The Boston Globe
Sermon on the Mound: Finding God at the Heart of the Gameby Michael O'Connor
From an author who came to Christ through baseball,
Michael O�Connor was ten years old when he attended his first Major League baseball game, but he had already developed a respect for the sport that bordered on the sacred. He and his wife now head a national touring music ministry called Improbable People. They live in Southern California with their three children
From an author who came to Christ through baseball, comes a loving, poignant and sometimes humorous look at the sport, its impact, and valuable lessons we can learn from it.
"There is God and baseball�everything else is sports and religion," says Michael O�Connor, who came to know Christ as a result of Bill Buckner�s famous error in the 1986 World Series. The game of baseball may seem an unlikely parallel to God�s working in a heart and life�but for Michael O�Connor it was and is. With the perfect blend of wry humor and baseball anecdotes, the book entertains as it teaches valuable lessons about the Christian life, God�s will, and much more.
The Boston Globe
- Bethany House Publishers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.19(w) x 8.57(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
By and large it is the sport that a foreigner is least likely to take to. Youhave to grow up playing it, you have to accept the lore of the bubble gum card, and believe that if the answer to the Mays-Snider-Mantle question is found, then the universe will be a simpler and more ordered place.
An Affair to Remember
I am having an affair.
My wife knows about it. My children have heard the two of us discussing it in hushed tones from rooms to which they have been exiled. My pastor and many on our church board have brought me in for counseling. Usually people are embarrassed when they find out and don't know what to say.
"Is it so wrong to love?" I ask them. "Is it a sin to follow my heart?" They study the tops of their shoes in silence. But they are not being honest. You can see it in the reflection on their Florsheims. They miss the romance in their lives. They yearn to rekindle the passion. Or perhaps I'm describing something they have never known. Although I have no proof, I believe I am secretly envied.
I am having an affair. It's been going on since Kennedy was president.
The first time I picked up a baseball, it wasn't all that special. The ball was small, round, dirty. I tossed it into the air, and gravity had its way.
I was a kid growing up in a home where the foundation was cracked and the structure was crumbling. Yet here, at last, was something I could depend on. No matter how grass-stained or scuffed was its skin, the ball remained loyal and would always return.
Baseball revealed her inner beauty to me in 1963, and I have been helpless in her presence ever since.
For a time I was a player. But these days I mostly watch. I've learned what brings her joy. I know her flaws and sorrows as if they were my own. I no longer need to be in her presence to be overwhelmed with her fragrance. But it helps. She is not so perfect to me as when I was eight and needy. But she is always beautiful.
I was drawn to this game when I was knee high to a shin guard. Drawn like a pyromaniac to a thatched hut, like an Irishman to a three-day wake. It was almost involuntary.
And though baseball incessantly teased with the promise of pennants and championships, the part of the sport that stressed winning was rarely fulfilling to me. The peaks were generally fleeting, and the valleys went on forever. Not that this mattered. If my lust for victory burned unrequited, I could at least satisfy my burgeoning heart with proximity to the beloved game itself.
God was a different story altogether. If God was calling me during those early days, He got nothing but busy signals. If He was beckoning me to follow, I was on another path. If He was wooing my hungry heart, it was a task requiring supreme perseverance. I was already in love.
To me, God was interesting, mysterious, and worthy of fear. But lovetorrid, passionate, fanatical devotionthese are colors of an emotional rainbow I never would have attributed to the Author of all creation. The god I was introduced to was a joyless deity. Mirthless and somber. The one who rained fire and flood upon the land. The one who demanded obedience over and against abiding affection.
I don't know why God didn't strike me dead over this golden calf in the first inning of my existence, why He restrained himself from leveling every baseball diamond from San Diego to Maine in righteous indignation. If my early baseball days were any indication, certainly a lifetime of idolatry lay ahead.
And God had the best seat in the house from which to view this morality play. I marvel how, daily, He must have sat in bemused silence, surprised by nothing, knowing every outcomepeering effortlessly from the press box of eternity through the smoked-glass windows of my soul.
Who would fault Him for growing jealous enough to sift through the corridors of time, delivering plague upon plague to the mid-1800s village of Cooperstown, New York? All God had to do, prior to the game's conception, was send a Bakersfield-sized meteor aimed straight at the heart of its birthplace and baseball is never invented.
Thenpoof!jai alai is America's national pastime.
God had a better idea. It was ingenious, really. Why not take the thing that held my rapt concentrationbaseballand use it to instruct and draw me closer to Him? So brilliant was God's execution, I remained blissfully ignorant of it for the first thirty-one years of my life.
When the day came for Him to reveal this master plan in October of 1986, it grabbed my whole attention like a sharp grounder to short that you expect will hug the ground but instead trick-hops off the hardpan infield, delivering an agonizing shot to your forehead. It's difficult to ignore God when you're flat on your back, seeing stars and counting angels.
The other day a box of old family photographs arrived in the mail. My mother was cleaning out some closets and thought I might enjoy the memories. I found my third-grade class picture and, on a whim, asked my daughter Dusty to pick me out of the lineup. There were sixteen boys in the picture. It took fifteen tries to nail her old man.
Had I really changed all that much? I guess my twelve-year-old answered that question for me. But it's a little hard to accept. In my heart I am still that third grader, telling the same corny jokes, pulling on little-girl pigtails.
I found a posed snapshot of me taken during my early days of organized ball. The child is slight of build and severely freckled. His short auburn hair is all but hidden by an oversized green cap with a big red R on it. His baggy uniform, like Jonah's whale, appears to have swallowed him whole. There is a leather glove carelessly dangling from one hand, appearing to have only decorative value.
You study his eyes and there is a Robinson Crusoe look about them. They are lost and adrift. I guess growing up between the Bay of Pigs and Watergate will do that to you. He is not the vibrant, happy-go-lucky kid I had expected or remembered. Was memory failing or had Mom hired a child actor, purchased her first computer, learned Photoshop, and doctored this picture?
Then it hit me. The red R betrayed the mystery. Raineers. This was my first team. My first uniform. My first glove. This was the beginning of the marvelous journeythe start of this lifelong affair. We had, apparently, just met, and infatuation had not yet set in.
Once we became acquainted, baseball gave me purpose and direction. She steered me toward home more times than a designated driver on St. Paddy's Day. Baseball was my salvationmy lithe and graceful partner on the ballroom dance floor of life.
The boy in the photo doesn't know it yet, but he is about to fall in love. Madly, hopelessly, irrevocably. It will be one of the truly profound miracles in his life.
And isn't it just like God to use a miracle to get our attention?
Do not lust in your heart
after her beauty
or let her captivate you
with her eyes.
What can you sayabout a sixty-four ounce slab of leather that never realized its potential? That it failed in its chosen field? That its manufacturer dropped the ball in production? That it came closer to fulfilling its calling as a doorstop than with a shortstop? These are the questions that haunt my sleep nearly three decades after my brief, undistinguished hardball career.
You could teach a college course on the whys and wherefores of what went wrong with my first glove. Call it Mitt Lit. or Rawlings Scrawlings. Future generations would learn the sorrows I have known on my own private field of dreams, but without perspective, wouldn't they simply be doomed to repeat the same errors?
I share this cautionary tale with you as both warning and primer on what, if at all possible, must be taken into consideration when purchasing a child's first baseball glove. So important is this early consumer decision that it has, no doubt, decided the career of many a potential Hall-of-Famer. Where will the sons of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. be without the story of my early playing days available to blaze their respective trails to Cooperstown?
And while we're asking questions, where, indeed, is Fred Wimpleton? Who, you may ask, is Fred Wimpleton? He's a thirty-two-year-old man carving out a tidy career as an all-night clerk at a 7-Eleven store in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Turns out Fred's mother bought his first glove. Her only prerequisite was that it keep her fragile son's hand warm. In fact, she was such a good mother she bought two fielder's glovesone for each hand. No telling how far her son, a lanky young man who could spank the ball to all fields, would have gone if his mom had only understood the second baseman's occasional need to throw the ball to first base. On the other hand, Ma Wimpleton is proud of her son in his honest endeavors. To this day he uses the gloves she picked out to avoid freezer burn while stocking the Popsicles and TV dinners. They also, I am told, make excellent ice scrapers during the defrost cycle.
This, then, is my blatant attempt to justify one child's inability to cleanly field a routine grounder, and also to understand for myself that mysterious Bermuda Triangle of the sky that swallowed all those catchable fly balls I never caught. This is my glove story.
When I was about eight, my father bought me a left-handed mitt and began teaching me to play catch. That first fielder's utensil was the hardest, flattest thing I had ever seen in my life. I've known manhole covers with more give and curve to them. Neighborhood kids mocked its shape until I had no choice but to join in the derision. Without my dad's knowledge, I affectionately dubbed it "the Pancake."
There was really only one way to encounter incoming objects using the Pancake. First you had to calculate the longitude and latitude through which the ball was due to enter your airspace. Then, with coordinates set, you positioned the Pancake to meet the horsehide head on, like a Bolivian mountainside greeting an incoming jet. You see, the Pancake, unlike most mitts, was never designed to catch ballsonly to impede their progress.
All my friends' baseball gloves were like aircraft carrierslatching onto the flying object, bringing it to a sharp and immediate halt. My glove was more like a runway at an abandoned airportshort, full of potholes, begging for demolition. Any ball hit to me would touch down on the Pancake, assault my bony wrist, then roll perilously up my arm. The trick, I had learned, was to stop the ball with my neck before it launched off my shoulder.
Not since Christopher Darden's ill-fated courtroom demonstration has a glove been so out of place on a human hand. One thing was for sure: If there was a Baseball Glove Purchasing Purgatory, my dad was going to be doing some serious time on the rock pile.
It never occurred to me to just ask my dad for a new gloveyou know, one you could catch a ball with. To this day I believe he must have had some hidden investments in Rawlings that rendered him in-capable of returning the Pancake to our local sporting goods store, lest he spark a stampede of angry, flat-glove-toting parents demanding their money back, sending his precious stock plummeting.
Instead, as evidence of my fielding problems mounted and my taste in candy bars fluctuated from PayDays to Butterfingers, my dad did march back into the sporting goods store, investing in a new baseball, a yard of nylon rope, and a small can of baseball glove oil.
I'm not exactly sure what sets baseball glove oil apart from 3-in-1 oil, Quaker State motor oil, or, say, Vitalisbut, according to my father, the properties of this mystical concoction were the magic elixir that the Pancake would need to marinate in before being able to invite a baseball to come in and take up residence. Just as Pinocchio required the touch of the Blue Fairy's wand to complete the transformation from a puppet to a real boy, my dad swore that baseball glove oil would one day make the Pancake a real mitt. The transformation plan was five-pronged.
Step One: Baste the glove in the palm and pocket areas with generous amounts of baseball glove oil, kneading the leather with your hands like a Swedish masseuse working the tension out of a client's back. When this proved to be more work than my father or I had anticipated, we briefly considered hiring an actual Swedish masseuse to visit our home and perform the task for us. However, the cost and zoning laws were prohibitive. So I fastened the Pancake with rubber bands to the seat of my Schwinn bicycle and intentionally rode it over the bumpy roads throughout our housing tract, thus inventing the legendary Irish Baseball Glove Massage. Seldom in the annals of baseball lore have a boy and his glove been so close.
Step Two: Take the traumatized glove, now tenderized, and place the new baseball in its dark brown webbing in an attempt to create an actual pocket.
Step Three: Gently double the glove around the ball like an egg being folded over the cheese and mushrooms in an omelet.
Step Four: Use the nylon rope to bind the glove tightly, like a turkey being readied for the oven on Christmas Day. Suddenly, my senses were reeling. I didn't know if I wanted to play catch with my glove or eat the darn thing!
Step Five: No more Galloping Gourmetback to reality. Now we needed to place the Pancake, in all its prepared splendor, under a mattress. Not my dad's mattress. Not my sister's mattress. My mattress. No one had warned me that in order for my baseball glove to soar, I would first need to hatch it.
That first evening was the most difficult of many, many nights the Pancake and I spent together in nocturnal bliss. I kept thinking of the fairy tale where a common garden pea was secretly placed beneath the mattress of a young girl to determine if she was a real princess. If she could feel the pea through several mattresses, her royal bloodlines would be revealed. If not, she would be exposed as a fraud. Perhaps the same would be true with this leathery experiment. If I could feel the baseball within the glove beneath the mattress, then surely my place in baseball history was set and Joe DiMaggio would someday be asking for my autograph.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. There was no disputing whether or not I could feel the Pancake. It was like sleeping on an armadillo, except that I think the armadillo would have been softer and more compliant with my needs. Weeks passed. Whenever I had a game to play, I would pull the Pancake out and untie it, expecting, hoping, dreaming that this was the day when my tragic caterpillar of a glove would transform into a monarch butterfly. Opening and closing. Opening and closing. Taking flight on the end of my hand as it lifted me a foot above the outfield fence to steal a home run and save the game for God and country. This, of course, never happened. I would temporarily free my glove, play the game, return home, then start the maddening process over again.
We gave the Pancake baseball-glove-oil therapy for about a year, but the patient never responded. Flat she was born and flat she remained until the day she went to baseball glove heaven.
But the experiment was not a total failure. Lo and beholdone day a pocket did form. It was on the underside of my mattress, a permanent reminder until the time I turned eighteen and moved out of my parents' house that once we had taken in an orphaned piece of leather, tried to rehabilitate it, and lost the battle.
Looking back, I realize that baseball glove oil was never going to answer the burning question of that time: "How do we turn this kid into the next Brooks Robinson?" Miracles of that magnitude don't often present themselves in small metal canisters retailing for a buck ninety-five.
Perhaps this was the wrong question. After all, how many players make the majors at any given time? Until baseball expands again to new cities, the answer is 750. There are more than six billion people in the world, and yet there are only 750 full-time slots open for the best of the best. Of those blessed few, how many will be enshrined in Cooperstown's Hall of Fame? One percent? Half a percent?
So what happens to the rest of us? How do we justify massive amounts of time spent apprenticing in a game we can never reasonably expect to master?
Well, maybe we start by measuring success not by the number of home runs, victories, or Gold Glove Awards we accumulate, but by the experience gained and the trials endured in the quest for these elusive grails. After all, there is no gold for the Olympic medal until it first passes through the refiner's fire that burns away every speck of dross. Indeed, the humiliation of owning the Pancake and allowing it to dangle from my right hand for a couple of seasons felt very much like this. Sometimes it seemed as if I were trapped in a large wrought-iron kettle while a raging inferno seared my body, pouring out spirit and soul ingot by ingot, Krugerrand by Krugerrand. And when there was nothing much left but a couple of fillings and some spare changewell, this is when God does His best work.
While I was winding the rope around that ball and glove, attempting to shape a rudimentary tool to help me achieve whatever small goals and dreams I then understoodGod was doing the same. He just didn't bother to mention that I was the tool He was shaping.
Through every mishap and embarrassment I suffered at the hands of the Pancake, God was winding His string of wisdom around my callow mind and heart, making me moldable, working character, perseverance, and, yes, even humility into the fresh young leather of my life. He was doing much more than helping me get ready for a Little League baseball game. He was preparing me, even then, for paths I could not imagine traveling and direction He would one day provide.
When the time came for God to call me up from the bench and onto His field of play, He had something finer for me than some ordinary oil. He poured out upon me the oil of His Holy Spirit, cascading like a waterfall over jagged rocks and ancient boulders, softening my heart, realigning my mind, anointing my ears to recognize His voice and my eyes to see His truth. This is the transformation He longs to perform. This is the gift He desires to share with each of us.
I had been looking for redemption through an oversized scrap of leather that betrayed me at every turn. It would be years before I would look over to the third-base coach's box and realize God had been signaling to me His game plan all along.
Had I asked Him, would God have transformed my nightmarish mitt into the elusive glove of my secret dreams? I will never know. But radical change has always been one of God's signature plays. In His illustrious career He has touched the blind and given them sight. He has taken bent and broken lives and made them straight. So surely He could have taken something so miserably, perfectly straight like the Pancake and made it bent and broken.
He took water and changed it to wine. He takes sinners and wipes their slates clean. He took Saulan angry, despicable murderer on the road to Damascusbroke him, humbled him, and molded him into a man named Paul, friend and apostle to Jesus, lover and preacher of the Word.
Oh, yeah...and he saved a wretch like me.
And to think He did it all without even one drop of baseball glove oil.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,
he is a new creation;
the old has gone, the new has come!
Sermon on the Mound
Copyright � 2001, Michael O'Connor
Published by Bethany House Publishers