Maybe it’s because I was raised a Methodist and was taught to keep my spirituality close to the vest, much like people hide alcoholism, criminal tendencies and being a fan of the designated hitter.
Or maybe it’s because, despite her spirit-filled way and prayers for health, my wife died after a lengthy illness. Maybe I saw that the hand-waving fanaticism wasn’t worth the effort. It wasn’t going to work. What happens just happens and I had no part in its outcome. I couldn’t keep her healthy despite the prayers.
But, when she was alive, she tried to convince me to be closer to Thee and her walk with the Lord gave her Godly patience to deal with me. She had a photograph — well, actually it was an artist’s rendering — of Jesus on the bedroom wall. I’d walk by it and point, saying, “Jesus Christ,” in a voice more reserved for angry surprise. I thought it was funny. She didn’t.
Her patience with me continued; she was tolerant of my sports obsession and even encouraged it.
My wife was good friends with the wife of the local college baseball coach. The coach played for the Minnesota Twins in 1964 and met the heroes of my youth — Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison and rookie Tony Oliva. By association, the coach became my hero.
So, one day, while at the church we attended, the minister instructed us to greet our pew neighbors and tell them how good life was. My wife nudged me and pointed to the coach. “Go over there and welcome him,” she said. “He’d appreciate it.”
While the rest of the congregation crowed about glorious days and salvation, I shyly edged to the coach. He looked at me suspiciously and then offered his hand. I was at a loss of word. My Methodist upbringing forebade me from publicly blessing him or speaking in tongues.
Instead, I said the first thing that came to mind. “How does the infield look this year?” I asked.
I think he was relieved at the question and answered it easily.
A friendship developed and we spent time together. We’d go fishing and he would talk about those old Twins’ days and, later when he was playing with the Yankees’ minor league team in Columbus, throwing grounders to Mickey Mantle in spring training.
God had to be involved in getting that friendship arranged.
So, while some may think I was being sacrilegious, talking sports in a church while the rest of the gang was being jolly for Jehovah, I think God smiled on us. Sports is equated to a religion. Baseball stadiums are called “cathedrals” in hack sports writers’ columns and there’s a reason for it. Walk in any baseball stadium and you get a spiritual awakening. I’ve felt it when entering Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the old Vet in Philadelphia, the since-demolished Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, numerous school baseball fields and even the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
And if you want to get religious, the concept of baseball is divine. It’s above the human element and there’s an indescribable beauty about it. Me describing the game is similar to hearing my wife’s friends talk about their religion.