Sacramental Baseball

In response to my post “A Reverend No More,” a friend asked me on Facebook what I meant by “I’ve come to a sacramental way of thinking.”

The question is completely legitimate. I’ve tried to figure out how to explain my thoughts and actions. The only way I could without boring the world with deep theological terms is by talking about two of my favorite things: baseball and comic books.

First, I know at first glance baseball doesn’t fit with the general theme of this blog. My response to this objection would be to  refer back to the Simon Pegg quote about geeks being passionate about what they love. I love baseball. I’m passionate about baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals. Plus, two of my favorite geek authors, Stephen King and Michael Chabon, are passionate baseball fans.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana. By small, I mean you could walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes. I did that particular stroll often because we didn’t worry much about crazed serial killers who stole children. We scared each other through telling wild stories and rumors, but in reality we couldn’t have been more safe.

Further, my family didn’t have money. This says nothing bad about my parents, but the Reagan eighties weren’t kind to small town farm kids with only high school educations. While I wasn’t really poor by the rest of the world’s standards, I can remember times when my dad was out of work where we only had egg sandwiches and spaghetti to eat for weeks.

As a kid, these things worry you, but you can’t express why. You can only find relief from your anxieties in different ways. I found comfort through the Catholic church and baseball. Some people would try to say that was escapism into a fantasy world to avoid real life problems. Actually, it’s the opposite. The Church and baseball became concrete realities in which I could trust.

My life in the Catholic church as a kid helped me ground my life in the concrete.  My First Communion is an example.  The priest of our parish would instruct us first graders on what happened at the Eucharist. The ordinary paper thin circles and the wine (que the child snickers as we were going to get alcohol!) would become the body and blood of Christ. These ordinary things would become the center of the universe, the living Christ would be with us, be in us and live with us. As a seven year old, it blew my mind, and solidified my mind at the same time.  Me, a kid from a mall cowtown in Indiana, would have the King of the Universe inside of him.

As you can imagine, taking my first actual communion made me trembly and shaky. I remember holding the wafer in my hands as the person who served me said, “The Body of Christ” and then taking a sip of wine. The tingle remained on my tongue and joy filled my heart. I could feel, taste, touch and understand the concrete reality of my faith. This was sacramental. Unseen things becoming seen. Seen things becoming unseen.

I became an altar boy and helped the priest serve the mass. During my week to serve, I would go to the sacristy every morning. I’d put on my white robe. The priest would joke with us and then pray with us, reminding us of our sacred duty. I gave him the wafers and the wine. I bowed with him before Christ’s presence. It wasn’t the ritual I loved. There are many rituals in the world, some good, some bad. It was the fact that everything was so concrete, so real, and the Invisible Jesus became almost visible. It was the true essence of sacramental.

Baseball acted in the same way even if I couldn’t name it in the same way. I would listen to games late at night on my radio. Jack Buck called  out names like Ozzie Smith or Darrell Porter. I lived three hours from St. Louis.  Jack’s voice became the only touch point of reality with my unseen favorite team. His voice, if you will, became sacramental.

Baseball and my Catholic faith came together in one memorable moment of my childhood. The nearest city to my small town was Evansville, Indiana. At the time, The Evansville Aces were the Triple A  farm team of the Detroit Tigers. Until I went to see the Cardinals in 1982, going to see the Aces was about as close as I would get to Major League baseball.

At the time, our family was going through a very bleak time. I’m not even sure how my dad scored the tickets. All I remember is that I couldn’t contain my excitement as I carried my mitt with me into the stadium. I carried a boyish hope I’d get a foul ball, a touchstone reality of my favorite sport in the world.

The seventh inning rolled around and no ball. My dad, feeling my sadness and tiredness, suggested we go home. He told me later in life how much he prayed that God would show up somehow at the game, to make Himself real by giving his son a ball.

A small thing?  A silly prayer on my dad’s part?  In God’s economy, I would say there is no such thing.

As we walked along the sidewalk behind the outfield fence, a car started up and moved. In the gutter, old, its cover gray with age and weather, lay on old, beat up baseball. As I look back on that ball, I realize it must have been there for quite some time. My dad couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure if he went to his knees or not. All I know is, I rushed forward, got the ball, and felt the worn leather in my hands. In my mind, God became real again. Not like He was real in my first Eucharist, but real just the same. I could feel His presence in my hand.

I’ve realized in the past five years I wanted to feel that realness of God again. The touch, the feel, the smell of God with me. I wanted to taste the wine. I wanted to taste the wafer. I wanted to feel the old worn cover of the baseball. Two years ago, the Cardinals made an epic run to win the World Series. This playoff series awakened in me and brought forward the seven year old kid in me.

My inner seven year old looked at me and said, “Don’t you want to feel this again? This joy? The presence of God with you?”

In the past few years, I’ve sought to answer the kid’s question. I’ve sought to understand the sacrament of God’s presence, and how I could get it back again.

(This is part one of what is evidently going to be a longer series then I thought)

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