The Church of Baseball

This weekend, a small kerfuffle commenced over two symbols carved into the dirt on the back of Busch Stadium’s pitching mound. One was the number six, placed there in honor of Stan “The Man” Musial who died on January 19th at the age of 92. The other was a cross. It’s appearance shouldn’t be surprising since the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the most openly Christian teams in all of professional sports. Fifteen or so players as well as head coach Mike Matheny are believers, and their faith was the subject of a new book written just this year.

cardinals%20mound%20image

However, “One fan, Michael Vines, said he was ‘shocked’ when he saw the ‘inappropriate’ images because he said Busch Stadium is ‘a place of hallowed ground not just for Christians, but for Cardinal fans of all religions, including none at all.'” A series of phone calls followed his complaint, and in the end, the Cardinals’ GM, John Mozeliak, ordered that both symbols be removed. The cross for obvious reasons and the 6 because, according to reports, someone said “it looked suspiciously like a Jesus fish.” Le sigh. And the first day the symbols weren’t there was on Christian Family Day. The irony of it all is positively delightful.

So….wait. A book discussing the team’s faith and an entire day devoted to Christians (one that has been advertised for months beforehand) is kosher. And it’s okey dokey to accept money from believers who attend the game, but the symbols on the back of a mound must be nixed toot sweet? Call me crazy, but that seems a skosh hypocritical. It’s like the scene in Casablanca where Captain Louis Rennalt attempts to appear shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s Café American….and then collecting his winnings before closing the place down at the Nazi’s behest.

Christian_Day_flyer

Bill McClellan, a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote an op-ed this weekend titled “Uneasy feelings about the cross on Busch Stadium mound” in which he states, “I look at photos of that cross etched on the mound and I get the same sort of uneasy feeling I get when I hear the phrase ‘homeland security.’ It used to be ‘national security.’ Why did ‘national’ morph into ‘homeland’? It happened about the same time politicians started wearing American flag lapel pins.”

Really?!?

He goes on, equating the feeling to the same slick nausea that churns in his gut when he thinks of terrorism, the NSA surveillance program, and George Orwell. And he closes this gem of fallacious writing by saying, “The tribute to Musial seems harmless. Not so the cross. Does religion need to be that prominent in a baseball game? I’m not pretending it’s a big deal. But still, I have an uneasy feeling about a cross etched on the mound.”

So, in his mind, the cross poses the same threat to America’s security as enemies both foreign and domestic. But that’s quite a stretch, especially considering the fact he praised this year’s team by saying they’re, “the nicest Cardinals team I can recall. At least, the players appear nice from a distance.” Also, if he’s so concerned about the dystopian world in Orwell’s 1984, shouldn’t he be defending the placement of the cross on the field (and the freedom that allows it to be there) rather than supporting the “Big Brother” decision to have it removed? I sometimes wonder if the kneejerk reaction to anything that remotely smacks of Christianity doesn’t keep some folks in our country from thinking the matter through clearly.

And let’s be serious here for a moment. Both Mr. Vines and Mr. McClellan are forgetting something true baseball fans understand—If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Cardinals currently have the best record in baseball (53 and 34) and are, as I type this, beating the snot out of the Houston Astros 8-1. The starting rotation is rock solid; the lineup is hitting like gangbusters. Five men were selected to participate in the 2013 All-Star Game, and every player on the team is happy and honored to be a part of an historic and well-respected franchise. In other words, they’re like “Me and Mrs. Jones”—they got a good thing going on. So quit gnashing your teeth and enjoy the second half of the season, dudes.

I am a Christian who also happens to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I’m thrilled that I can root for a team of stand-up men who play the game skillfully and serve God both on and off the field. I would love nothing more than a religious symbol on every base and Scripture written on the walls of the dugout. However, even if I only believed in “The Church of Baseball,” I would still support the cross and 6 on the mound. Why? Because they’re Hippocratic; they do no harm. A true fan supports whatever gets the game in the “W” column as opposed to the “L” and worries more about team morale than its iconography.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reaction to this situation and all the people who have weighed in thus far. Can we even have a legitimate debate about religion again in this country anymore? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

For the Record

I have come to terms with the fact my grandfather will forget my name one day. Already, he struggles to find it as he gropes through the jumbled memories in his brain, sifting for it the same way we once did for sharks’ teeth on Jupiter Beach. Sometimes, he calls me “James,” the moniker I share with my great uncle and great grandfather, probably because he’s known it longer. It’s engraved more deeply into the gray grooves of his brain, and the disease gaining ground there will have a harder time eroding it. I like to imagine James is a stubborn root that refuses to be pulled out or a well-supplied soldier at the beginning of a lengthy siege. James is a fighter, and its defeat will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

To salvage as much of him as she can, my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonnie, asks Papaw our names at least thirty times a day, beginning at breakfast.

“Tell me your daughters’ names again,” she says as she places his morning pills on the napkin next to his plate.

“Sherry and Jamie,” he proudly replies, knowing both are right.

“Jamie’s your granddaughter,” she replies, washing down the lump of misery in her throat with a drink of scalding coffee. “Anita’s your other daughter. Now, tell me your grandsons’ names….”

When she can’t bear to listen, she has him write down our names on a sheet of paper over and over again, like he’s a child being punished after school, forced to scratch out, “I will not forget my homework” one hundred times on the board. His handwriting, never prize worthy, is nearly illegible now, and his brain can’t process letters the same way it once did. There are times when “Sherry” is written “sHErrY” and my name is spelled five different ways. Some days, the names won’t come at all, and his pencil tip breaks under the pressure of his frustration.

There are also times when I’m Amy, Cammie, and Tammy to him, too, and the fact that they rhyme only cracks my heart instead of breaking it outright. It’s close enough to tell me I’m still in there somewhere, like an old photograph just beginning to get grainy and fuzzy around the edges.

“That’s okay, Papaw,” I tell him as we sit out by the pool one Saturday. “It’s in the ballpark.”

The word triggers something in his brain, lashing two memories together like lifeboats in a storm, and he looks at me with such clarity I almost forget that dementia, unlike amnesia, isn’t something you recover from.

“Do you remember going to Busch Stadium?” he asks, smiling broadly.

I can only bite my lip and nod. “What do you remember, Papaw?” I ask. And he tells me his recollections of that afternoon.

***

I remember it well. I couldn’t have been more than seven the first time he led me through the massive gates at the ballpark with one of my tiny hands in his. In the other sweaty fist, I carried a new St. Louis Cardinals pennant that soon snapped in half because I shook it to pieces in my excitement. While the rest of my family went off to buy hot dogs, Cokes, and pretzels, Papaw and I joined the river of people flowing through the stadium and fought our way through to buy a scorecard.

“If you want to understand the game, you have to have one of these, baby girl,” he said. “It helps you see and remember what happened.”

We reached our seats and, while we waited for everyone to join us, Papaw pulled a pen out of his front shirt pocket and began filling out the lineups. He started with “Smith,” the most common of names, but I knew who it was. Ozzie Smith, A.K.A. “The Wizard of Oz,” was the lead-off man and had long been my favorite player because he always did a back flip the first time he took the field and was so fast that he made seemingly impossible plays look simple. Ozzie didn’t field so much as dance, anticipating the ball’s every movement when it left the batter’s box.

“You put ‘one’ here where it says ‘number,’ and ‘Smith’ under ‘name,’” Papaw said, slowly writing the information on the card and letting me see it. “Then you have to put in their position. Smith is a shortstop, so he’s number….”

I counted the positions on my finger. One was the pitcher, two was the catcher, but I always struggled to remember if the shortstop was five or six. I was about to give up when he reminded me.

“Smith starts with an S just like…”

“Six!” I shouted happily. “He’s position number six.”

For me, most of the game passed in a whir of color and excitement. I was often distracted by the organ music, the box of Cracker Jacks I munched on, or the people around us, but I checked in with Papaw periodically to see how the innings looked on that scorecard. Each player had twelve perfect boxes in line behind his name, and the diamond in the center of each held the results of each at bat. A darkened line with “1B” written to the side meant a single while that same line paired with “WP” or “BB” meant the man reached on a wild pitch or a walk. “K” facing right meant a man struck out swinging while a reversed one meant he stood there and took the final one of an at bat. I learned how to mark a stolen base, a fly out, and even a homerun, and what could have been an impenetrable mess of data made sense because my grandfather served as my very own Rosetta Stone.

There was something appealing about the scorecard to me, and I found myself more drawn to it as the innings passed. I liked the way it told the story of a game in only a few lines and letters, as terse and beautiful as a haiku. When the bottom of the ninth came around, Papaw asked me if I wanted to help, and I eagerly crawled into his lap and took the pen from his hand. Comfortably perched on his knees, I watched and carefully marked down the combination of plays that produced the Cardinals’ winning run (single, sacrifice fly, stolen base, and double) and left the crowd screaming with excitement. The moment, unlike my crooked and wobbly lines, was perfect.

***

Why can’t our memories be like that? I ask myself as I listen to him talk, furious that the outcome of an inconsequential game can be recorded forever while my grandfather’s memories wash away like sand pulled into time’s dark sea. Maybe it’s because the game is a two-dimensional thing, a mass of data—nothing more runs and outs—while humans are flesh and bone. A baseball scorecard is a simple retelling of facts in the correct order. There’s no need to record a player’s motivation, his thoughts during a given at bat, or even how he felt watching a third strike whiz past or legging a single into a double. But life is made up of so many things that cannot be quantified or accurately described. The only accurate record of it lives on in memory. Beautiful. Complete. Vulnerable.

No matter how many pictures we take or how many journals we fill with our thoughts, we can never capture the essence of what matters in our lives or why. It breaks my heart to think I can never explain to anyone how much I love the crinkles that collect around my husband’s eyes when he smiles or why no broccoli casserole in the world will ever taste as good as my mother’s. I can’t tell anyone exactly what it felt like to become the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree or to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower at night with the twinkling lights of Paris laid out beneath me like gemstones on black velvet. Those precious things, if I lose them, are gone forever. After all, no one saw, tasted, or felt what I did in those moments—and even if they had, their memories would be uniquely theirs. Not mine.

***

“…but I couldn’t even keep a scorecard anymore,” Papaw says, his voice pulling me away from the painful thoughts in my head.

“What?” I ask him to repeat, embarrassed for having tuned him out, even for a second.

“I remember teaching you how to keep a scorecard that day,” he repeats. His voice is patient, the way it used to be. “But I doubt I remember how.”

Phrases like “I doubt I could…” are dementia-speak, convenient euphemisms for truths too brutal to face. We both know he could no more keep the system of lines and letters straight in his befuddled brain than I could when I was seven. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.

But I do. I know because he taught me how. The memory of learning it from him is in my head, and I’ve reinforced it by keeping dozens of scorecards since that Elysian afternoon. What is lost to him forever is not lost to me yet. The memory of it is safe for now.

“Hold on just a sec,” I tell him and dash indoors.

Thanks to the Internet, it takes less than a minute to print out a blank scorecard. It’s not the same as the full color ones at the ballpark, those edged with player stats and ads for beer or car dealerships, but it’ll do. I come back out to where he sits, staring at the pool’s placid and glossy surface. Like him, it’s no longer rushing from one place to another, compelled by the irresistible force of gravity to seek lower elevations or by heat and cold to take on other forms. It strikes me then that both of them have reached a place of stillness and will, over time, evaporate away. And there is little I can do about either.

But, for a moment, I see Papaw kneeling by the side of our pool in Arkansas, still wearing his work clothes. His tie is flipped up over his shoulder, and his bright plastic Wal-Mart nametag, the one that reads “Boyce—General Manager” flaps wildly in the summer breeze. In his hand, he holds a bright green garden hose that is happily burbling and spewing a stream of clear water into the pool.

“Whatcha’ doing, B?” I ask him.

“Filling up the pool, baby girl. You and your brother sloshed half the water out of it playing today,” he replies, laughing to tell me he’s not the least bit angry about it. He promises me we’ll swim later and play Marco Polo until it gets dark and we have to watch out for bats drawn down by deep end’s bright light.

I know he’s the same man I knew then, but he’s somehow smaller now. Dimmer. Like a lamp whose oil is running low. I know his lost memories aren’t as easy to replace as those gallons of water once were, but I tell myself refilling him temporarily is well worth the effort.

With my laptop under my arm, I walk toward my grandfather, waving the scorecard as excitedly as I once did that poor, doomed pennant. He smiles. And for a moment, he is so much like his old self that my soul is flooded by a pleasure too sweet to describe. It’s a gossamer thing, as pale and delicate as cotton candy, and I savor it until my jaws clench and my eyes water.

It’s 3:30, and on one network or another, a game will start in less than thirty minutes. That’s just enough time to look up the rosters and put each player’s name, number, and position down for the record.

Sweet Game of Youth

From our fascination with the mythical Fountain of Youth to a desire for the latest anti-wrinkle treatment that renders our faces incapable of expressing emotions, it’s not hard to see that we’re a culture obsessed with staying young.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I didn’t give it much thought; I just shoved the topic into the corner of my mind as unceremoniously as I did the clothing I was too lazy to fold up and put away. However, now that my hair is changing color of its own free will and I’m running into more people who think Hall and Oates is a brand of organic grains, I’ve been confronted with the brutal truth that time soldiers on whether I want it to or not. (It also doesn’t help that I’ll be turning 34 in less than two weeks, but I digress.)

But I have found that there is a source of eternal renewal. Like the trees outside my home, it comes to a glorious finish of color and pageantry in autumn, lies dormant like a bear in winter, and returns afresh and anew every spring. I’m not talking about a garden full of flowers or a flock of migratory birds. No, it’s something altogether more beautiful and majestic than than either of those things.

I’m talking about baseball, the most glorious of all sports. The game that leaves me each November only to return as faithfully as a well-chucked boomerang.

I spent a good deal of time wallowing joyfully in Opening Weekend, which was as rejuvenating as a dip in one of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pits. I’ll be the first to admit I’m blessed because, last year, my team did the improbable (and hacked off a good number of fans and sports writers around the nation) by winning the World Series in grand fashion.

Yes, for an entire year, I get to relive that series that no one, and I mean NO ONE, thought we’d win. Game six alone was like that “Pit of Despair” machine in The Princess Bride; it took two years off my life and left me in a laughing, crying puddle on the floor. But man, was it worth it.

David Freese, hometown hero!
Motte closes the door on the Rangers.

However, that confetti-drenched moment doesn’t matter now because it’s 2012, and everyone is in the running once again. Every team from the billion dollar juggernauts like the Yankees to squads like the Astros that are in a rebuilding year has the exact same chance of grabbing the brass ring like we did in 2011. Do some teams stand a better chance? Sure. But it’s never guaranteed. That’s the beautiful thing about baseball. The season is long enough that any number of X-Factors can change the make-up of a division or even a league. There is no clock. There are no time-outs. Very little is up to official review (and may it stay that way). One lucky catch or hanging breaking ball can have a huge effect on momentum, and the later it happens in the season, the wackier the run to the playoffs gets. Every one of the “Boys of Summer” is reborn in the spring and given the chance to once again prove his mettle and emerge victorious.

TA DA!

I also relish the re-boot each season gives me and my family. We couldn’t go this year because we’re so poor we make church mice look like Rockefellers, but we usually get to travel down to Florida and savor the game in its purest form—Spring Training. Like the players, we observe more than a few rituals during this brief sabbatical. For instance, one Teppanyaki meal must be shared per trip, autographs must be sought, and we must spend at least one hour before the gates open on the back fields watching the players warm up and perform drills.

Once we’re inside the park for the first game, we always climb the stairs simultaneously so we get to see the most beautiful sight in the world—the geometric spectacle of grass that is a baseball field–together. Sometimes, we say a few words, but more often than not we stand there in silence enjoying the sight like it was the first time. On a side note, I actually get to games early so I can watch the field crew groom it. I’m not lying. Watching them dampen the infield and sketch out the dimensions of the batter’s box is better than Zoloft.

Likewise, there are things we eschew in the name of purity. For example, we never show up late or leave early. We never participate in “The Wave.” And we never ever ever get up in the middle of an inning. Decorum demands these things, and we’re sticklers for it. I won’t even wear a pink jersey; it’s my team’s colors or nothing.

Me in the visitor's dugout at Turner Field during this year's open house.

This sport has united three generations of my family. It’s something–like brown eyes and a penchant for peskiness–that we all share. I remember watching Ozzie Smith’s back flips in rapt fascination, falling asleep listening to Jack Buck calling games on the radio, and spending time with my grandfather learning how to keep a scorecard.

It’s as much a part of who I am as the language I speak and the places I’ve lived in my three decades on this planet. To call it “a game” is both true and somehow trivializing in my mind. But, truth be told, that’s what it is…a game. It’s the same one I grew up watching on television, and while many things in my world have changed, very little about it has. Sure, the powers that be try to “keep it interesting” by adding designated hitters or a second wildcard team, but at its root it’s still comprised of nine innings and twenty-seven outs that each team is given to do the most with. There is still the poetry of the double play and the thrill of the suicide squeeze to enjoy. There are still hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks to feast on, foul balls to catch, and stretches to perform to organ music in the middle of the seventh. I swear, it’s like the Elysian Fields the Greeks once imagined.

I love the game for its beauty and grace, the absolutely perfect timing it requires for a hitter to put a tapered piece of wood on a diminutive leather ball and for a fielder to arrest that same ball mid-flight. I love it because of men like Dizzy Dean, Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter—aptly named players who were characters in their own right—and the unique language we’ve all learned to speak where a cement mixer can become a frozen rope or can of corn that leads a team to hang a bagel. I love it because of quirky things like the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Sausage Race, and Chief Noc-A-Homa.

But most of all, I love its timelessness and how it temporarily helps me forget how quickly the years pass. Each season, I can still feel the way I did when I was eight and walked into Busch Stadium for the first time, my mouth agape and a new pennant clenched in my sweaty fist.

Me and my favorite teammate!