“Pitchers and Catchers report!” It’s as sure a sign of the coming spring as erupting dandelions and fledgling fruit blooms. And as inhumane as this winter has been – as brutal as it remains in many locales – spring could not get here quickly enough, groundhog shadows and eminent March snowstorms be damned. Yes, the return of baseball is a bellwether of warmer days, even if baseball itself should expect a somewhat chilly reception these days. Critics say the games are too long and frankly, painfully tedious. Smart, run-scoring strategy has been replaced by brutish free-swinging for the cheap seats, say baseball’s purists. And don’t even get tongues wagging about a certain Yankee third baseman.
For my own part, I’ve had a suspicion about the game for some time now. After the baseball players strike of the mid 1990s I fell off the wagon. The more recent scandals involving performance enhancing drugs and the obscene amounts of money paid to mere mortals for throwing and striking a rawhide ball have done nothing to reclaim my confidence. And have you taken your kids to a game lately? To park, $30. For tickets, $75, $60 for sodas and snacks. And forget the souvenirs. I can’t swing that kind of cash. What makes all of this so difficult to take is the fact that some of my fondest memories center on professional baseball. I’m not old, but old enough to remember sitting in the now demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium trying to snag foul balls off the bats of Brett Butler, Dale Murphy and Bob Horner – all for a few turnstile dollars. But I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been back to a stadium since.
Some of my fondest memories were also made at church; in the little “church in the wildwood” of my formative years. The pew bottoms were made of old wooden slats that creaked and groaned during the service, pinching this little boy’s behind and picking holes in my mother’s pantyhose. The church’s water fountain was a natural spring found down a path behind the sanctuary, and a trip to the toilet was a similar trek. On hot August nights I can recall the fiery summer revivals in that old house of worship – fiery in preaching and temperature – as I struggled to understand all that was going on (between explorations for spearmint gum in my grandmother’s purse, of course). Was this church “better” than what I have experienced as an adult? Probably not. Was it simpler, more sincere? Probably so. Major League Baseball and much of the church in America have arrived at the same place. Both are more driven by market and commercial forces than by a true sense of what they are. They have largely been taken captive by the consumer, by self-indulgence, and vanity. We are all the worse for it.
My children used to thrill me on the baseball diamond every spring, even when they were picking flowers in the outfield or putting their mitts on the wrong hand. There was an enjoyment, a purity in their play, that while unprofessional, was much more real than anything happening at the ball parks of big business. This is my same longing for the church. For I still love it and pray that it become truer to its roots and more authentic. Terence Mann, James Earl Jones’ character in “Field of Dreams,” may have captured the sentiment best. Standing in that enchanted cornfield turned baseball diamond, he says, “They’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.
“They’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good; and it could be again.” May it be so.