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Diamonds in the Shadowlands

"Diamonds in the Shadowlands" Continued...

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

Over the next three decades came many memorable games. At a ballpark date Susan and I had in 1976, Detroit pitcher Mark Fidrych ("The Bird") pitched magnificently en route to his Rookie of the Year award. Fidrych manicured the pitching mound at the beginning of each inning and talked to baseballs before he threw them. New York's Graig Nettles once tried to rile him by stepping out of the batter's box and talking to his bat. Nettles later explained that he told the bat, "Never mind what Fidrych says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!" Nettles struck out and later explained why: "Japanese bat. Doesn't understand a word of English."

But this shadowland of a world is not our home. Joy that lasts more than a moment is always bittersweet. Fidrych tore the rotator cuff of his right arm the following year and never again pitched effectively. He bought a farm in central Massachusetts. Last April 13 Fidrych was on his farm underneath a 10-wheeled dump truck, trying to fix it, when his clothes became entangled with the truck's spinning shaft. He suffocated. The Tigers had a moment of silence before their game on April 15. On June 19 Jessica Fidrych threw the ceremonial first pitch before a Tigers game-after manicuring the mound as her dad had done.

In 1986 the Red Sox were one strike away from elimination in the American League Championship playoffs, but sore-armed California Angels pitcher Donnie Moore, who needed cortisone shots to throw at all, served up a home run ball. The Red Sox won that game and Moore, perhaps because of injuries, never regained his effectiveness. Off the field, his marriage disintegrated. On July 18, 1989, he culminated an argument with his wife by shooting her three times, then fatally shooting himself in the presence of his 8-year-old son, Ronnie. In this shadowland, Boston joy was Moore misery.

Later in October 1986, the Red Sox in the 10th inning of a late game were one strike away from winning the World Series against the New York Mets. I woke my eldest son Pete, then 9, who had fallen asleep on the couch, so that he could see the Red Sox triumph. Instead, he watched the Mets score two runs to tie the game on three hits and a wild pitch. He heard my anguished cry as a ground ball rolled between the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner and the Mets won: That moment has been rebroadcast thousands of times.

Boston media crucified Buckner to such an extent that baseball fan John Hodgen, who lives about five miles from Fidrych's farm, felt moved to write a poem based on that error. "Forgiving Buckner" includes these lines: "The world is always rolling between our legs. It comes for us, dribbler, slow roller. . . . We spit in our gloves, bend our stiff knees, keep it in front of us, our fathers' advice, but we miss it every time." Only Christ provides true hope: "the oh of your mouth as the stone rolls away."

Because most religions emphasize an exchange-we do something for God, He does something for us-it's easy to think that if we work hard enough we'll win. But Christianity is all about amazing grace, and it's grace that I've received. Starting when they were toddlers I was able to play catch with each of our four boys. Starting in 1985 I could watch one or more of them play baseball for 21 straight years.

The Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. When the players paraded through the streets of Boston, it was like the victory scenes in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. New Orleans had something like that recently when the Saints won the Super Bowl. In both cases the teams won after decades of disappointment, with some fans perhaps learning (as the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans) that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame."

Of course, as Chicago Cubs fans would remind us, in this shadowland a century's wait may not be enough. But even so, forgiveness provides a glimpse of heaven. After his 1986 error Bill Buckner moved to Idaho, became a real-estate developer, and named one of his subdivisions "Fenway Park." Two years ago, on April 8, 2008, after the Red Sox the previous fall had won their second World Series, Buckner-a Christian-strolled slowly from the real Fenway Park's left field door to the pitching mound. His task: to throw the ceremonial first pitch for the team's home opener. His joy: He received a five-minute standing ovation.

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