Thursday, August 22, 2013

Calling On Angels

Al Kaline at Briggs Stadium, 1957
I left my heart in two places (outside of home) in my hometown. The Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Ave., where I was baptized and confirmed in The Episcopal Church, remains. The other, gone since 2009, was old Briggs Stadium, ancestral turf of the Detroit Tigers, who baptized me into baseball.

Though my mother and godfather usually took me on weekends, my first game was on a weeknight. I was about six. Along with millions of boys and girls, I have an inner YouTube video of that first walk along a darkened passage toward a light-soaked space -- the long white lines, the emerald grass, the clay-red diamond after it had been raked and hosed down, just before determined figures in brilliant raiment would surge from the home dugout, scattering the dirt with their cleats.

Starring in my field of dreams were sluggers Al Kaline and Willie Horton, now in their 70s and still active in the front office. After my mother and I moved to Phoenix in 1967, when I was 12, I kept my Tigers by the tail by clipping box scores and taping them in a scrapbook. When they beat St. Louis in the 1968 World Series, my godfather, who worked at the Detroit Free Press, mailed me the cardboard mat the pressmen had used to make a plate for the front page the next morning. The headline shouted “WE WIN!” to a town that was already experiencing harbingers of last month’s bankruptcy.

In the late 1960s in Arizona, the diamondbacks’ only prey was mice, rabbits, and gophers. While in college, experiencing vocational foreshadowing, I rooted for the Padres. I never cottoned to Yankees or Mets during ten years in New York. But I was in old Yankee Stadium (brilliantly portrayed by old Briggs in the 2001 movie “61”) with Richard Nixon and his son-in-law David Eisenhower on July 4, 1983 when lefthander Dave Righetti pitched a no-hitter against Boston.

Many years later, Kathy and I took Eisenhower to the Big A. He looked around the house that Disney
John and Andy at the Big A, 2013
renovated and said, “I envy you living so close to a major league ballpark.” But I was a utility fan at best until something flipped a switch a few weeks before the end of the Angels’ unremarkable 2012 season. I couldn’t wait for opening day. I’ve already been to the ballpark eight times this year. Kathy graciously watches more games than she would prefer. I use an iPhone app to listen to play-by-play from all over the country.

I’ve resisted using my phone to research whether a sudden spike in childlike enthusiasm says something I should but don’t want to know about my aging brain. While I’ve also resisted Googling “Jesus and baseball,” I wonder about the theology behind all the things we love with innocent abandon – from sports and music and painting to bridge and quilting and fishing and reading and all the hobbies and avocations in between. In March David Ferguson wrote in The Onion, “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life.” I suspect most of us indulge our non-remunerative passions not to escape reality but to reveal our true selves to others and even to ourselves.

As people of faith, do our greatest passions also signify something about our conceptions of the sacred? Think about Angels fans wearing Holy Spirit red while celebrating and (so far this season) mourning as one. Children have more fun at baseball than at football and basketball games, and that’s also a holy thing. Others have written more eloquently than I possibly can about the game’s intricacy, its sights and strangely comforting sounds, its history, symmetry, and beautiful displays of athleticism. I enjoy the fellowship in the stands and the comradeship among the players, their youthful quirks and superstitions. I love winning and having faith that we’ll eventually stop losing. Baseball is tidier than everyday life and doesn’t matter anywhere near as much – until it does, when it’s almost like heaven.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.