This post is the seventh in a nine-part series from Joshua Murray on his reflections on baseball, on his grandfather, and on finding God in every blade of grass. For Part Six, click here.
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.