It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball. – Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), Bull Durham
The smack… the resonating SMACK… of the ball in the glove is a glorious sound to the child who plays for fun and the man-child who gets paid from pennies to millions to play. Such a glorious sound… such a glorious game. Baseball defines a lot of us. The game is so important to so many of us that we spend spring, summer, and fall watching games and tracking numbers. Shit, we are so enamored with this game that we all beat a quick steal to Bull Durham and pull quotes to express our love of the game. So easy to go to the well and drink the same waters than attempt to convey our feelings and thoughts in an original manner… Annie Savoy and Crash are our pop culture saints in the Church of Baseball… the old players of yore… the young phenoms… the martyrs. As St. Paul’s letters are quoted weekly to the nodding head and whispered “amen,” Crash’s “what I believe in” monologue raises us up from our pews as if we are begging for a free t-shirt thrown from the baseline between innings. Astro turf and the designated hitter SHOULD be outlawed.
Jersey number, players name, position… by number… 9 innings setting across the line in simplicity. Other columns wait to be filled that show at-bats, runs batted in, hits, pitch count, number of innings pitched… on and on the score sheet waits for the game to move forward. Baseball is not timed… baseball plays by its own clock. It is ticked off by the number of batters, the outs, the pitches, the catches, the runs… you do not say “overtime”… you say “extra innings.” One would think that the game is simple… or slow. Baseball is a game of details… baseball can be watched with the casual eye, it will entertain on that level. Casual observers see a few pitches, a swinging bat, a catch, a throw, an out. Casual observers look at their fellow fans… wondering if the hot blonde is a player’s wife… is the beer man always that ridiculous… will that parents please buy that kid a hot dog to shut him up? Baseball is also full of details… managers position players for certain batters… the Phillies’ “The Big Piece” is a notorious right side of the field hitter… opposing teams shift right to ready for his big swing. Catchers and pitchers conference prior to… and during… games to discuss what pitches will be thrown to what batters… former flamethrower Nolan Ryan probably told the catcher to “fuck off” and then threw some heat. Free swinging batters are given junk pitches in an 0-2 count… repeated again in a 1-2 count… free swingers will reach for almost anything. Intentionally walk a power hitter if first base is open… or trust the pitcher… are you scrambling to make up runs… are they playing “small” ball? Baseball is a game where the simple and detailed can equally enjoy… the Church of Baseball welcomes all. We initiate our young to the game… we teach them the fundamentals.
I played catcher in little league… a real-life group of Bad News Bears from Bad Nauheim/Friedburg, Germany. Army brats that ranged from runt (me) to a tall Puerto Rican (Eddie) that was all arms and legs. We even had girls… one of whom would put her hand up to stop an inside pitch… and then cry because it hurt when it cracked painfully against her palm… and then do it again if another inside pitch came her way. Some of us are blessed with the instinct to dodge and duck… her instinct was to stop the ball with her hand. My little league teammates and I lived the life of danger… we weren’t pretty but we were playing. We sacrificed our bodies for the game… the glorious game of baseball.
I caught Eddie’s pitches until the thumb on my left hand ached… ached in a manner so unfamiliar to a 13 year-old. Sports’ injuries were as new as the idea that girls were something other than gross. The ache in the thumb actually led me to informing my coach that I couldn’t do it any longer. It hurt… tears welling up… it hurt to the core of my hand… my first true sprain. The coach nodded and sat me on the bench. Shame rose in me… weakness seemed so bared to me, my friends, my teammates, my parents. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer a defeat that was similar to a teammate who, while attempting to take home… urged by the parent/coach at third with all pinwheeling arms and screams… slid his head into the opposing team’s catcher and his mitt. I was up next… strolling the early teen stroll to the batter’s box… front row seat to the event. My teammate’s foot never reached the plate… his head snapped back painfully… a groan escaped his lips. He was out… he didn’t score either. The tag was fair and justified… another little leaguer learning that a fun sport can turn painful. My sprained catcher’s thumb seemed insignificant to my teammate’s possible concussion. My coach eventually moved me to third… my teammate had to sit out a few games. The price we pay to be part of that tradition of leather, wood, grass, and dirt. Confirmation uniforms, unlike dresses, are better with a few grass stains… even better if they are baptized in a little blood… we are all washed clean in our own blood… let the blood be from a sliding scrape or a bad bounce… nose picking bleeds are not as glorious.
I’m now balanced somewhere between casual and zealot in my baseball. I attend the Church of Baseball… indoctrinated young… now I feel like a youthful deacon in the seats… readying the donation plate… keeping the score… saying amen… nodding my head. I ignore the hot blonde and the hungry kid… I have a game to watch.