I was hesitant at first, but decided that it was a good opportunity for ministry. Part of a minister’s job is being with the people. This trip, though, tickled a dormant something within me. My plan was to suck it up and play the part. Besides, it was just for the day. Surely I had a day to spare.
I’m talking about baseball. That’s right: America’s pastime. Baseball and I go way back, you see. We parted with lots of unfinished business. I was in love – in love with a girl who’s now my wife, in love with a Lord who still has me clinched in a call. It had probably been since the summer of ‘98 since I last confronted baseball. Somehow I figured all this time that the easiest way to move on with my life was to just ignore the game.
Now, where was I? Oh yeah, “a good opportunity for ministry.” I was cornered by one the most outgoing parishioners. His look was that of sizing me up: “Say, a couple of us fellows make a trip to Atlanta each year to watch a Braves game. You like baseball don’t you?”
“Er, yeah…sure,” I peeped unconvincingly.
“Well, I’ll get together some dates, and you let me know what works best for a day game.”
Gees. Alright. I guess it’ll happen then. Okay, old friend, looks like we’ll meet again.
In lightening-like fashion, the date rolled around and I found myself hopping into the backseat of my ride to Atlanta. Four men, a fancy Buick Lasurn, a tank full of gas, and we’re off! I had no team colors to sport since I’d been estranged from the game for so long. However, I wore my favorite NC State cap. Adjusting to the three or so cubit feet that would be my whole world for the next three hours, it dawned on me that the youngest of my highway cosmonauts was my senior by no fewer than 50 years. To break the awkwardness, and in a gesture of sheer acceptance, the co-pilot handed me a Braves cap. “Here you go. You’ll need a Braves hat like us.” To say the cap was a fashion faux pas would be the understatement of the century. Yet, again, this is ministry. Reminded of that sickening, pubescent phobia of being on the wrong end of double-takes and laugh-and-points, reluctantly I allowed the hat to claim me as host. As the car pulled away from my driveway, a very real part of me stayed back, resistant to the adventure, watching the car get smaller with distance for those first few moments.
Everything changed, though. Oh, man, did it change! As my preconceived notions took a backseat to my backseat, I came to myself there in the shared space with these parishioners. Little by little, their conversation took on a familiarity. Stereotypes were left in the dust as I took a peek to notice our captain exceeding speeds of 80 mph (!). We made it in no-time-flat, but the greatest obstacle still lie ahead: a good mile or so walk from the old Fulton County Stadium – now a parking lot – to the gates at Turner Field. There were layers to this temple which one must traverse in order to reach the Holy of Holies. Waves of cheers overflowed from the stadium at an almost predictable frequency. We could see the prize, but we had to follow the herd and thread through the commotion that lined the path. Finally, we made it to what resembled Dr. Seus’ waiting place: the line leading through the narrow gates. One of our gang kept walking, as though he never saw the rest of us stop. “Oh no,” I thought, “our first casualty.” Calling his name over and over again, he kept on trucking, never looking back. “Hey, I think the others are way back there,” I said humbly. “I believe that’s the way in, isn’t it?” It was as though he never heard me. Silently, we kept moving forward as though our feet were not touching the ground. I figured, like when dealing with a sleepwalker, the worst thing to do is to insist he wake up and get with it. So, I followed just to see where he’d go. I figured if worse came to worse the guard would turn us around when we got to wherever we were going. The joke, I soon found out, was on me. Like Peter’s angel, my man had led me plumb through the prized gates, skipping past hundreds of sleepstanding bodies lacking wherewithal. When I came to, almost as if from a vision or dream, there was a program, some weird raffle code, and my ticket in hand, and we were patting our feet, he and I, waiting for the others.
Together again, we made our way to the diamond. The smells were indeed an offering pleasing to the LORD; they had to be! A sound like rushing waters flooded the corridors. Impossible to tune in to any one conversation, my ears gave up and were okay with what sounded like tongues of fire resting on each person there. But, what happened next I cannot capture with words. Climbing the steps leading to our section, row, and seats, there dawned before me a sight too sweet for savory. Immediately, it was like I was raptured into some alternate universe. Stretched before me was the closest thing to perfect I’d ever seen. Lush green grass, artfully mowed. A geometric wonder on par with any of the world’s pyramids. Upon it, not just players, not just people, but a rhythm of life that immediately resonated with my soul and lulled me into a transcendental state – another way, another truth, another life, another kingdom at hand, smack dab in the middle of the chaotic hustle-and-bustle of the world. I couldn’t help myself. Though a line pressed on from behind, right there on the steps, I had to stop – to stop, to see, to wonder whether it was I looking at the field or the field looking at me. I couldn’t tell.
Later, I would catch my breath but at the expense of realizing something had gone terribly wrong. My favorite player wasn’t in the lineup. Also, the first inning was over. Despite the swift-footed angel that led me through the gates, we had arrived late. Suddenly, I begin to feel like a bridesmaid who forgot to trim her lamp. My trance subsided.
The game marched on mercilessly fast. It was a pitcher’s duel. Yet, the Braves looked to be Hamilton in this duel as the Astros delivered what appeared to be a seventh inning, Burr-like, killshot: a homer that touched down at about the third row of the center field seats. The ninth inning came quickly. The Braves were bleeding out from the wound. It appeared the day’s bliss would be mere momentary and soon forgotten, short-lived from the walk in, bathed in disappointment. Two outs. The Astros had it in the bag. Apathy set in as I began pondering possible ETAs for Gastonia. Maybe we’d make it back in time for me to take my family to a kids-eat-free restaurant in town.
“Now pinch hitting for the pitcher, catcher Brian McCann!” I sobered up a bit. Sure, my favorite player was in, but the lateness of things still hadn’t escaped me. Down in the count, two outs – I lost heart and figured what’s the use. All of a sudden, CRACK! The outfielder was in a full sprint towards the wall. Could it be? Tie ball game! The sound of rushing waters fell upon us again. The rhythm of the game shifted drastically. What was moments ago surety of death now jeered at us coroners.
Two more innings passed. I got to see McCann work his magic behind the plate, which was a real treat. All it took was long enough for his turn at bat to come around again. It was as though the game remembered McCann. With one man on and making the pitcher work hard, McCann ultimately connected and sent the game-winning, two-run shot halfway up the bleachers in right field.
The steady hiss and gentle vibrations of the car on the road complimented the silence. It was dark now. Home was a few miles away. There was an unspoken understanding in the car. We were all believers now, having shared this Pentecostal, salvation experience. We’d witnessed something that had to be told! But, what exactly was it? What on earth could possibly have caused three eighty-somethings and this thirty-something to be lost in daydream, as if having just kissed a girl for the first time. Was it the excitement of Major League Baseball, with all its razzle-dazzle plays, homers, and high-profile players? No. Rather, it was something greater, something much much greater – a deeper, more primal something.
Over the years, I find that faith, like baseball, becomes easy to ignore. Rather than face bewilderment and disappointment, it’s better to not face faith at all. When it comes to baseball, we justify such a move by clinging to mishaps like gambling and steriods. Likewise, faith has its church scandals and apathy among its membership. We indeed lose ourselves in critical thinking, which we believe enhances our inductive reasoning. But, not on this day. Nothing satisfied reason during this game. All that was left for the four of us in the car on the ride home was belief. It was simple: belief and baseball.
Taking stock of the day, we could do nothing but just simply believe. It was obvious by the ninth inning: the game should’ve ended way too early; the Braves should’ve lost; McCann had the day off. Instead, the game ended in the eleventh. The Braves won. McCann batted twice with two homeruns – one to tie the game, the other to win it – and caught for two innings. On this day, a day I had almost dreaded, baseball and I made our peace. We agreed that I no longer was a player. My eyes were opened, though, to the real joy of the game, the very thing that maintains baseball’s status as the epitome of Americana and the standard when it comes to “spirit of the game”: and that is the experience of the fan. On this day, as a fan, baseball taught me to believe again. It taught me that the hero’s tale isn’t some far-fetched fantasy. Life, at least between the foul lines, is an adventure. Anything can happen! And, why shouldn’t it be elsewhere?
I was estranged from baseball for so long. Love and the call may have been to blame. Yet, we, baseball and I, started over on this day, almost fourteen years later. What felt at one time like an ultimatum – either play ball or pursue God’s call – now felt more like a friendship: baseball teaching me how to once again believe amidst God’s call.
Oh yeah…the hat. I set up my memorial stones near the other relics of my ten years of ministry sitting on top of the bookshelf in my office: the ticket, the program, some unused raffle code, and, of course, the hat. They await the inquisitor. “What mean these things?”
“You mean the Braves stuff? That was the day I learned to believe again. It was the bottom of the ninth, two outs. The game was practically over. McCann wasn’t even scheduled to play!…”