Cold weather swept into Boston on Sept. 20, as it always does around this time of year. Sometimes it's earlier, and in good years the chill does not come until mid-October or even later, but it always comes.
Bart Giamatti, the late Yale president and commissioner of baseball, described the typical end of one Red Sox season two decades ago. He wrote of an over-the-hill, heavy-in-the-gut Boston hitter swiping sadly at a fastball he could not catch up to: strike three, game lost, season effectively ended. Giamatti then wrote his definition of baseball's effect and purpose: "It breaks your heart. It's meant to break your heart."
This year Sports Illustrated predicted on an early April cover that the Red Sox, led by their superb pitcher Pedro Martinez, would win the World Series for the first time since 1918. Boston hopes were still alive on Sept. 20, as the Red Sox played a doubleheader against a team they had to catch, the Cleveland Indians.
But then Cleveland pitcher Steve Woodard, with a record of 2 wins, 10 losses, and the lamentable tendency to give up over six runs for each nine innings he pitched, outdueled Mr. Martinez, who had given up fewer than two runs for each nine-inning game. The Indians won 2-1. In baseball, as in life, expect the unexpected. (Man proposes, God disposes.) The Indians beat the Red Sox in the second game as well, 5-4, and the chill was back for another long fall and winter.
That, of course, is the perspective of a Boston fan; I escaped New England 27 years ago but I still can't shake my childhood loyalties. Fans in Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, and other homelands have their own tales of woe, and that's my point: Most fans experience more chill than warmth. So do many ballplayers.
"Put the cookies on the lowest shelf." That's the advice I received upon preparing to preach to two groups of major leaguers late last month during Baseball Chapel meetings before a Texas Rangers game. My host was concerned that I might intellectualize the gospel and go over the heads of the Rangers and their visitors from Kansas City, the Royals. But he need not have feared.
A quarter of a century ago his concerns would have been justified. As part of my hesitation before accepting the fact that God had made me a Christian, I was reading the work of Christian existentialists and others who were self-conscious "intellectuals." Not realizing the import of God making foolish the wisdom of the wise, I sought out their cola for confirmation that this Christian uncola had some fizz.
But these days, whenever I wake up in the middle of the night, I preach to myself the 23rd Psalm. "The Lord is my Shepherd," the familiar words begin, but the idea is a strange one. Shepherds in ancient times were cookies of the lowest shelf. Rough-hewn and uneducated, they learned simple truths about chilly nights on Judean hills. Those who lost sheep and went after them might come back to find their whole flock scattered, but they had to persevere.
"He makes me lie down in green pastures." I like that line a lot. You'd think we would lie down in green pastures naturally, but no-prone to wander, both existentialist intellectuals and ballplayers after night games on the road seem to prefer rocky slopes. Not unless God forces us to lie down where we should, do we do so.
That's certainly the way it was for me, I told the players. As readers of WORLD know, when I left New England 27 years ago I was an atheist and a communist. But God grabbed me and pushed me for three years, with the final push coming from an uneducated deacon who said, "You believe in this stuff, don't you?" ("Yes," I answered, sheepishly.) "Then you'd better join up." (I did.)
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." This verse has varied interpretations related to communion and victory, but it may also signify that, since we are to love our enemies, we should invite them to sit down. Some Christian ballplayers and I have had trouble this year with atheistic journalists, so are we to love those who are cold toward us? Of course, because they teach us that warmth only comes from God.
That's the message the players need to keep in mind after losses, and the one I need to remember when the chill comes in for one more year. We have only two philosophical choices. One is "It breaks your heart. It's meant to break your heart," and leave it at that. The other is: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."