The moment Pablo Sandoval caught the foul ball of Salvador Perez off the third base line for the final out of the 2014 World Series, my phone blew up. I was receiving some texts throughout the game, a lot of which I was ignoring because I was too focused on the game and the fact that I was seeing something I’ve only read about in books or heard about in stories told by older baseball fans and sportscasters. It was Game 7—Madison Bumgarner came into the game to throw five scoreless innings on only two days rest after throwing a complete game shutout for Game 5. This was following pitching seven innings of one-run balls. And a complete game shutout for the Wild Card game.
The texts after the catch were messages of congratulations and “you sure know how to pick them”—because in New York if the Yankees don’t make the post season, no one really cares about the World Series and it loses out fully to the start of football season. That night I was pacing during the game, only going to the bathroom during commercials. Dropping food on the table because I wouldn’t look down at my plate because I didn’t want to miss a single pitch. I was screaming. And cursing. Clapping. And doing all of it loudly.
After responding to these texts I slumped onto my couch muted the post-game coverage and just got taken over with a wave of melancholy.
The next day all the co-workers that have known me for being not only the only Giants fan in the office, but the only person to like a baseball team that is not a current New York team, were coming to me saying things like, “You must be happy today,” and “You still riding that Giants victory?” But I couldn’t help but shake a sad feeling I had. I felt like maybe I should feel happier. I flipped through my phone and I saw the baseball widget on my phone reading “No games scheduled for today.” Then it made sense to me that my blueness came from the fact that baseball is over for the season.
I put on my headphones and listened to Take Me Out to the Ballgame played by a single trumpet, from the Ken Burns Baseball documentary. And it played in my ears the way Taps plays at a funeral, and I felt emotional and vaguely choked up.
I gave up on church when I was about 25 years old. I am 31 years old now.
I grew up going to church my whole life. Multiple times a week. Then when I was 18, I went to a Christian college, where I was asked to attend chapel three times a week and I was expected to go to church on Sundays as well, and a Sunday evening service called Jacob’s Ladder, which we quickly referred to as Jacob’s Blabber because of the high rate of tears strewn about the place each service.
I didn’t walk away from the church in the normal sense of thinking it was all wrong or because I didn’t believe. In a much deeper reality I left because of how much I believed as strongly as I do. It wasn’t about hypocrisy or judgment the way we often hear about people leaving the church. There is a great love I have for the Bible—I remember getting my first bible when I was in second grade. Thin with gold edged pages. Onion skin. Black vinyl cover. Red lettering. I remember my mom telling me about how when she was a girl she would highlight and underline things. Everything I read I wanted to underline and highlight. Everything seemed important. I remember the times before we look behind the curtain and church seems beautiful and the people friendly. It feels full of love and promise. But once you see it…it can’t be unseen. I remember petty arguments over wanting to grow the church building so we could fit more people and how against it people were. Because they didn’t want outsiders. I remember bringing a friend to church who was asked, “I’m sorry, can you not sit next to us?” just because he wasn’t white. I remember timidly standing up at a congregational meeting to remind people that the Bible says that the church is the people, not the building, so it doesn’t matter what happened to the building, because we are the church. And they laughed at me. And an old woman stood up and asked why there were so many kids in the church now anyway. And then pastors I love were pushed out, and their families that I loved like my own followed them. I went away to college still hoping to fight through all of that and make it through to the other side. Be a pastor myself maybe. To read the Bible and grow. But as the years went by I felt more and more chipped away. Then my own family was stiff-armed out of the church we all grew up in. Mom and Dad and my sister and me. Even then I tried finding a few more churches. Younger churches—but those made me feel as if I wasn’t learning anything I didn’t know already. Older churches were full of biblical teachings but cold and boring. I was lost. Stuck between stations. Church after church let me down. Wasn’t worth the drive. All the notebooks I used to keep notes and references were now filled with drawings I used to doodle to fill up the time until the end of service.
I started to question. Not my faith, but just what the hell I was doing, what’s the point of church. I felt silly. It seemed pointless—everything seemed corrupted. I remember listening to a track from Jesus Christ Superstar and Judas sings “…it was beautiful but now it’s sour, yes, it’s all gone sour.” And it hit me hard. Everything was sour. And I would hear a lot of my friends who don’t believe or who are self-proclaimed atheists and I would listen to them talk and all I would hear are issues with the church. They equated “the church” with God of course—but in their words they weren’t complaining about any teachings of the Bible they didn’t agree with, or issues with God’s word. It was always things related to the church and the people in it.
Everything IS sour. Church, in my eyes, was the worst thing to happen to Jesus and to God since…well, since ever. And I thought of what Jesus told us, “If they were to be silent, then the rocks themselves would cry out!” and then to me, in a flash, it made sense.
We are living in a time where so many people are talking, but everyone is silent.
I’ve been looking in the wrong places. The rocks and stones are crying out and I haven’t been listening. If all Truth comes from God, why was I thinking I could only find it if it came out of the mouth, or writing of a “Christian” or a “church”—anything in the world that is True, isn’t that God’s voice? God’s teaching?
And so I left the church and never went back. I haven’t even looked back too much. I started a new campaign in life to find, or try to find, God in everywhere I look. In anything I read, whether it’s fiction, or a movie. A song. Or the game of baseball. I’ve found teachings of Jesus in the bleakness of a Cormack McCarthy novel or the words of Hemingway. In the actions of friends. In jiu-jitsu. In yo-yoing. Everywhere. I stopped looking at who said what, and instead I saw the Truth behind the words. I would read the poetry and fables of Islamic Mystics and see Jesus. I would look at the pitching of Sandy Koufax and see God. I see my grandfather in the game of baseball, and think of him when I watch it and read about it. And I saw God in my grandfather. And I see him in my memory of him. As my friend Aaron says, “In every blade of grass, Allah, Allah, Allah, in every blade of grass.”
Maybe in that sense it is no coincidence that in the novel Shoeless Joe about the legendary outfielder, he tells the main character that what he loves about baseball…”is the thrill of the grass.”
Top of the First
I am the first to admit that I was late to the baseball game. And the love of the game. But I can say that I truly love it.
Maybe then too it is no coincidence that at the age that I gave up church, I found baseball for the first time.
I’m not trying to say that I was under a rock and didn’t know it existed. No no, I even played Little League for a bit, or tried to. Maybe that is why I never liked baseball. I was a lefty when I was up at bat and I was at an age where the coaches were just first teaching the kids how to pitch.
Pitchers at that age only know two things. How to throw as hard as they can, and that it works best to throw outside to a righty…which usually is directly in the lefty batters box. If I wasn’t getting hit by the pitch, I was certainly ducking out of the way of a ball. Some that weren’t even close but I was so timid and gun-shy that it wouldn’t matter.
My dad became very physically sick and disabled when I was very young so whereas he was around, he wasn’t able to play sports with me. So for a large chunk of my life I threw like a girl, because my mom taught me how to throw. Something only now at 31 am I working to remedy by having a friend who played college baseball teach me to throw the correct way.
All of these things combined to make me dislike baseball. I remember when I couldn’t find pieces of my uniform I was so excited at the idea that I might not have to play. Being fairly sick most of my childhood and in and out of hospitals and surgery I learned to develop my creative and artistic side because sports weren’t in the cards for me. Something I didn’t grow out of until I was 29 and started to lose weight and become more active than anyone could have ever predicted I would get. So I never understood it.
I once went to a Yankee game when I was in my Little League days with my sister and my brother and his girlfriend and her family and we sat on the bleachers and threw pennies at the people in box seats because for some reason we had to hate them. Calling back and forth “Bleachers bite!” “Box Seats Suck!” When I was 23 I went to a Yankees game again but remember nothing about it except how green the grass is. Which is something everyone says, and something that hits me every time I see go to a game. In 2011, the Giants faced the Mets 4 days in a row in New York and I took off work to go watch them at Citifield and each day the grass looked greener than the day before. The dirt browner. The lines whiter. The bases were little squares that were just so perfectly white. Then I drove to Philly to see the Giants play twice, each time the grass so green. Every blade of it. The thrill of that grass. So baseball was around but I was blind to it. It held no more interest to me than any other sport out there. All of it was pointless. I didn’t like it.
I didn’t know what I was missing. And I didn’t care.
Bottom of the First
I remember the day I fell in love with baseball. Not the occasion. But the day.
October 7, 2010.
That was the day.
The October 6th caught my attention and set up the love affair. I was back from work and I was grumpy because my daily routine of coming home from work and laying in bed watching TBS (which is a channel that I didn’t particularly love, but at that time it had a line of TV shows that were good enough that I didn’t have to channel surf at all) had been interrupted by the post season which had just started, so baseball took over that particular station.
I was in bed and dozed off to some other stupid TV show I was settling for. Waking up before dinner, groggy with sleep, I forgot about the baseball games and put on TBS, and as soon as I turned to that channel the noise that came out of my speakers made me jump and fumble with the remote to turn it down. In the background, in the stands, just a sea of white towels being waved like crazy. There was just an electricity that radiated from the game into my bedroom that was just so captivating. Why this electricity? Roy Halladay threw a post-season no hitter. I saw the last few outs. Maybe the last six outs. So it was as exciting as you can get.
Baseball…you have my attention.
October 7, 2010, I tuned on TBS specifically for baseball. Even hoping to see the Phillies again after that no hitter. But instead, and it changed my life, the Giants were on. And on the mound was a small, long-haired kid named Tim Lincecum.
The kid, to me, looked like he threw his first pitch with everything he had in him. It looked like he had one good pitch in him and so he was going to give it all he had. His windup was bizarre. His stride I found out was 107% the length of his body. He looked like he would fall over. And he threw that ball as hard as he could, with all he had. Each pitch as if it was his last…then he did that 118 more times.
It was just amazing to see. He threw a complete game two-hit shutout. On that team in 2010 the team was known as The Misfits. You had Lincecum, the long-haired Freak. You had a handful of rookies, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a Kung Fu Panda and some veterans, many of whom were playing their last few games before retiring, and a closer whose beard was long as a gnome’s and died blacker than midnight. They looked like the coach went out into the parking lot and gathered the first group of people he could make a team out of and threw them on the field. It was a blast to watch. They felt real and like people you could touch. People you could bump into on the street and they wouldn’t mind. They were obtainable.
I didn’t fully know it was the post season, so by default my love of the Giants turned me into a front runner, so to speak. A fact I was embarrassed about for awhile, wishing I had a history with the Giants because it felt silly to get so strongly attached to them only to find that they were a heavy contender for the World Series.
But this was the start of this feeling I still have and can’t shake…and that is that baseball is more than it seems.
Top of the Second
The Giants won the World Series that year.
I wore a Giants cap, kept the brim straight too. But I kept all celebrations sparse and to myself because I didn’t feel right to celebrate the win of a team I have no history with. A team I just learned existed a few weeks earlier.
My grandfather was living with us at the time and me and him were always closer than he was with any other grandchild because we would go to Bible studies together and we’d talk about sermons and Bible stories. During that time my grandmother was very sick so I was spending a lot of time with Poppy. He was married for over 60 years to one woman and now he was losing her. I wanted to find a balance of talking to him if he needed, but also finding a topic that we could talk about that wouldn’t limit his identity to “the man with the dying wife.” I knew nothing I said could take his mind off of what he was going through; nothing could make him forget it. But the doctors were talking about it, family was talking about it. His church was. And so I would talk to him about himself. And we would talk baseball.
One of the first things he told me of was the Shot Heard Around the World—a story I didn’t even know that I knew. We all do. Any kid that has ever held a wiffle-ball bat in their hands and muttered to themselves ‘…bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, man on second…the pitcher winds up’ and then throws a tennis ball up in the air with one hand, grabs onto the bat and swings for the fences—they might not know it, but they are reliving that moment.
Bobby Thomson hit a walk-off home run to win the NLCS and send the then New York Giants to the World Series. Poppy told me of this because he went to high school with Bobby Thomson at Curtis High School in Staten Island. Poppy wasn’t much to spin a tall tale so he was very quick to point out that they weren’t “friends” but he knew him. And Poppy tried out for the baseball team next to him. Poppy didn’t make it because he was too short, and couldn’t hit. But as for Bobby Thomson, well…he made history.
I connected my computer to the main television in the house and showed Poppy the video of the Shot Heard Around the World. He had a childlike grin on his face as the announcer was screaming, “And the Giants win the Pennant and the Giants win the Pennant!” and we talked about it more. The same stories over and over again. The magic of Baseball was showing its face more and more.
My Grandmother died the last day of November.
My mom told me while I was at work and told me there was no need to rush home because there was a lot to do that I couldn’t help with anyway.
When I got home I saw my Poppy sitting at the counter by the kitchen with his back to the door. He heard me come in but I could tell he didn’t want to turn around. He was in shock, he was sad. He didn’t want to get emotional.
As I walk in I see my Poppy holding up a large bright red book over his head, still not turning around. And in old writing on the cover I see Curtis High School ‘42. A relief to me because I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Do I try to lighten the mood? But then, like a voice from my own Field of Dreams, it was like God himself was saying, “Just talk baseball.”
My mom told me later that Poppy, after coming home from the hospital immediately after my grandmother died, became almost obsessive about finding that yearbook. The original plan was to find insurance information, medical stuff, her will etc. But all he cared about in that moment was that yearbook. To show me Bobby Thomson’s picture and his a few pages earlier. He didn’t want to deal with any more hospitals or death. There was a whirlwind of that to come later. He was going through drawers, boxes, to find this book. Ripping through things with such a furious passion that my mom knew to try and talk “sense” into him about getting the paper work together just wasn’t the thing to do. It was calming to him. It’s what he needed. There is this holiness that hangs over baseball and the stories and lore and legends of baseball. It hangs over it like a mist. Or clings to it the game like the dew on the grass. On every blade of grass.
Bottom of the Second
My grandfather wasn’t a huge baseball fan. There wasn’t a team he followed fully. But he used to play sandlot ball, and he was on an all-star softball team in World War 2 with his Anti-Aircraft battalion.
And in going through his little apartment after he passed I found a softball, weathered and beaten up, with faded writing on it. It was sitting there like a pearl to a diver to me. Others walking past it. I snatched it up fast when others were focused on watches and fur coats. I keep the ball on the ledge by the door to my apartment. The faded signatures of everyone on that team.
The Christmas after my grandma died and the Giants were the World Champions for the first time in over 50 years, my Poppy brought me a big box of baseball cards. And smaller decks of cards about the 2010 Giants. I put some in plastic containers to protect them. Others I use as bookmarks, just so that they are being used and close by. In those months, even though the season was over, we dove headfirst into baseball together. He told me of the Hot Stove and all the trades that happen. His eyes were very poor at this time and he needed a magnifying glass to read the newspaper. But he read it every morning. And combed it cover to cover each day with the magnifying glass to find any mention of the Giants. If it was a box score, he’d cut it out. If it was an article on a player, he would take out the whole page. If it was just a sentence he would cut out any surrounding sentences so I could have context for it. And he saved them all. Every day.
When I lived at home he would bring them over. When I moved he saved them in an envelope for when he saw me again. There were times he felt silly doing it because he felt I didn’t appreciate it. In hindsight it makes me wonder if I could have done more to show him how much I did. I already knew the scores and the news from listening to the radio and watching TV, but I’d let him tell me things as if it was the first time I heard it because I knew how much he wanted to tell me—with the excitement of a kid that gets a good grade at school.
And it was infectious.
After work when the weather was warmer me and my mom and Poppy would go in the back yard, my mom and I tossing the baseball around, and Poppy would tell me stories of the old players. He couldn’t play with us cause he’d lose the ball in the sky with his eyesight. And he would recreate plays like a sportscaster if I dropped a ball. “…and the ball gets away, he scoops it up and makes the relay throw…is it in time?!…and NO it is not! The run scores!! And they will score that an error on the fielder”—the run always scored on me because that’s how Murrays are. We bust chops and never stop.
Even when he was dying of congestive heart failure and we were in the process of turning my folks’ kitchen into a Hospice room, we never saw that as a reason to stop. I would walk in and there was construction happening and furniture moving and I’d go up to him, “Good ol’ Poppy boy, you’re making quite the commotion over here. What, you think you’re special or something? A little problem with the ol’ ticker and the whole house is upside down.” I remember the Hospice nurse and some family members being horrified by some of our joking around but we didn’t care. One of my favorites was when everyone was feeding him Ensure and fruit cups and mushy food that he hated and I was eating a bag of sour gummy worms and I offered him one, the way I would when I ate them while playing catch—and he looked at me and smiled. I thought my cousins and nurses would strangle me for it. But sometimes a man just knows the score.
In Game 6 of the 2014 World Series in the second inning, the Kansas City Royals put up 7 runs—the Giants looked in poor, poor shape. So knowing the score, Bochy took out his key players, subbed them out for second string. Used the players in his bullpen who are notorious for giving up runs but also need post season experience. Sometimes a man just knows the score and needs to plan for the next game. So when a man knows he’s not much time left and he’s sitting there eating mush to prolong what he only agrees to prolong because he feels sorry to leave his family, he knows it’s not helping and man wouldn’t it just feel so good to have a piece of candy.
Those catches in the backyard were a little slice of heaven. A catch in the backyard, in that strange hour between day and night, is just magical. Sometimes I regret the times I was cranky and just wanted to vent to my mom about things and didn’t feel like I could in front of Poppy so maybe I wasn’t as welcoming on those days. But I suppose these are the type of things everyone deals with in hindsight.
But in the right setting, the right time of day, the right company—to hold a baseball in your hands and grip it, feel the threads. It feels holy. It feels holy the way a snowy yard feels holy before anyone makes foot tracks across it. There is nothing distinctively religious in it, but at the same time… I don’t know, it’s like if you breathe it in it right can feel like you’re looking God.
I told Poppy of a Giants player that next season who was playing a game at home on his wife’s birthday, and she asked him to hit her a homerun. That day he hit 3 in one game. He loved that story. Because he loves any story of a man loving his wife. I found super slow motion of Lincecum’s pitching mechanics—we watched that video a lot. Him, standing close enough to the screen to see it. He’d comment on how hidden the ball was until the very last second to hide the grip. And I told him of how his dad taught him to pitch, and worked out mechanics based off of previous great pitchers. And how they call him The Freak because he doesn’t have to ice his arm and it takes him only 15 pitches to warm up for a game.
He loved “Timmy”—we called him that as if he was our friend. And man we would talk about him a lot considering he only played every five days. When he struggled we were sad, when he prevailed we loved it. Most conversations started with him asking “Did Timmy pitch today?” We really did get an attachment to him. There was one time, I believe it was a day or two before Poppy passed, he was getting very confused, there were a lot of things happening and a lot of strangers around the house. I came to visit a lot then because sometimes a man just knows the score. And my folks were telling me how confused he was getting with people and names. I was one of the only people he consistently remembered. He did a good job of remembering my immediate family because he was living with us for years by that point. And he always remembered Timmy. But in that one day we had a cousin come out and Poppy was smiling and nice and asking questions, and when my cousin walked into the other room, Poppy looked to me and asked, “Who was that?” Once I told him he knew—the confusion wasn’t dementia, it was just confusion. But in that same sitting when it was just me and him and he was asking about family members and who they were and saying, “I just don’t have any idea what is going on anymore.” I saw his frustration and I told him it was okay. Then I said the only thing I could think of to say: “Timmy cut his hair short.” And hearing this, the man who was having a hard time remembering family members smiled big and said, “Our Timmy boy, how’s he looking?” He looked different, I told him. And we talked about how we couldn’t wait to see him pitch again and he commented again about his mechanics and keeping the ball so well hidden. I admit because of this I take it personally when people jump on the train of talking ill of Lincecum and that he’s fallen off. Or his move to the bullpen. Cause he’s more than a pitcher now. He’s Timmy boy. And I feel like I’ll never give up rooting for him.
It is in this way that baseball is more than a sport or a past time. There is a thrill in the grass that can’t be explained. In every blade. There is a holiness in holding a ball and there is God in the skill of the pitcher. And in the clutch single that beats the shift to find the gap. That goes deeper than confusion and dementia. And if I had all the time in the world and infinite supplies I still could never write enough about it. But I’m not done trying yet…
Seventh Inning Stretch
I don’t know why pitching in baseball means so much to me.
I love so many things about baseball. I love the strategy of management and subbing positions and using the bullpen. I love the base-stealing. I love clutch hitting and double plays and players that hustle to first base.
But of all things I love pitching. I can get pretty obsessive about things that I am passionate about. I try to consume all things I can about it. I read about it, watch videos, ask questions. I want to learn everything I can about it and I get too compulsive about it that I can’t hardly even stand to wait to learn about it.
I would ask Poppy about pitchers he knew about and he would tell me about some of the greats. He told me how good but how scary Bob Gibson was, and about Don Drysdale, even a little about Nolan Ryan. And I would ask about older players I learned about who stopped playing before he was born or when he was just a little kid. About Cy Young and Walter Johnson and he knew a little bit about them and I would tell him the other things I heard about them or something I read maybe that Ty Cobb said about Johnson.
And I just love pitching. If the MLB Network was showing a special on great pitchers I would DVR it so we could watch it together. He was the first person to tell me about Sandy Koufax, who just captivated me to no end. “Whoo, he was great,” he would say. And he told me how he threw until his arm was black and swollen.
“He wasn’t always great though.”
“No,” he said. “When he started he was wild as a springhare.”
That became a phrase I loved. Because only grandfathers say things like that. And Sandy became our new “Shot Heard Around the World” and joined the ranks of our talks of Timmy. I went on a rampage to find as much as I could about Sandy Koufax. What made him so good. One of the best of all time. I looked up videos and interviews of opposing hitters: “What was it like to hit Koufax?…you ever try drinking coffee with a fork?” And I would sit with Poppy and rehash what I found out.
Poppy loved Mickey Mantle because he was such a great switch hitter and he was so fast, told me of how he always played through injuries—and we watched video of Mantle striking out looking against Koufax. I learned that he was humble and he never threw at hitters. “He’ll strike you out, but he won’t embarrass you,” one player said. But I found one story of Lou Brock getting walked by Koufax then stealing bases and scoring on a wild pitch and he made the mistake of embarrassing Koufax with his celebration, the next time he was up Koufax pegged him in the back with a fastball which knocked him out of the game and put him on the DL for a few weeks. It seems like a brutal story at first glance, but when you learn how he never threw at batters, how he was quiet and humble, and then you see that the power is in him to be that scary type of pitcher, but instead he quieted that and just focused on his skill and technique…there are universal lessons in there about the power of character and about fighting off our nature to be who we feel we should be. There are all these hidden gems about life and nature and God in baseball if we just look.
“I love bunt plays. I love the idea of the bunt. I love the idea of the sacrifice. Even the word is good. Giving yourself up for the good of the whole. That’s Jeremiah. That’s thousands of years of wisdom. You find your own good in the good of the whole. You find your own individual fulfillment in the success of the community—the Bible tried to do that and didn’t teach you. Baseball did.”
Former Governor of New York, and minor league baseball player Mario Cuomo said that.
Maybe that sums up perfectly the that thrill of the grass. That holiness that dews the field. Because the game and the players, they can teach us the things the Bible can’t. The principles we read but can’t grasp. But these are living breathing, running, throwing metaphors.
I learned a lot from Sandy Koufax. A lot about life and character. Stuff I’m sure he never knew he was teaching and certainly never planned on. In his first years as a pitcher he was very frustrated. He was going to quit, came close. Then his catcher told him to stop throwing so hard and to throw well. Gain control. And from then on he became one of the greatest to ever play the game.
There is a lot to be said about a lesson like that. We see similar lessons in Jesus’ dealings with his followers whose passions get the best of them and veer them off course. There is a balance there that is needed and to find that balance is perfection. With Sandy Koufax, four times that balance lead him to no-hitters, and the fourth of those, in that balance he found perfection. When interviewed about his perfect game, Koufax admitted that he did things he never did before. He threw so hard that his hat kept falling off. It seems that when balance is found and mastered, even what was once our weakness can become our biggest strength.
Another story of his I loved was when Sandy was called in to Game 7 of the 1965 World Series on only two days’ rest after pitching a complete game shutout in Game 5. His arm felt like it was going to fall off, he couldn’t even straighten his elbow. He’s four or five innings in and they are losing two-nothing because his curve ball isn’t working.
“Sam, what are we going to do?” his catcher asked.
“Let’s blow them away.”
And they did. Mowed them down one by one with nothing but fastballs. The batting champ of that year was thrown five fastballs in a row and he couldn’t touch any of them.
This goes back to the idea of him working to get control of himself, to be the pitcher he wanted, and to do so so well that when he felt it was time to unleash that beast in him he could. He could conjure it up because he had it tamed. I even find lessons in the respect he had for Yom Kippur. I’m not Jewish, so that day is just a day to me—but there are lessons there about respect and tradition and how sometimes a man has to do what he feels is right, even if the whole nation is telling him it’s okay to blow it off one time. But he stayed true. And it paid off. Not right away—because the following day he lost that game. But Game 5 and Game 7—they were his rewards. He pushed himself to the limits of his body, and he did it fast—the damage was done already before he learned to pace himself, to use skill rather than muscle and speed. Technique over all things.
There are universal Truths in that. Capital T Truths, that come only from One Place.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
I see God in the skill of great hitters and great pitchers, in the lefty specialist and the base stealer. Home runs mean very little to me. They are exciting when they come at key moments but overall they do little for me. It seems strange, I know, not to include home runs when I say things like “I see God in…” since 95% of all players who hit a home run will cross themselves, kiss their fingers, and point up to God. Either in thanks, or “that’s for you”—I’m not sure what it is—but it’s annoying.
Yes, if I talk about God being in every blade of grass, then sure enough in that sense he’d have to be with the home run. But I don’t think it is as obvious as kissing a knuckle and pointing to heaven. Because was God not with the pitcher too? Of course I have no answers, I am just a baseball fan—that’s all I have to my credit. And I don’t like home runs. Home runs mean no more to me than a pitcher that can reach triple digits, but can’t hit the same spot twice. Wild as a springhare.
I watch videos of Pete Rose and how he never ever stopped. Ball 4, and he still ran to first base. Charlie Hustle. Has anyone had a more passionate slide than he did? Any player who gives all he’s got throughout each play—I see a holiness in that. I guess holiness might be wrong word to use. I don’t mean it in a “How Great Thou Art” sing-songy type way. I am not even sure if I mean it in a religious way. But maybe when I see a universal Truth, or a life lesson—when I watch something I am not sure I grasp, but I know something important is happening—all I can say is there seems to be a holiness in it. I see that holiness in a hitter who knows that glory lies in the long ball, but victory and what is best for the team is just to get the hit.
Ichiro Suzuki is asked all the time why he doesn’t use the power he has at the plate. In batting practice they will see him hit 10 balls out of the stadium, but in the game he slaps down singles and doubles. “If I’m allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 [home runs], but nobody wants that,” he said. He is a lead off guy. His job to get on base. To take extra bases. He needs to do his job. Not every player is like that—just like the sacrifice bunt, this lesson on pride and humility is something that is seldom able to be taught anywhere else, except on the baseball diamond.
Ty Cobb. I would never normally use his name and the word “holiness” in the same sentence—he was a notorious racist and bigot and just horrible man—but even in him there was a humility that only existed on the field. Using a grip on the bat that sacrificed power just so he could make contact. And he’s the greatest hitter the game has ever seen.
Ted Williams was Poppy’s favorite player. I never understood it fully the more I studied him. He didn’t seem like that great of a guy—very arrogant, almost spiteful, even to the fans. Poppy was the most humble man I’ve ever known probably, why Ted Williams? I know he loved that Ted served his country because Poppy did too. But he loved that he hit over .400. He loved that. And maybe without saying it as verbosely and rambling as I am, maybe Poppy saw that same…holiness in the skill of that feat. Because sacrifice and restraint and practice are the only ways a man can be that good. To be so arrogant in life, so rude—but given a bat and a team you are patient, sacrificial, humble. Where else is this found?
There is this wonderful flip-flopping of the heroes tale. There is David vs. Goliath all throughout the game and it flips back and forth. A team can be the favorite, the dominant team. They can be winning late into the game as predicted, Goliath. Then the underdog gets a string of hits. The game is almost tied up now, bases loaded and only one out. And there are two back-to-back lefties in the lineup. So the dominant team is now on the ropes, still Goliath in all aspects—call in the Lefty Specialist. He enters the game. The whole game is put on his shoulders, his only job for the team is to get an out or two when needed—he’s called on to be perfect whenever he’s called up. So now when he enters the game looking down at the left-handed batter, bases loaded, another one on deck waiting his turn…the tables, for those two outs, have turned and Goliath is standing on the plate and David is on the mound, baseballs his stones and his arm his sling. Once the inning is over, if the man has done his job correctly, they swap him out for another pitcher and the team goes back to being Goliath and the underdog back to being David.
And let us please not forget about the base stealer. One writer once said a great base stealer must have speed, and larceny in his heart. Stealing, something commanded of us to not do—but in baseball I see…that thrill of the grass in it. A thrill that can only be described as holy. A man on first, looking at second. If he takes it he breaks up the double play. He turns his single into a double and he saved his team an extra out to be taken by a batter rather than throwing out two people on a grounder to short. A man with a thrill in him for stealing the bag, but who also does so out of a desire to keep the inning alive, which in turn is done for the team.
A player needs a green light to steal. They can be told not to. So there is less selfishness in a stolen base than meets the eye. It’s the manager saying, “If you can take it, it’s yours because we need it as much as you do.” Or the pitch runner who is brought in at the end of the game for his speed, who then has to steal a base when the whole stadium knows he’s going to do it. The pitcher and the fielders know he was brought in for that one job. They are ready—and he has to do it successfully with all of this going on. The team needs the runner; a slower person got onto the base and now they need speed, so the manager looks around for a person who is up to the task of stealing that bag. Is this much different than Isaiah saying: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Or David saying: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
There is a great stillness to the game of baseball. It turns people off a lot. Football is more fun, clashing of titans. Soccer is pure running and nonstop movement. Rugby a combination of the two. But baseball’s greatness comes in the stillness of it. The quietness of it. The man at first with a dangerous lead and the crowd watches, waiting for the pitcher to start his movement. Holding their breath. And if the man goes, those ninety feet seems like an eternity. The man is running so fast but time is going so slow. The team you love is winning, but a great batter came up to the plate—each pitch your team throws is an agony of anticipation. Waiting to see what pitch the catcher calls for.
And the moments from when the ball is released from the pitchers hand, to when it finds the catchers glove or the players bat…everything stops. It’s my theory that this too is universal. Even people who hate baseball because it’s boring—when they watch football and there is a long pass for an important play, the quarterback releases the ball, everyone sits up and moves to the end of the couch, leaning over closer to the TV, and time stops. They live for those moments, they rejoice or cry. High five. Throw things. Those time-stopping passes happen in baseball, about 120 times a game.
We just call them pitches.
There are home runs, great diving catches, amazing throws, slide plays, stolen bases…all of these things are exciting. But all of them are preceded by a great stillness. The prophet Elijah saw an earthquake but the earthquake was just an earthquake. He saw a lightening storm, but that was just a storm. And the great wind was just a great wind. He only found God in the stillness after the storm. When the world was quiet, he knew he was with God.
Bottom of the Ninth
Poppy died in February 2013. Later that year, Timmy threw his first no-hitter. People told me Poppy must have had something to do with it. It’s a nice thought and I wish I believed it. And sometimes I do wish it to be true. It’s a nice thought. Timmy threw another in 2014. And with two no-hitters and 3 world series rings and multiple Cy Young awards, Timmy joins the only other pitcher to have all of that to his credit: Sandy Koufax.
Poppy taught me the importance of enjoying the game. Enjoy the plays that are made even if it’s not by your team. Even if it gets them out.
The first time I ever saw a suicide squeeze play was when the Brewers used it to beat the Giants. I remember immediately rewinding it and pausing it—going over to Poppy’s room and calling him out to watch it because it was the craziest thing I ever saw in the game. It was a walk-off play too, Ryan Braun won the game with it. We watched it a few times, each time with the replays they were showing too. Over and over, commenting on it. He told me that he was proud that I have taken to enjoying the game for what it is and that he was impressed by me so intrigued by the play that beat the Giants in the end.
Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, the lefty ace for the Giants is brought in on only two days rest after pitching a complete game shutout for Game 5—and one by one Madison Bumgarner fans the Royals, not relying on breaking balls too much. He delivers a post season of legendary proportions. Sports casters say it was the greatest post-season pitching since 1965 with Sandy Koufax.
The bottom of the ninth, two outs, Game 7—up by one run and a Royals team that is known for stealing victories in the last moments of a game. Alex Gordon hits a ball into the outfield. Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco runs it out to catch it, but overruns the ball. Perez is backing him up, chases down the ball but bobbles it before he can throw it and Alex Gordon stops at third. Up to the plate comes Salvador Perez, the only person all post season to get the best of Madison Bumgarner. The only one to homer off of him. He doesn’t need that, he just needs a bloop hit. There is an incredible stillness even though the crowd is going insane. The anticipation between each pitch is devastating. It lasts an eternity. Bumgarner winds up in that way he does with his wingspan like an albatross. Slow wind back, reminiscent of Walter Johnson. This whole article wasn’t written or started, but it flashes before me in the years between the release and the hit. The hit goes up, the heads go up, Perez slams his bat down. Posey stands, takes off his mask—looks to Bumgarner, up to the ball, back to Bumgarner. Pablo Sandoval runs into foul territory, raises his glove. He catches the ball and collapses on the floor. The dugout clears and they are celebrating. I sit on the couch in stillness, turn the volume down on the post game coverage. My cellphone vibrates across the table.
At work the next day people tell me I’m flying high and I wish I was. It’s not about my team winning. It’s about the game. I want it to continue. But it’s over. And I sit in the stillness at work and I listen to the saddest version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It makes me think of Poppy’s funeral. He told me the importance of loving the game. The plays. Not the victories. And I did, and I do. And I see the stillness and the thrill of the grass and the dew that falls on the game and covers it with grace. The season is over, so I have to wait. And the anticipation is almost more than I can bear. But I know in the end it will be okay.
After all, this isn’t the first thing I put my love and hopes and joy into, that once died only to come back to life again with the Spring.