When Jackie Takes the Field in Philadelphia

There’s this scene in the movie 42. Branch Ricky (you may know him as Han Solo pre-stabbing by Kylo Ren, Harrison Ford if you will) is talking to Herb Penncock who is the manager of the Philly team. They are talking about how Philadelphia is going to refuse to take the field with Jackie Robinson and Branch Ricky says, “Do you think God likes baseball, Herb?”

There was a pretty important game being played in Cleveland last night, and as I sat watching people I love throw their hearts and souls into our players and our city, all I could think was, “do you think God likes baseball?”

When I was a kid I didn’t really have much first hand experience with religion. My Dad’s side of the family was Catholic and I did the typical wedding, funeral, and occasional church mass with them, enough that I got the gist of Catholic Church and knew that I wasn’t a huge fan. My mom’s side talked about God, and I knew they held faith, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. We were always too busy having fun and being silly for me to really think about it much.

I kind of always watched people worshiping God from the bench. Like, the bullpen bench. Way out in the outfield where I could see things moving, but not really what was happening and definitely not who exactly was up to bat. I never had the plan or desire to get onto the field. Incidentally, if I had thought about it a little bit I would have noticed that baseball was one of the closest things to religion I would experience in my house.

We had bibles, we learned some stories, every year at Christmas my job was to put out the nativity, and every year for as long as I can remember my mother and I get into an argument about where the sheep belong in the scene. She says right next to Jesus, I say that is ridiculous, there wouldn’t have been enough room for Jesus and all those wise men all in that one space, the sheep gotta go! And since I am always the one setting up, those sheep go right into the hayloft every single year. This general speculative discussion was the closest I ever really got to casually talking about God. A small chat jokingly had once a year, but never a thing of great interest or intense study.

But sports. Ohhh sports were intensely loved, studied, and practiced. Backyard, street, ball field, basketball court, we knew them all. Our parents played, our grandparents played, our cousins played, and we worshiped sports together; even the ones we didn’t participate in.

Anyone who knows anything about Ohio, knows what our sports mean, and in my house they meant more than most. My father is a native Clevelander, and his mid-childhood transport out of the state did nothing but increase his love for our floundering sports teams. I learned worship from him, and goodness did he worship with his whole soul.

We went to Lumberjack hockey, and Indians baseball, on Saturday’s we would watch OSU (our consistently reliable team) and on Sunday we would watch the Browns (our consistently unreliable team). My father would prepare in the morning like other families prepare for church. He would shower and carefully adorn the appropriate jersey, he would lay out his socks on the couch and put them on one by one while the pre-game decorated the background like opening worship music. He prepared as if he were leaving the house; he would put on his shoes, look around like he was ready to go, clap his hands, and plop his butt onto the couch with a smile so big you’d think Jesus himself was about to make an appearance. Actually, I think Jesus himself could have shown up on the doorstep and my Catholic raised father would have made him wait to give his message until the game was over.

When a game was particularly good, my father cheered; when it was bad he hung his head. I would not have considered my father an emotional man, but you’d better believe he cried when the Cavs won the championship.

I learned reliability, optimism, and resilience from my father. Each season he begins with the same mantra, “This is their year.” His faith has always been so strong through unachievable odds, even when he’s been burned the year before. He never holds his pain over the head of his team, or holds onto hurt or broken promises. His forgiveness is endless.

I do think God likes baseball, and I think the two have a lot in common. They both ask us if we want to keep doing this thing. After each devastating injury, trade, error, and even after a World Series loss 8-7 in 10 innings, we are asked if we want to keep going on. “Is this still your team? Do you still have the resilience and stamina to wait for something that may not exist, or for change that may never happen?”

With God and baseball the question is the same, and I hope my answer can be too. I’ll be back next to my father next year, listening to his same prayers, watching him practice his same rituals, participating with him in every superstition. And every time my team asks, “do you want to keep doing this?” I’m going to answer, “absolutely.”

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