Play Ball

It was the head-bangers that boggled my mind first. Every time Shawn Doolittle came out to pitch, his trademark heavy metal song was piped through the stadium and a large section of fans stood, waved flags, and head-banged until my head was pounding. Then there was Mr. A’s himself, in his white linen sport coat and white jeans and his green or gold shirt underneath working the crowd as if he was in his living room. And the cow-bells and brooms and drums and yes, even the skulls on a stick that serve as rattles… looking around me I was pretty sure I had traveled well beyond my comfort zone.

And then there was the jumbo-tron demanding the attending fans “make noise,” be “louder,” clap their hands and jeer at the opposing team’s pitcher as he and his coach held a meeting on the mound. Or the incessant rounds of “Let’s go A’s” circling the stadium. Really? I found myself thinking. Really? Do I have to follow what you are telling me to do? Can’t I just cheer at my own level and in my own way?

As a family, we’ve loosely followed Oakland A’s baseball for the last 9 years. The stadium is easy to get to, many of the local teachers are huge fans and share that love with the kiddos at school, and the A’s do a lot in the community to raise reading interest among other things. But this year, we’re sharing season tickets with another family so we’ve spent many weekend afternoon and evenings at the ballpark. Sure, we’ve had a lot of fun as a family and have learned a lot.

For example, the only way, seemingly, to get our little boy to sit still long enough is to repeatedly feed him. Corn dogs longer than his arm and a bowl of nachos usually tame that beast.unnamed-5

We have grown to look for certain personalities … like the guy who pedals pizza. His voice and method of calling are so unique that he is a crowd favorite eliciting many “echoes” as he climbs the aisles. And that one time he lost his voice, the crowd called for him!

We enjoy the traditions… the long-standing tradition of singing of the National Anthem at the beginning of the game and the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the traditional 7th inning stretch as well as the larger than life hall of fame “bobbleheads” who race, hand out beads and t-shirts, and who are slightly cool and borderline creepy. Of course, we love Stomper the elephant.unnamed-3

Our section, along the third base line, is relatively fluid and mild-mannered. There are some familiar faces now after half the season, but overall we’re surrounded by new faces each game. And yet, when the homeruns are hit, everyone becomes best buddies cheering and high-fiving and toasting with a beer or when the A’s forget to bring their game those best buddies still develop as conversation grows around who should be brought in and traded and what strategy should be followed. The camaraderie grows… maybe because we’re all crammed in like sardines, or maybe because we can make assumptions about people. Like, “You’re here, you’re routing for the A’s; therefore, you must be alright. I can talk to you.”10306089_10204098901730925_2200846511345265592_n
During commercial breaks for the at-home crowd, the A’s run a series of give-aways and challenges and games. When these involve real people attending the game and not just some animated, computer generated gizmo on the jumbo-tron, the question always comes up, “Share with us a favorite memory from an A’s game.” Repeatedly, the answer has something to do with how the fan grew up watching A’s baseball with grandpa or dad or some other figure and how A’s baseball has been a part of life for as long as memory stretches. Many fans connect with this comment as attested by their apparel and tattoos. Yes, there is a family feel to the ball game and yes that makes it a beautiful way to spend time together as a family. And now, about halfway through the season I hear my kids asking questions about the game and the players and the rules. They are starting to feel the tug as well. This is true Americana! Maybe, soon, we won’t need the corn dog to pass the time!

Nevertheless, baseball, as is true with all professional sport, remains entertainment. And yet, there are people who come to the games always wearing the same thing, who go through certain motions while at the game, who have their own personal traditions… as if they are as important to the game as the players on the field. As if they the fans can somehow influence the outcome of the game. Like, if I don’t don my green full-body bodysuit and walk around with my friend in his green and gold Darth Vader helmet every single game there is no way the A’s can pull off the win. Or if I don’t stand and head-bang for 5+ minutes, there is no way Shawn Doolittle can pitch a no-hit inning.

Between the booing of players and this… I’m not sure which makes me most uncomfortable.

The front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning brought it to my attention again. There’s a man in Cleveland holding a sign that shows LeBron James arms outstretched and chin tilted high. Above James are the words, “The King has returned.” Click here to see.

Am I the only wacko out there who sees in this all kinds of religious imagery?

James, arms outstretched, like Jesus on the cross? The words King… king of basketball, king of the Jews… has returned. James is back in Cleveland, his more-or-less birthplace, the much-anticipated return of Jesus. In both, there is hope. James will bring a championship ring to the Cavaliers and to a fandom that is parched for success. The return of Jesus will bring the final days, the judgment and making right of all things, the wiping away of tears and the donning of robes of pure white and an eternity of living back in the Garden, at the feet of a God of light and good and mercy.

Baseball, professional sport in general, is a religion. A worshiping of false idols.

Several weeks ago, we were watching an A’s game on TV at home. We had a better view of home plate and could see the advertisement there for the next big promotional… a Coco Crisp garden gnome. Oh we laughed long and hard over that! Yes, let’s decorate the garden with Coco Crisp! Turns out we had tickets to that game and as the date approached we strategized our game plan for early arrival so as to be within the first 20,000 people at the game. We were by no means the first in line. Clearly other people had the same idea. As we got closer to the gate, my son began to fret. “What if they run out before we get there?” Like the world would stop if we didn’t get a plastic, poorly made and poor representation of an A’s player who is good now but who will quickly fade into oblivion in 50 to 100 years. Right. The gnome was procured and peace was restored. Pictures were taken.unnamed-2

Inside the stadium, Coco Crisp came near the wall in front of us to sign autographs. One young lady came back to her seat beaming as if she had just had a religious experience. Her backpack was covered in autographs, but she explained repeatedly, “I said Coco, you’re the only one I don’t got.” As if having this last signature will complete her life.

It leaves me a little heart-broken. And maybe you’ll say I’m reading too much into things. But looking at the fans around me, at this culture that pays sports figures millions of dollars to play ball, at this culture that elevates the news of where James is going to play basketball over the news of what is happening along our borders or around the world in places like Israel and the Middle East where rockets are firing and it seems like any sort of relative peace is completely imploding, at people who pin their hopes and their identities on the teams they follow… yes, it leaves me a little heart-broken.

And it challenges me. Because if there are people who spend their paycheck to take their son to see a game or to buy a fan jacket or to tattoo “Athletics forever” on their arm… they may have a passion I don’t have. While they put their hope in that new pitcher or the third baseman or in a season (this is our year baby!), I put my hope in a man who died over 2000 years ago, who died on a cross, one of the worst, most humiliating forms of death man has ever created. He lived a humble, itinerant life, teaching, healing, instructing, loving. His greatest accomplishment seemed to be irritating the religious leaders of his day… and raising people from the dead and healing them from life-long illnesses. He was viewed as wacky by the people in power with his claims to be God’s son and his way of overturning their cozy little powerplays. Oh, and yes. He died. But three days later he began to appear, first to his scraggly band of followers and then to larger swaths of the population. Men wrote about him hundreds of years before he was born. Men wrote about him after he died. He continues to visit people, to touch hearts, to lead lives, and to influence culture. This is who I put my hope in.

I spent several years in Cleveland. I know first hand the thrill of a winning team in town. I remember the days when the Browns were something special, when the Indians had a run at a World Series. And I learned quickly that players and teams have slumps. Players get injured, get traded, move away. Teams move too. Putting our hope in a player or a team is a transient kind of hope, dependent on the location, the season, the strength of the athlete(s). Putting our hope in Jesus is eternal. There are love songs that he sings through my life, ways he blesses me and encourages me and strengthens me that I could never find in a person, or a team, or in anything earthly.

But do I have the passion to follow him as fully as a “true fan?” Do I make enough noise? Does my life show him to the world? Does the way I dress, do the things I say, and does the example of my life clearly tell the world where my hope lies? And do I live as if God’s plan can’t win if I don’t play my part? Do I faithfully take up my part? And when the going gets tough, do I continue to cheer in full faith and hope? Maybe I have more to learn from these fans about living loud and fully committed. Because in the end, the game of life is the one that truly counts. And I better play my part well.10402577_10203940894980855_4703814435724589571_n

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