Religion and Sports
Baseball: A Spiritual Reminiscence
So my love of baseball came on the rebound. As composed as such a love is of hurt and hope, it is nonetheless a powerful passion. From then on I worked out at baseball all year round. Anytime I could ﬁnd anyone who would play pitch and catch or hit ﬂy balls or get together enough people for batting practice, I did it. I threw balls at the cabstand wall so I could "practice" picking up grounders on the sidewalk in front. This was one more case where an extraordinary amount of practice was wasted. Throughout all my playing days the only place I was effective in picking up ground balls was in the outﬁeld, never at shortstop.
Still, there was a fateful moment in this love on the rebound. John B. Perkins owned the furniture store next to the cabstand. With his retroactive permission I drew a strike zone on the alley-side wall of his building; measured off sixty feet, six inches to the other side of the back lot; scraped up enough gravel for a mound next to the Almand's cleaners; and started to pelt that wall with three rubber-coated baseballs I had bought for 49 cents each at the Western Auto Store. My Uncle Paul, who owned the local ﬁsh market and would later distinguish himself as the ﬁre chief of the Brookhaven Fire Department, walked out back to watch me pitch.
"Boy, do you want to be a pitcher?" he asked.
"Worse than anything in the world," I answered.
"Well, there ain't but two things you gotta do. You gotta want to bad enough, and you gotta work hard enough."
"Is that true, Uncle Paul, is that really true?" I asked desperately because I never knew anyone-ANYONE-who wanted to play big-league ball as badly as I did, and in all the years I played in public school and college and semi-pro leagues, I never knew anyone who practiced more or harder or longer than I did.
"Shore it's true. You can do anything you want to if you work hard enough and want to bad enough. Hell, look at Babe Ruth. If he could do it, you can."
This assurance from my Uncle Paul helped at the time. But later as I thought about it, I knew that Babe Ruth was one of the most naturally gifted baseball players of all time. He was a great pitcher and held longtime records for his World Series feats on the mound, and, of course, his power hitting was epoch making. All of this Ruth did while engaging in mammoth debauchery and legendary night revelry with an inexhaustible capacity for food, drink, and sex. No amount of practice on my part could have matched Ruth in any of those categories, much less his enormous success in baseball while living out the seemingly contradictory combination of such things. Much later, my Uncle Paul put a shotgun to his chest in further contradiction to such assurances.
That day with my Uncle Paul seems unusually important. Surely the culture put the winner ethic in me before that. I must have known by then that trying harder and working longer were key to making it to the top. Yet, I strangely remember a shift after that, which I certainly don't blame on my Uncle Paul, but from then on baseball was something I no longer only played. It took on a reality consumed with becoming the best, with making it to the top, and, even worse, I came to have some persistent feeling that when I failed, it was my fault. No, it was worse than that. I had the sense that baseball became the arena in which I determined my worth as a human being. Worse even than that, in that social world it became the place where you prove you have balls. My failures, which were inevitable, then became testimonies to my own inadequacies and my lack of courage or the ability to deliver in the clutch, or to "get up" for the big game.