The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them,
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius,
all to no end save beauty
the eternal –
-William Carlos Williams, “The Crowd At The Baseball Game”
Monday morning, as we finished preparing for our district tournament game and prepared to load our equipment on the bus, I had several of the boys take the pitching machine out of the batting cage, and take it upstairs to winter storage. Every spring, bringing the pitching machine out of storage and into the cage marks the beginning of baseball season. As they took it up the stairs, they were quiet, pallbearers taking this symbol of our spring and our baseball season into the tomb for months of slumber, awaiting the resurrection on another day.
When I was a child, I played baseball in a field across the street from our house. The tiny white house is still there, but the field has long since become a parking lot. The tree that marked second base, and the alley that marked center field, are all gone. Only dim memories remain of the rituals of being chosen by the “big boys,” the terror of a real baseball coming toward you out of the sky, to be caught or dropped, and the first stirrings of understanding how this game allowed boys in a dreary neighborhood to touch greatness, and step into their dreams.
A few blocks away was a city park, and a little league diamond. The sign said “Eastern Little League.” There I would sit in the bleachers and watch boys my age in clean, white uniforms play the sandlot game, but now with white lines and real bases creating a place of beauty on the ground. A game where umpires and coaches transformed the child’s sandlot game into something that mattered in the real world.
Parents were cheering for their boys to hit the ball, to run home and score. My parents, however, were not there, and I would never play in Little League. My father was beginning the long path of mental illness that dominated my life, and no matter how much I asked and begged, he would not take me to join Little League. There were no reasons given. I just “didn’t need to do it.” Before long, I gave the diamond no more than a sideways glance when I walked home from school. I was not to play. For whatever reasons, God had decided I wouldn’t stand at the plate or take the field.
A few years later- long after I’d given up the sandlot game as well as any dream of sports- my father became interested in baseball. Not in me playing the game, but in watching others play. The American Legion sponsored a league for local high schoolers, and my father began going to the games. It was at the largest baseball diamond in town, Chatauqua Park. I began going with him, and for the first time, felt the stir of beauty looking out at a perfect diamond, perfect grass, lights at dusk all bounded by a deep green fence. I remember looking at someone named Jeff Carpenter, a revered pitcher, and realizing I was looking at something great on the earth. It was not just a boy with a ball, but it was something of perfection. Something of beauty. Almost a man, playing the boy’s game.
I discovered that my father had once followed the Owensboro Oilers, a Kitty League farm of the New York Yankees that played minor league ball in our town. At the now long gone Miller Field, Joe Dimaggio had played exhibition games, and the seats were fifty cents. Now he followed the Velvet Bomber American Legion team, and taught me how to be a fan instead of a player. I have forgiven him for taking away my chance to play, and I am grateful to him for giving me the gift of wanting to be near baseball. It is not the same, but it is still wonderful.
Years later, I was at seminary and discovered that Louisville had a minor league club for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds played at Cardinal Stadium. For $12 you could park, get a seat, nachos and a drink. There was a real band, and a real organ. I watched Vince Coleman and Willie McGehee. The astroturf was beautiful to look at, and the right field fence was very close, so we watched many balls sail out of the park. We sat under the canopy for dozens of humid summer nights, sometimes watching storm clouds brewing up the river, in the distance, while we were at peace. A few years later, I took my children to their first baseball game in that stadium, and even though Louisville now has a beautiful new stadium for the Bats, I still get nostalgic about the summer nights I spend in that transformed football field.
Three years ago, I realized my soul was empty, and I had abundant evidence that religion wasn’t filling it up. I felt old and cornered by my failures, a dangerous feeling for a man in his middle forties. My faith speaks of rebirth, but sinking myself back into more books and spiritual disciplines was not going to meet this emptiness. God needed to be somewhere other than a church. Somehow, my mind returned to baseball; to the memories of the past, and to the lost days I would have spent playing ball if my father hadn’t been depressed and afraid.
I began going to our school games. That year, our team was exceptional, so it wasn’t hard to become a fan again. So much so that, the next year, I told the coach that I would be willing to be at all the games if he needed me in any capacity. From that came two years in the dugout and on the field as an assistant coach. Taking the pitching machine back to its resting place reminded me of these two good years, what I have learned, and God’s mercy.
Baseball is a place to lose yourself and find yourself. It is very generous with its fans. Those who know little and those who know too much can enjoy the same game. Everyone is a coach, a pitcher and a batter. The game flows through its players and fans at a pace the old and the young can tolerate. (Shame on those trying to speed the game up or make it feel like two hours of television. It is the quietness and slowness of baseball that allows so many of us to watch and become part of the game. This isn’t NASCAR.)
Baseball has a past that comes to every game. We walk in it, and feel it surrounding us. The great players hover over every field. The named and nameless memories of the elite visit every ballpark, hum alongside every pitch and shout with every stroke of the bat. The umpire’s calls and the managers’ quiet intensity all take us into the past of the game. All that is new and news recedes for a few moments, and only the ball, the field, the players and the game remain, like an island in the river of time.
Baseball constantly relives it’s past. It is rebirth. It takes all of us to our own past. It takes us to all that is unfinished, and less than perfect, and gives us another at bat; another inning; another game. Baseball is a sacramental moment, as we approach the perfection of the game. Two teams will reach for that perfection. In singular moments, the perfection will exist in a swing, or a pitch or a catch. But both teams will fall short of that perfect and eternal inning. One of baseball’s wonderful qualities is that our imperfection does not discourage us from playing again. We return from each defeat, from every out, from our errors and mistakes, with hope again alive in our hearts.
There is a liturgy and a rhythm to baseball. It is a liturgy of words and rules, but mostly of lines, numbers, repetitions and form. The pitcher moves in forms as ancient as the priest. The uniforms are old, and the chatter from the field and the dugout is a language that makes little sense off the field. There is devotion to the game, and honor for the players. It elevates us.
For those of us who are old, to be near baseball is to be tantalizingly close to your boyhood. We stand in the dirt, dust, lines and grass as we did when we were boys. We long to pick up the bat, to throw the ball. Within the confines of the park it seems possible to return to the moment of hitting a single or catching hard-hit shot to the third base line. Time-travel is not possible, of course, and I have little appreciation for those exercises in silliness called “fantasy camps.” But I believe that returning to the game as a fan, or a coach, has a special unction; a kind of power to make youth and old age momentarily irrelevant.
So we put away the pitching machine, and I said good-bye to the boys. I do not know much about my plans for the future- only this: I will return to the ballpark, and to baseball. I will return as often as I can until I am too old to go. It has done me much good, because there is something good in it. Something that cannot be ruined by the professionals as long as there are boys walking onto a field of dreams and memories, to lose and find themselves again in the mystery of seeking an inning that never ends.