Diamonds in the Shadowlands

Spring Training | As a new baseball season begins, a personal reflection of the past 50

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

C.S. Lewis, as many WORLD readers know, called this world "the Shadowlands." In a parallel way, Hasidic rabbis referred to heaven as "the true world." We know we see through a glass darkly, with God graciously giving us glimpses of heaven through occasional aspects of our lives. The danger is that we turn glimpses into objects of worship, mistaking the shadows for the true world.

On June 26, 1975, after the worst years of my life, as Christ was slowly dragging me to Himself, I walked 12 miles from an apartment west of Boston to the spot in the city where I had always felt happy. I sat in the Fenway Park stands for the game that evening between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Watching Luis Tiant's winning pitching, his body twisting with every fastball and curve, I felt hopeful.

After the game I took the subway/trolley as far as I could and then walked the remaining miles to that apartment, singing under the stars. It turned out that true love was around the corner: A year and a day after that game, Susan and I were married, and both of us professed faith in Christ about four months after that. But for 18 years now I've written occasionally in WORLD about baseball, and the question still hangs: Do sports and sports fandom turn us toward God (see books like Sermon on the Mound) or away from Him?

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I'm asking these questions anew because 2010 is a golden anniversary for me. In 1960, as a child in Boston, I became a Red Sox fan, and 50 years later remain one. Many WORLD readers are long-term fans (the word derives from "fanatic") for their favorite teams. Is such a bond spiritually helpful or harmful? And there's also the curious question of why these bonds develop.

I'd like to say that, for me, aesthetic reasons are paramount. Soccer aficionados have reason to call their pastime "the beautiful game," but baseball has its own loveliness. White ball, green grass, blue sky. The thwack or ping of bat on ball. The geometry of the race to first base. The soaring of fly balls descending into gloves sprinted to the right spot. The individualistic staredowns between pitcher and batter. The crowd sounds that arise without electronic stimulation at late-inning moments of maximum confrontation.

Or I could emphasize the memories many readers and I have of particular moments and particular locations: I've watched games at 41-plus major league and spring training ballparks, and if I close my eyes I can remember the look of almost all of them. Venerable Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, of course, but also the old and new parks of the Orioles, the Yankees, and the Mets. I can mentally contrast the thankfully demolished modernist multisport monstrosities in cities from Philadelphia and Atlanta westward with beautifully quirky postmodernist parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix . . .

But let's face it: Fans are needy, because all of us are needy. "Physician, heal thyself," the saying goes, and a parallel one is, "Journalist, reveal thyself." Aesthetics and memories both work wonders, but the main reason I became a fan was . . . my neediness. And if I don't admit my neediness, what chance is there that you, dear reader, might-whatever you're a fan of-admit yours?

In 1960, the year I became a 10-year-old baseball fan, my mother went to work as a secretary at a tannery in Peabody, Mass. The smell was bad but her sense of defeat was worse: Her sisters had married rich businessmen and she, who had snagged the smart husband, a teacher, took dictation. I became a latchkey kid, comforting myself with after-school snacks of Fig Newtons and Nestlé's Quik with a bit of milk: I was, in essence, mainlining chocolate syrup.

As the new fat kid on the block, lonely and bored during the summer, I discovered on the radio and sometimes on television the voice of Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy rhythmically describing the exploits of players from mysterious places like Yazoo City, Miss., and Ponca City, Okla. I used $10 of the $11 that comprised my life's savings to buy a transistor radio at Radio Shack that I could listen to every evening and put next to my pillow when it was time to go to sleep.

The Red Sox finished next to last that year, but I was loyal to them and even made my way to an afternoon game in September. It was dark walking in under the Fenway stands and then through a tunnel to my seat, but suddenly came a blaze of light over-I was a city kid-the largest and greenest patch of green I had ever seen. Later, when reading 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell, I ran across his lapidary line about "a green thought in a green shade." That was Fenway Park for me. Was there something like that for you?


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