Of Baseball, Pop Bottles and Heroes

I have immensely enjoyed the baseball season even though my beloved St. Louis Cardinals failed to get to the world series. But my other Missouri team – the Kansas City Royals – did, to win it all!

As a boy, my passion for baseball cards was a neighborhood legend. I would hoard nickels to purchase the bubble gum selling picture cards of my baseball idols of the 40’s and 50’s – Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Red Schoendist and countless others. I kept them in cigar and shoe boxes and separated my collection into rubber-banded teams. I would sell pop-bottles at two cents each, and quickly convert each five pop-bottle sale into packs of baseball cards. My friend and next door neighbor, Kenny Evans, a Yankee fan, wasted most of his childhood trading baseball placards on my front porch. But that was okay, because he was a frequent supplier of a missing St. Louis Cardinal card.

I mention all of this, because my adulation of baseball players became a kind of worship. I knew their statistics. I copied their stances. I admired their strength and composure in their photographs. Then, without my noticing, I grew up. I finally got to go a baseball game, I saw the players in real life. I met them, heard them talk, saw them walk and began to be aware of an encroaching disappointment in my life.

The baseball players in real life have never thrilled me as much as those cards. The promise of those sparkling eyes and firmly set jaws belied the ordinary men who had usual human frailties – ethical indecision, moral failure, intellectual vapidity, and emotional emptiness. I wanted them to be better than me. They weren’t.

I guess it’s okay though. I made a good return off those baseball cards. Some collector, not quite mentally beyond adolescence, snapped them up. And I caught a lesson along the way. I learned that life is never what I wish it were – that I can never make my dreams and hopes match the reality of my experience. Why? How, when I even drop the ball myself, can I expect the world around me to accommodate my expectations? I cannot. But I still enjoy baseball – the kind played by ordinary, problem-plagued humans – the humans who occasionally rise and often fall and then get up again. To love this vision is to love life. Somehow that seems like the point of it all. Because, as Elie Wiesel says, “To love life is to love God.” Life sometimes denies, sometimes gives. The human being who accepts it with a “Thy will be done!” confesses a knowledge of the creature’s place in the universe. We live in hope – not the hope that our fragile heroes will not break, but the hope that our journey through heartbreak and hilarity will end in the very lap of the Father.

[Adapted from essay in There’s Good News in the World, McDowell, 2011, Blurb Pub. p. 219f]