On Air

mic_I admit I like listening to sports talk radio. This feels like a confession because it’s pretty mindless stuff. It’s not as if I listen to it all day long — just in the car on short jaunts around town. And it’s also not as if I ever call in; I’m a “lurker” in internet parlance. But since sports is a passion of mine, why wouldn’t I enjoy listening to people talk about it? It sure beats political talk radio.

I’ve come to realize that I could never host a sports radio talk show because, well, I’m simply not opinionated enough. At least about sports. I mean, I love to follow my teams (Orioles, Ravens) and I care about what’s going on in the “wide world of sports.” I just don’t hold controversial, provocative, or ranting opinions about this stuff. Which is precisely what talk radio is all about (see Rush Limbaugh).

Actually now that I think about it, I did call a sports show once. When I was in sixth grade I called “Stan the Fan” in Baltimore to talk O’s baseball. I can’t remember what I said but I do recall being incredibly nervous as I got through (!) and waited on hold. But that was it; my radio debut was a one shot deal. I didn’t become a regular known as “Tim from Homeland.” But I’m sure my voice-cracking insights were profound.

I don’t think I’ll be starting an Episcopal Talk Radio show. Though there are plenty of controversial topics and ranting Episcopalians to go around. I’ll stick to listening to sports talk radio. After all, I’m always on the lookout for things to give up for Lent.

Hard Choices

koufax2Because of the many little league rain-outs last week, Ben’s team played on Sunday morning at 9:00 am. We had to tell the coach that Ben would not be there because of church. Ben was not pleased.

After pitching a fit (no pun intended), which I mercifully missed because I was doing the early service, Ben got it together to acolyte at the 10:00 o’clock service. I talked to him briefly in the sacristy about priorities and disappointments and how being a Christian means sometimes making difficult choices. He told me it wasn’t a difficult choice at all — he would have chosen to play baseball.

During the service itself, the second reading to be specific, the famous Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax popped into my head. No, my mind doesn’t always wander during the lessons. But in that instant, I knew I could help Ben see that even the greatest athletes on the planet sometimes must choose between faith and baseball.

That’s because in 1965 Koufax stunned the nation by refusing to pitch in Game One of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That opening game against the Minnesota Twins fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and one of the holiest days of the year.  Instead of pitching, Koufax attended synagogue in Minneapolis and fasted.

As the Dodgers’ ace, Koufax still pitched Games Two, Five, and Seven, throwing complete-game shutouts in Games Five and Seven and leading the Dodgers to the World Championship. And his decision — as well as his brilliance on the mound — remains a source of pride among American Jews.

I told the boys this story just before bed on Sunday night. I talked about Koufax’s brilliant and dominant pitching career (I left out the part about how he lost a bunch of money invested with Bernie Madoff). And how he took a righteous stand, showing that his religious beliefs were the most important thing in his life, even more important than the game of baseball. I asked Ben if he knew why I was sharing the story and he “got” it. Perhaps it won’t make the next time this happens any easier (thank you Briarcliff Little League). But in the long run I hope he’ll come to see that while he has a commitment to his team, by virtue of his baptism he has an even greater commitment to his God.

Rainy Season

Rain-outs are rough. Ben’s little league team has now been rained out three times in a row and the forecast for Friday’s game is bleak. Let’s just say he’s not taking it well. Especially because he didn’t have a game on the one nice day this week but, of course, his brother did. “It’s not fair!”

I can relate. I hated rain-outs when I was a kid because I was so passionate about playing baseball. Certainly more passionate about little league than practicing the piano. The great injustice of my 10-year-old world was that piano lessons never got rained out. And in those weeks when I knew I hadn’t practiced enough I would have done anythingto avoid the disapproving glare of Mrs. Gluck.

As the dark clouds started to appear on the horizon, I remember doing the anti-rain dance. This was similar to the snow dance, hoping school would get canceled, the major difference being that it was performed while wearing my Bulldozers uniform. And it rarely worked. And when it didn’t, when the rain clouds burst and drenched the field, I’d start to throw things — my hat, my glove, whatever I could find. My mother would then lecture me about not taking out my own personal disappointment on the rest of the family. She’d tell me it’s okay to be disappointed but that it wasn’t okay to take it out on people who had nothing to do with it. The precise lecture I had to give Ben yesterday.

We all have proverbial rain-outs in our lives. Things don’t always go according to plan; disappointments abound. And we want to throw our gloves and blame others or throw our hats and blame God. By doing so we open ourselves up to receiving that same lecture that I’ve both gotten and given.

I knew a priest who used to ask the following question when disappointments arose in life: “Is it my plan for God or God’s plan for me?” It’s an important reminder about perspective. Though I realize it doesn’t go over so well when all you want to do is get back out onto the little league diamond.

This (Holy) Week in Baseball

baseball-crossSome Christians are protesting the Detroit Tigers’ decision to start their home Opener during the “holy hours” on Good Friday. The first pitch is 1:05 pm, coinciding with the traditional time of noon to 3:00 pm kept to mark Jesus’ hanging on the cross. All across America Christians will be sitting in church for all or part of the “Three Hours Service” often focusing on “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” And at the same time the Tigers will be taking on the Texas Rangers. In fact all 30 Major League teams see action that day but the Tigers are the only team hosting a game during the holy hours.

It would be easy to just rail against this — call the entire Tigers’ organization a bunch of heathens and condemn the fans who bought tickets. But it’s all part of something much larger: the way the Church interacts with culture is changing dramatically. In the days of the early Church, the great enemy of the Christian faith was persecution. Today, I would contend, it is apathy. And this will continue, I think, until we are left with a smaller, stronger, more faithful Church. A Church that continues to reach out in radical welcome but one that  is not propped up by the culture.

I’m used to (though never pleased by) the fact that more and more families blow off church to go to fill-in-the-blank-little-league-sport or those Sunday morning birthday parties. The whole notion of church as “activity” — important unless a better offer arises — is a distasteful reality of modern Church life. A far cry from the discipleship of the cross to which Jesus calls us. I’ve even become resigned to the fact that Holy Week generally overlaps with school breaks. While some walk through and are transformed by the most profound spiritual experiences of the year, their neighbors are sunning themselves in Aruba. The contrast is both stunning and telling.

So I don’t think it’s particularly productive to protest the Tigers’ decision, though I do disagree with it. Rather, it should spur all of us to share the story of the Christian faith with even more fervor. Invite a friend, who doesn’t already have tickets to the Tigers/Rangers game, to a Good Friday service.

You never know the impact it might have. They might even respond, as Mel Allen used to exclaim on This Week in Baseball, “How about that?!”

Win One For The Gipper?

My friend and colleague Sharon Tillman (Communications  Director for the Diocese of Maryland, Episcopal Life Board of Governors) alerted me to a wonderful web site this afternoon that links sports and spirituality. These are, to paraphrase the Sound of Music, two of my favorite things.

Unfortunately I mean “wonderful” in the same way that Dr. Seuss refers to the Grinch’s “wonderful, awful” idea to steal Christmas. Which is not wonderful in the least.

The site, BPSports, carries the tagline “Sports with a Spiritual Attitude.” Again, what’s not to like? I pray for my Orioles and Ravens every week. I even wore a purple chasuble on Sunday to give the Ravens an extra boost against the Redskins. And it worked brilliantly (24-10). Sure, this coincided with Advent but that’s just the point: God cares deeply about football.

Or at least that’s what BPSports, a website of the Southern Baptist Convention, would have you believe. The lead story is about a high school football team from Missouri that defeated their arch-rival after 50 years of frustration. When the final whistle blew and the East Prarie Eagles were deemed victorious, “The first words East Prairie coach Jason Aycock heard were from his pastor, Jon Archie, who yelled, “This is exactly what happens when your coach gets saved.”

Does that mean the rival coach was some sort of infidel? What happens when East Prarie loses their next game? That the salvation didn’t “take?” It’s a slippery theological slope, folks. There’s a fine line between rooting for your team and praying for them to win.

Though if you have a chance to mention it, the O’s could use an extra starting pitcher or two.

Angels in the Outfield

So, the Tampa Bay Rays took the “Devil” out of their name before the season and now they’re going to the World Series. Hmmmm. They’ve gone from the worst expansion franchise in the history of baseball as the DevilRays to the World Series as the Rays. Hmmmm.

A lot of people in certain circles are holding this up as an example of God’s hand at work in the world. Banish Satan and just look at the possibilities! And on the surface of things, this is a compelling example of the theory. But as “theology” it’s hogwash.

Let’s consider the evidence. The Duke Blue Devils? Three NCAA championships and 14 Final Four appearances under Coach K in the past 27 years. The New Jersey Devils? Stanley Cup champions in 1995, 2000, and 2003.

On the other side of things, why didn’t the Los Angelos Angels advance to the World Series this year? Sure they made the playoffs and had what many considered the best team in baseball. But they’re home this week watching the Rays play the Phillies. And what of the New Orleans Saints? The San Diego Padres? Shouldn’t they be sitting atop their divisions? And, despite all my prayers over the years, why haven’t my beloved Orioles been to the World Series in a quarter century?

There’s no doubt there’s evil in the world. Anyone who lived through 9/11 can’t dispute that. But that doesn’t mean God cares who wins a football game. Or who advances to the World Series. If so, you’d have teams with names like the Cleveland Yahwehs or the Phoenix Messiahs. And more players named Jesus Alou.

Enjoy the World Series. And don’t read into the fact that the Yankees, the “Evil Empire,” as they were once called by an executive with the Red Sox, didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

Bronx Bombing

I can’t root for the boys’ little league team this fall. I’ll cheer for them as individuals, I’ll pull for their teammates, I’ll even yell “Go Team!” on occasion. But in their four-team league they play for the Yankees. And it is against my genetic makeup to ever, under any circumstances, cheer for the Yankees. I just can’t do it.

They could have been on the Angels, Cubs, or Mets. But of course they were both put on the Yankees. As if I needed two more Yankee hats and shirts in my life. When I look out on the field, I try to see a bunch of 7, 8, and 9 year-olds. But I just see the numbers and equate them with the storied Yankee history that, as a rabid Orioles fan, I abhor. Zack’s number 5 is Joe DiMaggio; Ben’s number 9 is Roger Maris. I see their teammates making plays in the field and I see Jeter and A-Rod. Or at least I wish Jeter and A-Rod were as error-prone.

The good news is that by the time their little league season has concluded, the 2008 Yankees will be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. And that gives joy to my heart. I may even hold a party. Of course I’ll invite Ben and Zack, my Yankee-loving offspring, to be the guests of honor. They can even wear their Yankee garb.

Immortal, Invisible

We went to mecca this past weekend. No, not Graceland but Cooperstown. We took the boys on a pilgrimmage to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and stayed with some friends who actually live up there. I always thought Cooperstown was inhabited only by the ghosts of ballplayers past — like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Honus Wagner. But evidently you can live there even if you’re still among the living.

Bryna commented that she’d never seen the three of us (me, Ben, and Zack) so equally enraptured as we wondered around the HOF. This was actually my third visit to Cooperstown but I hadn’t been there since I was in high school. It’s still as magical a place as ever, full of “holy” relics like Jackie Robinson’s spikes and the bat used by Babe Ruth to hit his famed “called shot” World Series homer.

I may (sort of) joke about making a holy pilgrimage to Cooperstown but it’s amazing how much of our language surrounding sports revolves around religious imagery. Baseball greats are “enshrined” in the Hall of Fame and we refer to our baseball heroes as “immortals.” Just a few idolatrous touches but nothing really harmful as long as it’s all kept in perspective. If we save our true worship for God we’ll stay in pretty good spiritual shape. I have a special place in my heart for both Jesus Christ and Cal Ripken. The one was the messiah, the other a darn good baseball player. So slightly different job descriptions.

But you can mix the two. The day after spending the morning at the Hall of Fame I snuck in for an 8 am service at Christ Church, Cooperstown. Many writers have waxed poetic about the “liturgy” of baseball (thank you George Will). I’ll stick to the liturgy of the church but will always reserve the right to occasionally worship at the ballpark.

Going Long

There are officially 32 regular season games left to play at what’s now being called “the old” Yankee Stadium. A new one, with a lot more luxury boxes, is being built in preparation for next season. I took the boys and Ben’s best friend Cole to number 33 yesterday afternoon. It’s tough sitting with three young and enthusiastic Yankee fans when you loathe the team. Especially when the Yanks win as they did yesterday in 10 innings.

Of course it went into extra innings. I’ve found that whenever I take the kids to a game it inevitably goes into extra innings or overtime. Usually this only happens for night games — and we end up staying up until midnight and then paying dearly with cranky kids the next day. This is especially aggravating when it’s a meaningless game between the Knicks and the Trailblazers but I’m glad my theory holds even for day games.

And it’s not like they close the concession stands during the extra innings. While they stop serving beer after the 7th, the cotton candy guy keeps circling until the bitter end. Not that I had anything stronger than a Coke at the game. Call me old fashioned but I just can’t bring myself to pay $8.50 for a Coors Light. I could buy a whole case for that price!

As an Orioles fan, I won’t be sad to see “The House that Ruth Built” get demolished. But as a dad I’m bummed out that the place I took Ben to his first game will meet the wrecking ball. Just as I was devastated when the old Memorial Stadium, the place I saw my first game with mydad, was torn down. Of course I got myself a stadium seat when they were selling them off. But that’s not happening with Yankee Stadium. Besides the fact that the prices will be exhorbitant, I simply refuse to have any Yankee memorabilia in the house. Besides my children.

Take Me Out

Took the boys to see the Mets at Shea Stadium on Tuesday night. Ben’s third grade teacher, Mr. Wallick (a rabid Mets fan), set this up as an optional class trip during the last week of school. I hadn’t been to Shea for about 20 years – since I lived in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens as a teenager. That was when the Mets were both exciting and good. The Mets of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden. Sure, half the team ended up on drugs and/or in jail. But there was some great baseball at Shea in the late 1980’s.

I was glad Ben and Zack got to catch a game at Shea before it’s razed at the end of the season. The hulking Citi Field rises like the Phoenix out of the ashes of a parking lot beyond center field. And while some will be sad to see Shea go – previous home of the Jets as well as the Mets and host to the Beatles and The Who – it’s one of the ugliest stadiums I’ve ever been to. When you sit in the nose bleed section, as we did the other night, you’re closer to the airplanes landing at LaGuardia than the action on the field. I’m still suffering from the lack of oxygen. Mix the thin air with an $8 beer and even the very flat Mets seem exciting. Actually we were seated in the “Family Section” (no alcohol allowed) so I didn’t even have this to help me through.

The Mets lost 11-0 to the hapless Seattle Mariners. Both teams had fired their respective managers the week before. The highlight of the night was watching both Jerry Manual and Carlos Beltran get tossed by the home plate ump for arguing balls and strikes. But still, it was a beautiful night, the boys can cross Shea Stadium off the list of ballparks they’ve been to, and I got to relive my high school days sitting in the cheap seats. It almost made up for the pain of trying to get everybody up for school the next day.