The Gospel According to Baseball

In my parents’ house, a sign hangs on a wall in the dining room.  It reads: We interrupt this family for baseball season.

Some people have God.  Others have music, drugs, yoga, or Christopher Hitchens.

I have baseball.

Baseball is as close to God as a guy can get, in my opinion.  Baseball is the Homeric epic given to modern people from on high.

Baseball is poetry about the realities of being an individual in a competitive world surrounded by captivated onlookers.

In its highest possible form, baseball plays out every human struggle a person experiences on Earth.  Triumph and tragedy dance on a knife’s edge from the coach’s kid’s warm-up pitches through the light hum of the field lights coming as dusk sets in all the way until the final out.

I’m sure that pure baseball takes place in small towns and cities throughout the world, but the form I am most intimately familiar with took place on the diamond just down the road from my parents’ house when I was thirteen.

Every person who has ever played, loved, and worshiped at the altar of baseball knows the story I’m about to tell.

It’s a Friday late in the school year.  It’s a hot day.  There’s a game that night at the big park up the road.  Win this game, and the city takes home the ‘ship.  And everyone’s going.

I mean, everyone is going–all the kids in class, their parents, the players, their parents, their friends, the opposing team’s parents, their friends, their friends’ friends, the volunteers running the concession stand, the umpires from out of town, the high school coach and his buddies from two towns over, the local pastor and his wife and their dog Alice.  Then, of course, the local riff-raff kids will make an appearance chasing foul balls to get free slushies and swinging on the swings past the fence in left field.  The too-cool fifteen year-old weed dealers will be there with their poser girlfriends.  The extended family of those three kids who seems to always be surrounded by three cousins, two aunts, one uncle, and seemingly more than two sets of grandparents (but no one can be sure).

Baseball players don’t seem as cocky and self-important during the school day as the football players do during the fall.  They don’t wear their jerseys all day or make girls wear their away jerseys.  They just seem like normal kids.  You wouldn’t be able to pick them out, but everyone knows the good ones.

The day ends.  The ball players go home for an hour to perform their personal pre-game rituals, then head to the field at 4:30pm for a 7:00pm game.  They play their music loud with the windows down as they drive over.

When they arrive the field is desolate, large, and quiet.  An empty church.

Dust clouds blow around silently with the hazy wind.  Good old Freddie just finished raking and mowing.  He’s spraying some water from a green hose on the pitcher’s mound.  The baselines haven’t even been chalked on yet.

The first few to arrive sit quietly on the bench in the dugout as they put on cleats, arm bands, eye black, tape, etc.  Eventually, small groups head out to the outfield to run a bit, stretch, and loosen up.

Then, the popping starts.  The soft pop of the early repetitions of pitch and catch.  The rhythm of the opening prayers.  The first motions signalling the start of a mass at the diamond.

The coaches arrive and post up the line-up.  They identify tonight’s starting pitcher and catcher.  Tell them to get in 20-30 pitches after 6:30pm.

At some point, someone gets on the PA system and starts playing John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.”  Freddie just finished spraying down the infield grass.  Batting practice starts.

The metal pings start as Kyle takes the first cuts.  The team’s loose, laughing.  Matt is deadly serious taking reps at short.  Semmy’s playing left, sprinting after the long fly balls.  Jake is laying in the grass in center field, but still getting up to catch some of the balls lazily with one hand.  Teddy is stretching his arm.  Robo is on deck.

Hondro lays out for one at third and makes a great stabbing stop.  Kyle ends on a homer to deep left.

People are starting to arrive in small patches.  The concession stand begins to come alive.  The smell of fried food wafts across the infield and permeates the dugouts.  The kid running the PA booth starts chalking the baselines and batter’s boxes.

Robo hits a sharp foul ball into the woods just left of the fence along the third base side.  Two small kids shove past each other to get it.

The sky is bottom-of-the-flame blue.  The contrast with the bright green grass makes the whole place look like the beach meeting the sea on some foreign planet.  The sun is just poking out from behind the modest houses in center.

Then, the opposing team starts to show up and the tension in everyone’s chest gets a little greater.  Batting practice ends abruptly.  Infield will begin shortly.

The bleachers are now at capacity and people are starting to place chairs along the fence line.  Friends and the kid-siblings of friends are standing all over the place.  There’s the babel of chatter and music from the PA.  The smoker-parents congregate by the foul pole in right field next to the gravel parking lot.

That one coach who played minor league ball hits infield.  Rocketing ground balls at the infielders as the catcher shouts out directions.  Hitting heaven high pop flies to the outfielders.  The team looks sharp.  The catcher relaxes only a little bit.

The umpires arrive.  Team of three tonight.  Home plate ump is solid, steady, good.  First base ump is garbage and everyone knows it.  Third base ump is brand new and everyone knows that too.

The other team takes their infield and the home team scrutinizes every single throw, catch, and movement.  It goes fine.

The teams return to their dugouts.  The crowd sits.  The field is desolate again, but now it’s on display for all to watch.  The silent overture before the sermon.

The lineups are announced.  Teams form a line along the baselines.  National anthem plays.  Crowd cheers.  The lights hum.

And right then, just before the very first pitch of the game, the entire chaotic cacophony of a complex small town world comes to a brief pause of perfection.  A meditation on the significance of life played out in symbols, rhythms, and movements.

The pitcher looking to the catcher for a sign.  The umpire and the batter squinting at the pitcher.  The entire defense ready as it can be for whatever happens next.  The bench players and the rest of the away team’s offense with their fingers wrapped through the chain-links protecting and separating the dugouts from the action.  The crowd rapt with different hopes and emotions.  The eye of an artificial storm about to play out in some uncertain way.

The beauty of the religion of baseball is that it asks that you watch or participate and nothing more.  The game is slow and un-timed.  It ends when its over and not a moment sooner.

You can watch the game while you have a conversation about something completely different and not miss a thing.  You can enjoy a meal while you see all the action.

You can play and not really do much.  Get lucky.

You can play and do everything.  It could go well and you’re luckier still.  It could go like shit and that’s just the breaks you get.

Baseball is a game played individually between each batter and each pitcher, but experienced and won collectively by one team and its fans.  C’est la vie.

Each field, park, and stadium is unique.  Each game a slight variation on a theme.  Each pitch singular and each hit doubly so.

Somewhere after the second inning, the nerves calm for a bit.  The game is going and flowing.  Enough preliminary miscues have been made for everyone to take a breath.  Like life, perfection cannot be demanded or expected unless you want to be disappointed, depressed, and anxious.

Around the fifth inning, Teddy gets pulled.  He’s close to 90 pitches and starting to get wild.  Matt comes in.

Matt throws three-quarters with a weird, low leg-kick.  He doesn’t throw nearly as hard as Teddy, but every pitch has a funky arc to it.  Low and centered.  Hard to see or hit well.  Makes for a good inning chewer.

That’s another thing.  Some of the best ballplayers are good not because of any objective metric, but because they’re different, unexpected, and hard to adjust to.  Baseball rewards brave difference sometimes.  Like bunting for a single.  Or calling out a home run.  Or throwing a curveball on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

Matt finishes the inning, but the home team’s trailing 4-2 now.  Both crowds are restless because they know anything can happen in one inning, let alone two.

In between the end of the fifth and the start of the sixth, Tyler and Ryan chat with three girls between the fence.  Vinny throws in another lipper and makes a stupid, self-deprecating joke that relaxes the catcher.

The PA kid smokes a bowl in the little closet up in the booth with his friend Megan.  They both wobble back to the mic and lurch their way through the next couple batters.

Teddy and Semmy’s moms are running the concession stand and they’re sweating and sucking down Poland Springs water bottles.

The smokers by right field are prognosticating about the upcoming batters.

Kyle quickly gets down 0-2.  The away team’s starter has gotten a second wind and his hitting 80 on the gun in some fan’s mind.  Kyle bounces back to 2-2.  Takes a big hack at a large, bending curveball.  Just tips it.

Now, he’s expecting another.  Fastball comes.  Swing and a miss.  He gets back to the dugout and throws his helmet and curses.  Scorned by the baseball gods.

Tension is very high.

Two more quick outs.  The catcher, on deck wearing his shin guards, walks back sullenly to the dugout.

The next inning starts poorly.  Matt walks the first two batters.  Gets a weak ground out to first on the third, but now there’s runners on second and third, only one out, his team’s down 4-2, and the clean up batter is coming up.

This is a common and terrible situation if you play the game long enough.  Things really are going to go one of two ways: strikeout or disaster.

Catcher visits the mound and bullshits to distract from what’s going on.  Matt seems alright.

Two pitches later, it’s 0-2.  Next pitch gets too much plate.  Big guy hammers it.  Real deep, but foul.

Everyone exhales.

Next pitch is a personal favorite.  Two-seamer.  The two-seamer is the hard test in the easy class or the flat tire on your way to the airport when you’ve timed out your arrival just perfectly.  It’s the devil in the details coming at you straight and obvious and then just failing on you at the last moment.

Big guy swings real hard and would have sealed the deal, but the ball just wouldn’t cooperate.  He walks back to the dug out with his head down.

Two outs.

The five batter is always crafty.  A lot of power, but more of a contact guy.  Could have been a four hitter (maybe was two years ago), but he doesn’t hit bombs quite like the big guy can (or like he used to).  He is probably a little more self-reflective than your average sixteen year-old.

Matt gets him to 1-2, but then leaves a curve hanging belt high and middle of the plate.  Five batter smashes it to left center.

Now, this is the moment where your center fielder proves his worth.  Jake, the lazy kid from BP, is out there.  He’s an odd guy with big, clumsy feet.  He refuses to swear, wears his hair long, and has some strange OCDs.  And no one who doesn’t know him or this team understands why he’s on the team or why he starts in center.  Until now.

The ball disappears into the night sky off the bat.  It hurtles through the warm summer air peaking 50 feet past the infield dirt and then starts to dive hard towards the Towne TV sign next to the 375 foot marker.  To everyone around the park, it seems like the five batter has won the game for the away guys.

Jake is running.  He’s already seen in his head where the ball’s going.  He dives and his hat flies off his head.  He lands with a loud thud, which knocks the wind out of his chest.

With one out-stretched arm, he holds the ball like a snow cone.  Seams out.  He actually doesn’t think or feel much about it, but Robo whoops and shouts as he runs over to help Jake up.

Three outs and the home team with a chance in the bottom of the seventh down 4-2.

The charged atmosphere present in the pressure cooker that is the interlude between the top and bottom half of the final inning of a close baseball game replicates the peak of any human drama.  The crowd’s meandering conversations stop and turn only to the game.  The kids stop goofing off around the park.  The concession stand falls silent.  The stoned out PA kid regains clarity and importance as he announces the new pitcher for the away team–a real prospect, six-foot six-inches tall with a fastball kissing 90+.

The home dugout resembles a foxhole.  Everyone knows they are a few missteps from defeat.

It’s incredible really how no one feels so bad about a ground out in the middle of the first or second innings or in the middle of a blowout.  However, when the game is tight and resources are scarce, each pitch feels large and significant.

The whole team watches the new pitcher warm up.  The catcher’s mitt doesn’t pop; it explodes with the weight of a heavy fastball.

The finale begins.

The catcher steps up the plate.  He’s scrappy, but seems outgunned here.  He goes down swinging in three pitches.  Exactly what happens when an unstoppable force meets a movable object.

One out. 4-2.

Tonio pinch hits for Hondro who has been struggling at the dish for the past few weeks.  He fouls off a few tough pitches, but looks undeterred.  Then, the truly unfair happens.  The big righty drops a nasty hook and sends Tonio packing after five pitches.

That’s another thing about baseball and talent.  Some of the best are just so good, it seems like the game wants them to win.

Two out. 4-2.

Matt, who has kept the team afloat on the mound, slowly walks up to the plate.  He doesn’t seem nervous, but everyone knows he is.  Normally, he uses a 33 inch bat, but he brings up the catcher’s 32 inch bat to speed up his hands.

First pitch is high.  Matt takes 1-0.  Second pitch paints the outside black.  1-1.  Third pitch, a curveball, would have been ball two, but Matt gets a piece fouling it off to the right of the first base line.  1-2.

One strike away from the end, but the game is not over.  The beauty of baseball is it only ends at the end.

Next pitch is inside. 2-2.  Next pitch is in the dirt.  3-2.  On the payoff pitch, the big righty winds up a little more than he has been and throws a heater square into the center of Matt’s back.  Matt winces as he hobbles to first base.

Only a small sign of life: a runner on first with two out in the bottom of seventh.  Still, the largest fires start with a single spark.

Next batter is Robo.  1-3 today and not really a power guy so no big threat of tying the game.  But, it doesn’t matter.

The first pitch Robo sees is a meatball.  The pitch the big righty gives him would have cut off any other batter, but Robo is a lefty so he gets around on it and shoots a fast moving liner up the third base line.  It bounces twice and caroms off the fence.  Robo turns second before the left fielder even gets to the ball.  He stops on third standing.

The home crowd is raucous.  The home dugout is bedlam.  The air feels full and hopeful–for half of the people here.

Two out. 4-3. Runner on third.

It doesn’t take much pressure to get to anyone.  And that’s the difference between natural talent and true skill.  So, this big righty who came out bruising and mean is now whimpering on the inside and fuming on the outside.  Rattled.  Only a matter of time until the dam bursts.

The next batter, Jordan, comes up with more confidence.  Takes a couple pitches just to feel it out and works a 1-1.  Next pitch, thwap! and the ball shoots up the middle on a line.  Center fielder scoops it on a hop.  Tie game.

Two out. 4-4. Runner on first.

And just like that the whole game is brand new again.  From mid-life crisis to newborn.  Opportunity can arrive even in the darkest of moments.

Next batter, Vinny, walks on four pitches.

Two out. 4-4. Runners on first and second.

The big righty is yanked.  He storms off the mound.  And a strange thing happens.

The coach signals the right fielder–a lefty–to come to the mound and sends out a bench guy to right.  What’s strange is the right fielder rarely pitches and he doesn’t have the frame for a pitcher.  Short and skinny.  Socks pulled up high and seem to be above his knee.  His delivery is funky.  Almost sidearm with a lot of movement.  And slow.  So fuckin’ slow.

Kyle’s in the on deck circle trying to time it out.  And here’s the squirrely part: the slow pitches are nightmarish to heady hitters because you start thinking way too much about how fat and slow and easy the looks are and you jack up your expectations, which is lethal.  Baseball teaches that the key to success is to check your expectations and stay level.  A slow pitcher is a cancer to that, especially in a situation like this.

Kyle walks up the plate thinking both of his previous strikeout and the moment before him.  His mind is soup.  The moment is enormous to him and to everyone there.

He takes the first pitch.  Pop.  Striiiike.  0-1.

Next pitch.  Pop.  Way outside.  1-1.

Next pitch.  Whoosh!  Pop.  A big hack and a big miss.  1-2.

Now, this is the moment inside the helmet of anyone who has played the game where everything gets real quiet and surreal.  Images flash through your head like a Rolodex.  Cuts in the backyard with your old man.  Tee-ball hacks.  Homers.  Strikeouts.  Foul balls.  Batting cages.  Wood bats.  Whiffle ball cracks.  Aaron Fuckin’ Boone.  Sammy Sosa’s hop.  Griffey’s backwards cap.

You have one foot out of the box as you stare down at the third base coach, but you don’t see him.  You see lights and dark grass.  You see the dirt.  You look at your cleat.  Adjust your batting gloves.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.

You step back into the box and stare at the strange lefty with the funky motion.  The weird action on his ball.  You stare right at his eyes, but never into them.  You see him jiggle the ball in his black leather glove.

He comes set.  He delivers.  You see it’s going to be way out again.  Way too out.  You take the pitch as it skitters past the catcher to the fence.

Jordan makes it easily to third, but Vinny was slow getting off first.  The throw rockets down to second and it’s going to be close.

A cloud of dust.  Silence.

The shitty first base ump makes a call.  OUT!

The new third base ump makes a call.  SAFE!

A conflict erupts from both bleachers and dugouts.  Coaches up in arms.

The steady home plate ump goes to second to resolve the dispute.

A hurried, hushed conversation takes place.  Like emergency room doctors determining the next move to save a child.  Or war room generals determining whether to bomb the village.  No matter what decision they arrive at, the whole thing is going to marred, damaged, questioned.

Time passes slowly and quickly.

The home plate ump turns away and announces “SAFE!”  Boos and cheers explode across the diamond.  Call and response prayers.

So, Kyle has one more chance to end the thing and win the thing.

The ritual of the pitch is conducted once again.  Kyle grips his bat a little harder.  The lefty pitches from the windup this time.

Leads are taken and expanded.  Gloves are slapped.  Eyes open.  Mouths agape.

The ball is thrown.

It rotates and flies like a diamond on a diamond in the middle of an open field.

PING!

The ball is flying in another direction now.  Far away from where it was.  Deep into the night.  Past the swing sets in left.  Past the small patch of grass beyond.  It lands among trees hugging the high fences at the edge of the park itself.

7-4.

And like that the game ends.

Of course, the story I’ve just told you ends as most baseball stories do — happily.  But, this is the 1 in 100 story as so many of you know.  And that’s the truth in sermon on the mound: you lose when you’re supposed to lose, most of the time.  When you’ve been beat, you usually have to take your licks.  But, sometimes, the divine intervenes.

And on summer nights throughout the world, the divine takes place in little and big ways on open fields in little towns and cities that harbor immense hope in the arms, gloves, and bats of their young people.

And they call it baseball.

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