Thursday, May 14, 2009

You Gotta Have Faith!

A HUGE Panorama of the Ballpark. . . click on it for the "being there" experience!

I'm sure it's no Revelation (no pun intended) that many think of Baseball as a form of religion. Certainly, popular media hasn't been shy in drawing parallels between this perfect game and one's belief in a higher being. No less a theologian than Annie Savoy in the movie "Bull Durham" opined that:

"I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic's rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball. And it's never boring .... It's a long season, and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball."

And so eldest son E. and I were among the faithful Thursday afternoon at the Temple in Arlington, saying prayers to the Gods of Baseball from Section 35, Row 14, Seats 6 and 7, joined by 24,000 close friends and parishoners as our Texas Rangers once more sought divine intervention in a ninth-inning comeback to beat the Seattle Mariners.

Diggin' a great spring day at the ballpark. Playing hooky from school, too!

Getting an autograph from Marlon Byrd--E. got Brandon McCarthy too. . .

And whether or not you believe in a God or not, you've got to believe in the Rangers, as for the second game in a row, our local boys snatched victory from the arm of Seattle closer Jeff Morrow and scored a walk-off victory. Wednesday night, it was a two-run 11th inning double by Hank Blalock that brought the Rangers victory, 6-5; Thursday, the all-or-nothing hitting of First Baseman Chris Davis did the job, knocking a two-run homerun over the fence for the 3-2 win. And the crowd went wild.
It's been fashionable the past ten years or so to poo-pooh Texas pitching. And, granted, it's still early in the season to pronounce the AL West-leading Rangers favorites to win their division. But one needs faith--and the Rangers' prayers are being answered with a strong starting rotation (don't let the team ERA fool you; the Ranger pitchers have been red-hot the past few weeks) actually led by bottom-of-the-rotation guys Scooter Feldman, Brandon McCarthy, and Thursday's winner Matt Harrison, who went over 100 pitches pitching a complete game. Harrison had gone 22 scoreless innings before Seattle scored twice in the fourth. It's been Rangers' president Nolan Ryan's goal all year to toughen-up his pitchers, to get them to work later in the game to lessen the workload on the bullpen. With the number of quality starts already from the starting five, Ryan's plan is bearing fruit. Whether it will hold up through the long, hot days of summer will be worth watching.

Bottom of the ninth, one out, runner at second, Rangers down 2-1. Chris Davis connects. . .

BALLGAME! Rangers win! Second day in a row for ninth-inning theatrics. Davis leaps into the arms of his teammates at home plate. . .

. .this one would've been superb--with Davis' smiling face and the dejected form of Mariner reliever Morrow walking off the field--if an errant arm hadn't ventured into the frame. . .

And E. goes crazy!
Thursday's game was well pitched by both sides: Seattle Ace Felix Hernandez was scoreless in his seven innings. Life must suck for Morrow, just back from injuries and having given up the game late two days in a row.

If anything is disquieting about the Rangers this past week, it's been their offensive production. But keen pitching and being able to hit in the clutch has won games for them and put them atop the division. We'll see how they match up against the Anaheim Angeles of Los Angeles when they come to town this weekend for a series that could well set the tone for the next quarter of the season leading to the All-Star break. But you've gotta have faith. . . .

16-year-veteran umpire Wally Bell: right out of Central Casting.


E. was wondering during Thursday's game my unusual interest in the umpires--how they ate sunflower seeds (the field umpires, anyway) during the game, how they moved about the field unobtrusively to be in position to make calls, their mechanics in their calls, etc. It's not like I'm thinking about a mid-life career change, but I'd just finished Bruce Weber's excellent book "As They See 'Em", a fascinating look at the little-explored baseball sub-culture of officiating. Few umpires really go out of their way to call attention to themselves--the best ones work so under the radar that you'd hardly notice that four big men roam the field amid the fleet of foot ballplayers. Weber became interested in umpires when he attended an umpire school in Florida on assignment for New York Times. This further piqued his interest, and he spent the next two years umpiring high school and amateur adult games and following minor league and major league umpires around.

What emerged is a portrait of men (on the major league level, it is entirely male; nearly so in the minors) who are if not hated, then disrespected by players, owners, and the officialdom of professional baseball alike. The calling to umpiredom takes a special breed, a sort of old-west sherrif-type who must make calls because morally, it's the right call to make, and say the hell with the ramifications or reactions for all effected. Only a very few ever make it even to triple-A, let alone the major leagues; most are let go after several years if they don't advance into the higher echelons of the profession. Until one reaches the major leagues, the pay is horrible, the travel even worse, and gorumet eating on the road would consist of a Denny's Grand Slam. Once you make it to the bigs, Umpires shouldn't expect any more support or respect from MLB mangement than they got working in some backwater minor-league: umpires, one memorable passage declares, are seen not as human beings by management, but as a necessary evil, an item--like a base. But unlike bases, they have emotions, they miss calls--they're imperfect.
Like priests, I suppose. Which brings me right back to the religious analogy.

E. and I got good seats for the Thursday game--that is, not the cheap ones we usually sit in as a family, but right along first base just past the dugout. It was my way of rewarding him in a little way for the hard work he's done so far this year in Second Grade--he's a straight-A student, with grades in all his subjects all year long consistenly about the 95% level. I'm very proud of E.--and of I. as well--but sometimes get worried that he might descend into some sort of baseball statistics geekdom. I guess I'm an enabler, as I bought the Rangers Media Guide for him, several hundred pages of records, statistics and general trivia about major league baseball (he's already discovered that in 2007 the best ERA for Rangers starting pitchers was Kevin Millwood at a bit over 5 runs-per-game. Contrast that with the early 1970s, when team leaders routinely pitched for the season below 3!)


E. is just a couple of games away from completing his final spring league session in Coach Pitch Little League. It's been a struggle, the transition from hitting off a t-ball stand to stepping up and using a bit more hand-eye coordination to put the ball in play. But E. this spring has done an exceptional job, striking out only a couple of times in the past half-dozen games. Perhaps his motivation is financial? To sweeten the pot for him, I told him each time he hit safely I'd contribute $5 to his piggybank to spend later this summer when we head to Chicago to take in a Cubs game. Since then, he's been on fire. But I might have created a monster. After an evening game Thursday night, E. emerged from the dugout and made a bee-line right to Mr. Moneybags: "Dad, that's $35 now!" Much more of this, and I'd expect Scott Boras to start accompanying him to arbitrate for more money.

E. in a little pre-game warm-up action. . .
. . and all serious getting a hit in a game. . .

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