way who have gone very far - including Joe Garagiola and Bob Costas (and Tim McCarver if you throw in TV). Some of my best memories include rain delays in the old days, when instead of switching to a call-in show or a pre-recorded program, Buck and Shannon would fill time talking - talking for hours on end, telling stories about baseball, until the rain cleared up and the play went on - filling air time with no preparation, just chatting about this amazing game and their love for it, this love which filled their lives.

Then there's my old friend Jim Sala, who told me that he would never marry any woman who didn't know the Infield Fly Rule.

And then there was last night.

Actress Maria Romine and I were performing at Summit Lake Winery in Holt's Summit, Missouri. We kept hearing updates about World Series Game Six throughout the evening. If the Cardinals lost this game to the Texas Rangers, everything was over. If somehow we managed to win, we'd get one more chance - Game Seven, the final and deciding game of the 2011 season.

We finished the show and began driving to our next destination, Kansas City, sometime mid-game. For a long while we picked up ESPN Radio on FM. When it faded away we were able to get the clear channel 50,000 watt AM signal of KMOX, The Voice of St. Louis, and between the two we drove in horror, astonishment and glee, our car trip a kind of roller coaster ride of bone-head plays and sparkling feats of athletics and magic as the score see-sawed into extra-innings, the Cardinals tying the Rangers in the sixth, the ninth and the tenth.

As we got closer to the Super Eight in Bonner Springs, Kansas (our luxurious destination), the static was overwhelming, the signal fading every time we passed beneath a bridge. It was the bottom of the 11th, 11:45 pm as we pulled up to the lobby, the game fading in and out like our hopes.

"They've got a TV on in the lobby!" Maria observed.

Local St. Louis boy and World Series phenom David Freese was at bat with no outs in the bottom of the 11th. I left Maria in the car and dashed in to plop my credit card down at the front desk, hoping to get to my room in time to watch the rest of the game - however long the rest of the game might take.

I turned to where the TV was in the lobby. It was facing the other direction, and I couldn't see the screen. Three Chinese or Japanese men were gathered around it, jumping up and down in astonishment.

I ran to the them. "What happened?" I asked. They could speak no English.

"Jow jee pong niti tong!" one of them exclaimed.

I turned to the TV screen. The Cardinals were pouring onto the field. They were mobbing David Freese, literally tearing his jersey off of him.

"Nee Pow Jing Pow orloo!" my Asian friend shouted.

"Did he hit a home run?" I asked.

"Home-unn," he confirmed.

I was at a Comfort Inn in Kansas City to catch the final out of the 2006 World Series, the 10th World Series victory for the Cardinals, and I was here at a Kansas Super Eight to catch - almost - the final play of the most incredible World Series Game ever in 2011. And the memories flowed.

For baseball is the glue that binds our lives together. We remember, with a kind of fondness and nostalgia that rises above time, we Cardinals fans, the come-from-behind finish of 1964, Gibson's 17 strikeouts in 1968, his pitching with a broken leg, Brock's speed, Ozzie's talent, Glen Brummer stealing home, seat cushion night, Pond Scum, the tarnished-in-hindsight but thrilling-at-the-time home run race between McGwire and Sosa, and now, forever, regardless of what happens tonight in Game Seven, the unbelievable come-from-behind run that began on St. Genesius Day in August when the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out and that included the greatest performance by a hitter in the World Series since Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson on a warm night in Texas last weekend.


I have written about many things, mysterious and mundane, but alas! I can not write about baseball. At least not in a way that gives it the honor it deserves.

My friend and fellow writer Rod Bennett observes, "Baseball is sacred the way war is sacred, Kevin -- because of all the suffering and anxiety involved. Honest to Pete, watching Game 7 of the '91 series (the Smoltz/Morris ordeal that ended 1-0 in the 10th and turned on a lowly baserunning error) I had a real spiritual insight on some small scale. I felt as Lee must have felt watching the battle of Gettysburg. Ridiculous, I know -- it's only a game. Still, there it is. Anyhow, go Cards." - and this cheer for my team from a Braves fan, Atlanta's collapse in September enabling the Redbirds to do what they've been doing ever since.

Frank Weathers, who admonished me that writing about baseball is offering up "straw" (this is what St. Thomas Aquinas said of his body of work, a lifetime of magnificent meditations upon God) - and he's right, it is that - still himself manages to catch a hint of the glory of the game in his post about amateur sports and families.

Frank's observations include ...

So why do we even bother [with baseball] in our household? Joy in living is the only real reason that I can think of. That and the realization that though our children’s gifts and abilities are out of our hands, they should still be developed. Besides, everything we spend time doing matters.

... And there is the riddle of our son’s gift, for example. Though endowed with excellent hand-eye coordination, and having an arm that can accurately throw thunderbolts, the most important characteristic of all isn’t even a physical one. It is that my son simply loves this game. And this love for it drives him to do things that only love can make him do ... [because] now that he has made the high school team, the love for the game has been tested by the fires of hard work and sweat. There is a spiritual message in all of this somewhere, I am sure.

And part of that message is a son playing catch with his old man, whose old man played catch with him.

And we can no more describe this game than we can describe the tradition of our American culture, the rewards of hard work and persistence, the smell of green grass, the chill of an October night, or the simple love of father and son.

God bless the Cardinals and the Rangers. God bless this game.

Pictured: My son Colin O'Brien in the dugout at Busch Stadium, age four or so.


Kevin O'Brien said...

Yogi Berra on last night's Game Six: "Boy, that was exciting," Berra said. "I always say it ain't over til it's over, but that one should've been over a while ago."

Frank said...

Ha! That Yogi...always knows what to say. Sort of like you. =)

Ink said...

Eh, I didn't follow the World Series. Yankees weren't playing. =P (I've been a die-hard Yankees fan forever. Thou shalt not judge.)

Quill once told me that one of his professors announced that "baseball is the game most like the liturgy--both could, in theory, go on forever."

Emily L. said...

I loved this post!! Watching the game last night (game six) was the closest thing to a sports 'religious experience' than I have had in years. There is something very special about baseball- I appreciate the intimate nature of it. Sure, I get stressed and nervous over football- but it is less personal. In baseball (through the wonders of TV), you stare into the players eyes and its a slow, measured experience that you almost go through with them. I love that. I love the look, the sweat, the outbursts, the excitement, the expectation. It is like an "All My Sons" or "Miracle Worker" to a "Hello, Dolly" or "Music Man" - all immensly enjoyable but one makes you look deeper and causes the spectator a little more pain and strife. Baseball is a great team sport, but it ultimately rests on the individual players' shoulders. It makes you look inward.

Congrats to the Cards!!

Ken & Carol said...

I think this mini-essay could be elevated to some of the prose of the great Professor Giamatti—he of 'Take Time For Paradise' fame. Way to go commenters too, especially that 'baseball is the game most like the liturgy—both could, in theory, go on forever.'

Brian Sullivan said...

Then there's this tribute to ex-cardinals: