In no way do I consider myself capable of doing an official book review. Other librarians are gifted in reading several books a week, comparing nuances, remembering details and characters, and can carry a conversation about it. That’s not me. I am slow and prodding, miss most of what I read, never remember which character did what, when or how, and couldn’t tell anyone more than 1 or 2 details I remember about the book. So, I read non-fiction, since that is all that really connects with me. I take forever to get through some books because I spend time looking up the names and details of history that I know nothing about. It’s a wonder I finish anything at all. Fiction just doesn’t do it for me, although I do give it a try now and then.
Earlier this month I read John Sexton’s interesting Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing beyond the game. I remember seeing Sexton interviewed by Bill Moyers a few years back, discussing the course by the same name that Sexton teaches at NYU. I would love to take…no…I don’t want to take any more classes. But if I did, this would be truly refreshing.
I can chart much of my life through what was happening in baseball at the time. As a kid, football and basketball had their place and their great memories, but only baseball was 24/7. One of the most impressionable events in my young life was seeing the movie “Field of Dreams.” You could very well call this a “spiritual” moment, and the specific moment was the James Earl Jones reflection on the legacy of the game:
Even as a 15-year-old I was starting to learn American history through the eyes of baseball. My uncle got me the Ultimate Baseball Book as a kid, and I was transformed by the stories and pictures of seasons finished long before I was born. I never realized at the time that baseball history and the annual traditions, remembering the legends, are similar to ceremonies celebrating the saints. We respect and celebrate what has gone on before. For me, I could learn a lot about life by learning through baseball history. Jones’ quote “The one constant through all the years is baseball” helped me to study US history, and gave me a sense of a bigger picture.
A year or so later when the movie was showing on TV, I mentioned to my high school coach and Bible teacher at my religious K-12 school how much I liked the movie. His response was a warning because the film was “full of ‘New Age’ doctrine.” I struggled with how something could be so meaningful, yet apparently so contrary to God. My heartwarming experience was now hardened as I worried I had been led astray. Later in life I realized that being nurtured in Fundamentalistville meant anything that makes you think must be “New Age.” In a year or so I would feel “called” to the ministry, rejecting what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up, (since maybe the age of 10): a baseball announcer.
As a kid I would copy the calls of Ned Martin broadcasting the Red Sox games. I couldn’t imagine a better job than going to every baseball game. I had a huge collection of baseball cards I referred to frequently, and tried to keep current rosters of every team on a clipboard as I tracked the transactions in the sports pages. Completely impossible task. When all we had was a black and white TV with no cable, I would listen to most of the games on the radio.
Our church had a “Bible Quizzing Team.” Every church would have a team and you would be expected to memorize entire passages of the Bible to be ready for the big state meet and answer any question or quote any verse on a whim in front of judges. This would distinguish you from the other church kids who couldn’t quote Luke or John and simply weren’t as spiritual.
This next meet was on a given Saturday, and since we had no car, we had to get a ride from the lady who was the church quiz director. On this particular Saturday, October 1, 1983, the Red Sox were having “Yaz Day” at Fenway Park, honoring player Carl Yastrzemski as he retired after 23 years. This historic event was going to be on the local TV station, of which we may have seen 20 games a year. I was determined to stay home and watch Yaz Day, telling my mother I would remember this for the rest of my life and wouldn’t remember a thing from a useless quiz meet. When my ride showed up, I refused to go, and have never regretted it. I can still remember seeing Yaz trot around the field, high-fiving the fans. I went to many quiz meets but couldn’t tell you anything significant about any of them. But I remember Yaz Day.
A moment like Yaz Day was something that was meaningful to me as it represented not only a game I loved to play, but also that there was a big city I had never been to, of people who went to baseball games, and who lived far away from the most dilapidated house in the city…ours. I had the hope that there was something beyond the pathetic childhood I was living out, and somewhere people enjoyed life.
It was about 10 years later I finally made it to Fenway in person, made easier by going to college in Boston. But the majority of my life has been watching the games from home. I remember watching every World Series, and the times in college I missed, particularly Joe Carter’s game winning home run for Toronto to win the World Series in ’93. Baseball has marked the time.
Much like James Earl Jones’ quote, my life seems to have been “erased like a blackboard.” At one time, church was the continuity of my life, both in growing up years and the ministry era. When that changed, I still saw faith as a continuity, but then that seemed to disappear. Then the last thing, marriage, ended in divorce, and when you add these three things together, it can be considered an erasing. Some would value such a fresh start, and it should be considered that, but it seems a difficult process to get there. That’s when I realized it is sports in general and baseball in particular which has been the continuity of my life after family and faith lost their prominence.
Perhaps Thexton is on to something. For some of us, baseball replaces love that is lost, family who have passed, hopes that have been dashed, and dreams shattered. He lays out how we find all of the spiritual themes in baseball, and not simply a shallow grass, field, sanctuary analogy. There is mystery of origins. There are miracles we can’t explain, faith, doubt, and tragedy. There is perseverance, work, and luck. There are saints and sinners, blessings and curses, regrets and forgiveness. Awful, mediocre, and great seasons. The winter of darkness, the light resurrection in spring. We can find ourselves becoming part of the story because its metaphors define us.
I find a significance in that 2012 when divorce happened, the Red Sox were having their worst season in my lifetime. Students in the library pitched in to get me tickets for a game at Fenway in September, expressing their care for my situation. A buddy and I had seats under the center field scoreboard, with less than 5 rows of seats between us and the very back wall of the stadium. If I had good pipes and aim, I could have spit out of Fenway Park. I didn’t try. But despite the bad team, which symbolized my season as much as theirs, we were there to suffer together. Then, in a way which couldn’t be explained, in 2013 they went from worst to first, and won the World Series with a bunch of “lesser money” players who grew beards to symbolize togetherness. Although I have yet to feel I have experienced such, I am reminded hope rises out of sorrow, and life can begin anew.
Sexton makes it clear this is just a road to God, not the road, and I would say a road that could be called understanding/identity/growth etc. Anything could be such a road, but for me at this moment, baseball is a good place. I have recently become a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, something I thought about doing for years. Realizing classes will be over soon and I’ll have another Masters to put on a shelf, I am looking for things to do for the next adventure. Members of SABR research, write, and discuss baseball, even publishing books, such as this latest example. Right now, this seems like a place I should be, and a place where I can invest myself in a hobby.