I grew up like any other red-blooded, Mennonite, post-agricultural-economy kid in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s: fearing God and loving the Phillies.
But in my college years, I stopped paying attention to baseball. Sure, I watched horrified and fascinated as Mookie Wilson skipped home after the grounder scooted through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986, dooming the Red Sox. And I remember Kirk Gibson’s hobble around the bases after he homered off Dennis Eckersley in the first game of the 1988 World Series.
Still, there were classes to attend, a war in Nicaragua to oppose, Yuengling Porter to drink, and a short, freckled girl to visit at her cement-block basement apartment off-campus. Baseball didn’t matter as much.
After Sue and I married, right out of college, we moved back to Pennsylvania. Still fearing God, I grudgingly attended church two blocks from our home, in downtown Lancaster. The church provided a home for disaffected, college-educated Mennonites, many of whom worked at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief-and-development organization based in nearby Akron. I worked at MCC as well, making videos about volunteers doing God’s work in developing countries.
One of my co-workers at MCC – Bob – attended our church downtown. Bob’s position was that God gave everyone a special gift in life. For some people, it was teaching. Others had the gift of singing, or making furniture, or raising money to help hungry people in Zaire or Mozambique.
Bob said his special gift was watching baseball.
Now, I did not come from an athletic family. We went to several Phillies games when I was a kid, but even at age eight, I knew that everyone else was humoring me, and they were there for the Phanatic on his Honda three-wheeler, and for the fireworks after each home run, instead of for Larry Bowa or Mike Schmidt or the Bull, Greg Lusinski. The night the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, my mother sent me to bed at my normal time, in the fifth inning. No matter that the Phillies had never won a World Series. It was a school night, and I needed my rest.
That first summer of my adult life Bob invited me to go with him to a Reading Phillies game, about 45 minutes east of Lancaster. I was nervous. Bob was 20 years older than me; what would we talk about? And I was secretly dismissive. It was Double-A Minor League baseball. I wasn’t even that interested in “regular” baseball anymore. How good could this be?
Very good, it turned out. The Reading Phillies stadium held about 5,000 people. It was made out of red brick. Bernie the Singing Usher stood during the Seventh Inning Stretch to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Bob and I saw diving catches, dodged cue-shots that whistled past our seats along the first-base-line, and cheered when the gawky left-fielder nailed a runner trying to score on a shallow fly ball.
It was good for all of those reasons, but also because the game gave us time to think, and to talk. There was no Phanatic, no fireworks. Beer was a dollar-fifty for a 16-ounce plastic Reading Phillies cup, but people were not getting drunk, or loud. They were applauding politely, eating hot dogs, visiting with their neighbors and friends.
It was contemplative.
It was better than church.
Bob and I talked about our families. I told him how my parents were serving a five-year missionary term in Africa, and how my dad and I didn’t really understand each other, and how Dad had once tried to take me to a Phillies game on his own, and the game was rained out after a two-hour delay, and the awkward drive home symbolized all of the ways we misunderstood, and missed, each other.
I went with Bob to several R-Phils games that year, and then started taking Sue to some of the Sunday afternoon games, leaving church early in order to watch batting practice. It was as if my eight-year-old self – the one who took his short-billed Phillies cap and infielder’s glove to Veteran’s Stadium – met me on the far side of my adolescence, gave me a knowing smile, and said, “Remember how the second baseman looks at the shortstop when a man is on first? How he hides his face behind his glove, and either opens or closes his mouth, to show who’s going to cover the bag on a steal?”
“Remember all of the things you loved, and couldn’t pursue, because of where you grew up, and how you grew up, and because of the beliefs that your parents passed along to you?”
“Well, now you’re old enough to go after those things.”
I am now the same age Bob was when he took me to that first Reading Phillies game. I live in Vermont, and stay at home tending the woodstove or the garden on Sunday mornings. I’m still learning to pursue the things I love.
Minor league baseball is one of those things. It makes me happy to be at those ballgames, whether they take place in Manchester, New Hampshire, or Burlington, Vermont, or Portland, Maine.
And if I have learned anything since the time I was 22 years old, since the time I was eight, is that you need to pay attention to that happiness.