The joy of baseball

Posted: Aug 07, 2001 12:00 AM
Now that the Boston Red Sox have won 12 games in a row started by pitcher David Cone, it's a good time to mention a biography of him by America's best writer on baseball, Roger Angell. Fans will like "A Pitcher's Story" (Warner Books, 2001) and will especially relish a collection of three decades of Angellic essays, "Once More Around the Park" (Ivan Dee, 2001). One of Angell's finest articles, "Agincourt and After," shows the fervor of 1975, when Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox hit his 12th inning, World Series game-winning, barely-fair homerun. (If you've watched baseball over the past quarter-century, you've seen the video of it many a time.) Angell notes that the Fenway Park organist played Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," and then he conveys a vision of how worshipers throughout New England took in the great good news: "I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway ... even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy -- alight with it." The scene is like that of Samuel's second book in the Old Testament, when King David and others bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. David, we are told, "danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets." But David's first wife, when she saw her husband "leaping and dancing before the Lord, despised him in her heart." We should not despise sports fans who leap and dance, because baseball, like many other good gifts from God, can give us a temporary happiness that points us toward the joy that lasts. That's what happened to me in 1975, during the last of my life's seven lean years, when I walked the 12 miles from the room I was staying in to the Atlantic Ocean and stared out at it. Then I looped back to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had an evening game against the dreaded Yankees. I watched pitcher Luis Tiant twist indescribably on the mound. If you ever watched his idiosyncratic wind-up, you can picture it in your mind's eye right now. Tiant pitched brilliantly, the Red Sox had some timely hits, and they led 5-2 after eight innings. That's when I did something exceedingly rare in my life: I left a game early. The reason was neither rush nor boredom; for some inexplicable reason (because the facts of my life did not warrant joy), I was filled with happiness. I didn't want to lose that moment, so I walked out into the night before anything could go wrong. I walked out thinking, "It doesn't get any better than this." But it did, because a fine baseball game is just a shadow of what God has in store for us. Two months after that game, I met the woman who became my wife, and a year after that I publicly recognized God's claims on me. Over the ensuing years, I became the father of God's gifts that keep on giving, four terrific children. Writing, teaching, family and church have provided quiet joy year after year, along with some occasional dancing and leaping. God does not depend on baseball or anything else to produce a sense of working and living life within His good pleasure. But that realization does not make me disdain baseball, for it gave me a little indication of what I was looking for, and it still does.