“I believe in the church of baseball.” – Bull Durham
You can learn a lot through baseball.
I don’t mean the easy stuff, such as wrapping a rubber band around your well-oiled glove with a ball inside and placing it under your mattress all night to break it in; or never putting your favorite Mickey Mantle baseball card in the spokes of your bicycle. Save that noisy and destructive place for a Dick Tracewski or a Clete Boyer.
I mean the hard stuff – the life values that many people spend their whole lives trying to understand. If they had only played baseball, they would have quickly learned how to…
Live from your heart – I love baseball but I was never very good at it. I could field just fine and I had a quick step on the bases, but I was inconsistent at the plate and injured my throwing arm in high school.
But I loved being on the team with our daily practices, batting practice, infield drills, hitting cut-offs from the outfield, etc. I wasn’t a star, but I often came through for the coach when he needed a pinch runner, a warm-up catcher or a late-inning outfielder. It didn’t matter if I started the game, as long as I played hard in a sport I loved and helped make the team a success.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller once said, “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s successes or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”
Respect others – There’s equality in baseball in which all the players are the same. I don’t mean same abilities – Ernie Banks would hit more than 500 home runs as a Cub so he always batted clean up, whereas pitchers Fergie Jenkins or Ken Holtzman always batted last.
No, I mean the playing field is equal. All the players have an opportunity to prove their abilities on the field.
But it wasn’t always an equal playing field. For decades, blacks were kept out of organized baseball. The segregation of American society that divided blacks into separate but certainly not equal conditions extended into baseball as well.
Forget the controversy about Barry Bonds and his suspected steroid-enhanced quest to break Henry Aaron’s official major league record of 755 home runs. Anabolic steroids were not widely available until the 1970s, yet Josh Gibson of the Negro Leagues reportedly hit 800 home runs during the 1930s and 1940s, including the longest ever in Yankee Stadium.
America forever lost the chance to see and honor perhaps the greatest home run hitter of all time because of segregation practices that ignored black players.
It wasn’t until 1948 when Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson to a contract that the color barrier slowly disappeared from baseball. As Rickey says in The Jackie Robinson Story, “The box score doesn’t tell how big you are, what church you attend, what color you are, or how your father voted in the last election. It just tells what kind of baseball player you were on that particular day.”
Love your family – Baseball always drew us together as a family. I have fond memories of birthdays spent at Wrigley Field, sandlot games in an empty field, my parents sitting in lawn chairs watching me play, or trying to stump my dad with trivia questions from the back of baseball cards.
I never realized how much time and effort my parents put into my baseball games until I spent the same time at my children’s games. Driving to practices and games, playing catch or going to the batting cages, cheering them on from the stands or the third base coach’s box – all this time spent with my children and baseball brought us closer together.
I’ll always remember a bedtime discussion with Kristin about the intricacies of the Infield Fly Rule, Connor’s carefree outfield cartwheels between batters, and Tommy’s pitches to strike out the last two batters and beat the previously undefeated Indians. These memories of their youth are forever woven into my being, intertwined with the thick, golden thread of baseball.
My wife Linda and I love watching baseball together. Not at home on TV, where so many chores and distractions clamor for our attention, but outside at the park. She travels with me to games at which I sing the National Anthem. But after the pregame hoopla, we sit back and share our love for the game, cheer for the home team and marvel at the skills of the players.
Baseball even gave me a glimpse into the love that my parents shared. Inscribed in a copy of The Ultimate Baseball Book, my mom wrote to dad “You are my ultimate.”
In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella asks his father if there is a heaven. “Oh yeah,” says John, “it’s where dreams come true.”
That confirms my feeling that playing or watching a live baseball game is indeed heaven on earth.
As Ernie Banks still says, “Let’s play two!”
First published in the June 16, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.