Sometimes, when I leave the ballpark with a bad taste in my mouth, I take the long way home. Come the next day, if that taste is still there, I take the long way back to the spoon that fed it to me.
Pitching isn’t easy. Never in my career have I said it is, not even in the arrogance of my youth—baseball simply won’t allow it to be. No matter how good a pitcher is, he must wind and let go of the ball. In that instant, when the little white dot flies between hands, anything can, and often does, happen.
This unpredictable nature of baseball is what leads the men who play it to create such fanciful routines, rituals and superstitions. Buckets of chicken, compulsive tooth brushing and the occasional wearing of women’s underwear. Do these things really impact the sport, or are they done simply to soothe a player’s mind?
I pray. I’d like to think my invocations are more than superstition, but during times such as these, when I wander back back to the ballpark, when no amount of compulsive tooth brushing cleanses the disgust, when my supplication becomes frustration about a certain curveball that didn’t curve, communing with the Almighty seems less than almost divine.
Maybe it’s how I do it: Angrily calling God into the office of my mind during aimless walks. Telling Him He needs to shape up because I have a life and a career, and plans He’s supposed to fulfill. I’ll generously offer to go halfway, He’ll remain silent, I’ll resort to grumblings . . . I try to match his silence but soon resort to grumbling. Then, when I’ve dumped it all out at His feet, I pat Him on the shoulder, smile and tell Him I’m tired of meeting under these circumstances, then show Him the door.
At the end of my most recent walk/performance evaluation with God, the sound of joy interrupted our talk, pulling my attention from my locker door destination to the patch of four-base-agony I was on last night. There, playing on the grave of my ERA, were dozens of happy children.
Plastic bases marked miniature diamonds in left, right and center field, populated by parents pitching soft, foamy balls to the long, loopy swings of bat-sized kids. The players were special-needs children. Some played positions in wheelchairs, others from behind braces. Still others stood, assisted by a parent so as not to wander under the pull of autism or Down syndrome.
God and I watched the scene.
When a long swing struck a ball into play, the children let loose with shouts, chasing after the white bauble like freshly-lit firecrackers. Once caught, they clamored at the opportunity to throw their prize—to whom or where seemed irrelevant; just throwing it was fun enough. Besides, where the ball went didn’t matter; no outs were being collected. The drama was an illusion, but a pleasant one.
The kids reset. A new hitter strode to the plate, a young girl roughly 6 years old with dark hair, a darling smile and no arms. The fabric of her sleeves hung from her shoulders like a windless flag. Her father came to her side and held a bat with a handle wrapped in a towel. The girl snuggly pinched the padded handle between her shoulder and chin. Bat secured, she dug in.
The pitch. The swing. Grounder to everyone!
Down the line ran the girl as the fielders gave chase. She hit first base, promptly ran to second, then on to third. The ball was thrown straight up, then chased again. Rounding third, heading home, the slide . . . safe!
A home run on an infield single, and everyone was happy.
Father met his daughter at home plate, dropped to his knees and hugged her. Despite the absence of arms, she hugged him back, unmistakably firm and tight. I stood taking it all in. God smiled.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder what that father and daughter prayed. Was it superstition or sincerity? Were they angry when they called God’s name? Did they grumble about a lack of fingers to fold while praying, how it wasn’t part of their plan, how they’re tired of meeting under such circumstances?
Or, I thought, were they grateful to a God that makes hugs and home runs possible, even without arms?