Curses! The Babe is Back

The Curse of the Bambino is back. Actually it never left — it simply moved south, past the Mason-Dixon Line, to Baltimore. And it is rearing its ugly, Yankee-cap laden head at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

Having recently moved to Boston’s South Shore, no one around here would agree. Red Sox Nation would argue that the curse originating with Babe Ruth being sold from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1919 was forever eliminated in 2004 when Boston won its first World Series in 86 years. Just to make sure, they won the Series again in 2007 (who cares if Big Papi was on the juice?). 

But it’s back and as nasty as ever — though it no longer has anything to do with the Red Sox. The Babe has turned his fat face onto his hometown of Baltimore. Which is enough to give this lifelong Orioles fan a severe case of hot dog and beer-induced indigestion. 

How did this happen? Basically it’s baseball’s version of whack-a-mole. The moment the Red Sox threw off the curse, The Sultan of Swat sought out another American League East team to haunt. How else to explain the utter collapse of a once-proud franchise that was a dominant force from 1966 to 1983, winning three World Championships and six American League Pennants? They had another brief era of winning baseball in the mid-1990s but a bratty kid named Jeffery Maier (another annoying Yankee fan!) put an end to that by reaching out from the right field stands at Camden Yards and turning a sure out into a Derek Jeter “home run.” 

Despite all the amenities like Boog’s Barbecue, microbrews, and crab cakes, there is something inherently wrong with Camden Yards. It’s not so much a design flaw (you can’t discount the beauty of initiating the 1990’s retro stadium revolution) as it is the location. The stadium was built on the site of a tavern owned by Babe Ruth’s father. And it’s cursed. 

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Even Peter Schmuck, the Baltimore Sun’s outstanding baseball writer, agrees. He recently wrote a column where he admitted that he “used to laugh at the notion of an Orioles Curse, but…you know what the Babe did to the Red Sox for 86 years. Mark your calendars for the next Orioles World Series in 2069.” I’m personally not too worried since I plan to live until I’m 101 anyway but still

Baltimore has always had a tenuous relationship with Babe Ruth. As any Yankee-hating Oriole fan knows, you can tour the Babe Ruth Birthplace  in Baltimore’s west side “Pigtown” neighborhood. And while they’ve tried to doll it up with a bunch of Orioles memorabilia, it’s still a monument to the greatest player ever to play for the Evil Empire. And that, frankly, grates. Sure it’s worth a trip but make sure to avoid it during a Yankeees-Orioles weekend at Camden Yards; you know, when the place becomes Yankee Stadium South and is invaded by marauding (and free spending) Yankees fans. 

Now, I’m not one to complain without offering a solution. The opposite of “curse” might be “blessing” but I’m thinking we need something more dramatic. We need an exorcism. I’m not afraid to state the obvious: Oriole Park at Camden Yards is cursed. As a priest and Baltimorean, an Oriole fanatic who owns a stadium chair from the late, great Memorial Stadium, someone who has lived in New York (mere minutes from Babe Ruth’s grave), and currently lives in Red Sox Nation, I believe I am uniquely qualified to offer my services. So I am willing to come to Baltimore, stand on the pitcher’s mound at Camden Yards, and take care of business. I’ll sprinkle a little holy water to drive out the demons of the Babe’s curse, of Jeffrey Maier, of loud, obnoxious Yankee fans; while invoking the name of Wild Bill Hagy, Rex Barney, the Miracle on 33rd Street, and all that is true and noble, just and pure, lovable and gracious, excellent and admirable. 

Friends, I’m afraid it’s the only way. And I’m here to help.

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Nightmare on O’s Street

Woebegone. Sad sack. Wretched. Willy Loman-like. Embarrassing. Hideous. Bag-over-your-head shame. These are some ways you could describe the 2010 Orioles in the first month of the season. Thanks to a 10-inning victory over the Red Sox last night (that they nearly blew anyway) they improved to 3 and 16. That’s a winning percentage of .158, by far the worst in the Majors.

And for longtime Orioles fans it’s reminiscent of 1988. That’s the year they began the season 0 and 21 — the worst start in Major League history. That year they fired Cal Ripken Sr. as manager six games into the season before reeling off another 15 losses in a row under Frank Robinson. I was a freshman at Tufts that spring and spent a tortured April being mercilessly harassed by my two roommates for my team’s general ineptitude. And it’s amazing Cal Ripken, Jr stuck with the team after they fired his father. Imagine how that must have felt?

When a friend of mine heard I would be starting seminary 13 years ago he told me, “That’s great! Now everything bad that ever happens to you can end up as a sermon illustration.” Thankfully for my parishioners I haven’t exactly followed that model of preaching (“This week I’ll share how my elevated cholesterol level relates to John’s gospel”).

But the life of faith does bring the entirety of our lives — our triumphs and disappointments — into the realm of the spiritual. And for me, the fortunes of the Orioles have always been a part of my identity. Granted it’s been mostly a downer in recent years. Oh, okay, they haven’t won the World Series in 28 years. I used to joke that as long as they win another championship before I die I’d be happy. That was 20 years ago. At this point, I think I’ll pass on the Eggs Benedict to keep that cholesterol level in check.

Perhaps the Birds can run off their first winning streak of the season tomorrow night by winning two in a row. That’s the hope-springs-eternal side of me. Unfortunately they begin a three game series with the hated World Champion New York Yankees. It doesn’t look good.


Dirt Devil

80322904MH021_Baltimore_OriAfter the final game was played at the old Yankee Stadium last year, Don Larson reverently scooped up some dirt from the pitcher’s mound. The only pitcher to toss a perfect game in the World Series was assisted by Whitey Ford, another Yankee great. And it was a poignant moment no matter what team you root for; these two old men bending down in front of 50,000 people to try and preserve an integral part of their lives. They sought something tangible, a “holy relic” from the “cathedral” where their stars had shined so brightly those many years ago.

I mentioned this ten days ago during my final sermon at All Saints’ in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Just before I broke off a chunk of the altar to remember my seven years as rector. Okay, I didn’t actually do this but it crossed my mind.

Ben was obviously listening because after his last game of Briarcliff little league last night, he went out to home plate and did the same thing. He scooped up a bunch of dirt/mud into his hat and processed it with great ceremony to my car. Where half of it promptly spilled all over the back seat.

Kids do have an amazing sense of ritual during times of transition. And I always feel it’s best to follow their leads with this stuff. Even if it means moving dirt from New York to New England.

Ben’s Briarcliff dirt — the portion that’s not ground into my car’s fabric seats — is now safely encased in a ziplock bag that’s sitting on our kitchen table. Next stop: Hingham, Massachusetts.


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?!”