Faith Matters: The gospel according to baseball: It is never too late for each of us to have a great 9th inning
|Published: 01-19-2024 11:36 AM
As you are reading this column, we are 35 days away from the official start of Major League Baseball’s Spring Training.
So it is only fitting that I begin this column with a couple of inspirational baseball stories.
Growing up in the 1960s, like many kids, my favorite player was Mickey Mantle. He hit prodigious home runs and was always valued for being a great teammate. What was not reported in those days was that he suffered from the disease of alcoholism. And it only got worse in his retirement.
When he eventually quit drinking in the last years of his shortened life, an emaciated Mantle went to many ballparks and said to those for whom he was a hero: “Don’t be like me. Don’t abuse alcohol and drugs.” When he died, the famous sports cartoonist Bill Gallo drew a picture of St. Peter with his arm around Mickey, leading him into heaven, saying “Mick, you had a great 9th inning.”
It is never too late for each of us to have a great 9th inning. The question Mickey leaves us is this: What is it in my life that is holding me back from a life of freedom and peace?
Here is another Gospel according to baseball.
Hank Greenberg was an outstanding player for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s. The Tigers were a really good team and traded Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. The Pirates were not a good team. Greenberg did not want to be there. 1947 was also the year Jackie Robinson finally broke the “color barrier” and became the first African American to play Major League Baseball. Robinson was frequently booed when his Brooklyn Dodgers team came to a city for the first time. And that was true when they came to Pittsburgh.
In the first inning, Hank Greenberg was playing first base as Robinson came to the plate. Robinson singled to the outfield and true to his daring approach to running, he rounded first and was heading to second. He realized he would not get there safely so he turned and dove back to first to beat the throw there. In so doing he collided with Greenberg, accidentally knocking him to the ground.
The crowd gasped. What would happen? The revered Greenberg was on the ground. Would his teammates run onto the field and start a fight? Greenberg immediately got up and then reached down to lift up Robinson. And in a gesture of acceptance, he patted Robinson on the back, signaling to everyone: Robinson belongs here. Greenberg did so knowing the prejudice he experienced early in his career as a Jewish ballplayer.
Greenberg has shown us the power of one person to change hearts and minds. What in our communities needs to change so that everyone feels safe and welcome? How might we — as people of faith — stand up against racism and antisemitism in our own time?
It strikes me, too, that it all happened in a place where Greenberg didn’t want to be. Are there times in our lives when we wished we were someplace else, but somehow God uses that place and that time for moments of grace, even moments of transformation?
Baseball is not a religion, but it can offer us a kind of wisdom. While Jesus never ran the bases or slid into home plate, he knew what it meant to put a hand on someone’s shoulder and stand with the persecuted against a crowd.
We live in turbulent times and wholeness of our communities depends on small gestures of kindness and the courage to stand with the oppressed.
Thanks for staying with this column until the end. We are closer to Spring Training than when you began.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas J. Fisher is the ninth bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. He is the spiritual leader of 50+ congregations and community-based ministries from the Berkshires to Worcester County. Bishop Fisher is deeply committed to ending gun violence, addressing the needs of our veterans and following Jesus in his mission of mercy, compassion and hope. Born and raised in Valley Stream, Long Island, Fisher is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Fisher. They live in Great Barrington. They have three children, and three grandchildren.