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The Old Ball Game

By Father Mark Pautler

The Old Ball Game

At the beginning of Holy Week (April 6) the news was “We are in for a couple of very difficult weeks,” as the peak of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. was anticipated. Holy Week, the Church’s most intense time of prayer, helped us get through our most intense time of suffering and fear. Will the 50 days of the Paschal season bring a rebirth of hope? The peak day (as I write this article) was April 15—2,618 deaths nationwide. On April 17, total COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. was 37,154. Where will we be when this Inland Catholic reaches your hands? For sure, there will be more deaths. Will wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage of coronavirus remain the norm? Are we still sheltering in place?

What have I done while sheltering in place? I watched baseball. “Wait a minute,” you say, “baseball has been ‘suspended.’” You’re right. There has been no baseball to watch. Nonetheless, I watched Baseball, the iconic documentary by Ken Burns, America’s storyteller, produced in 1994, and now available on PBS’s streaming channel. Free. Burns neatly packaged Baseball into nine installments, each “inning” more or less encompassing a decade of baseball. The focus was on professional baseball and its notable stars and personalities. But he did not leave out boys playing baseball on city streets and in country pastures; or the legion of teams sponsored by businesses that provided men a means of respite despite long days of work, and townsfolk with entertainment. There was a women’s league that was a big hit. The vicious racism of the Major Leagues was countered by Negro Leagues that prospered until Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. (I can remember when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn!) Two of baseball’s GOATs, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, first played in a Negro league.

The star of Baseball was another Negro league great, Buck O’Neil, who delivered commentary with a serene face and melodious cadence that made you feel his love of the game and the joy of a boy playing baseball. He didn’t tell why Satchel Paige nicknamed him “Nancy,” but I found the story in a segment of NPR’s Morning Edition.

The COVID-19 confinement did not prohibit all outdoor activities, and I took advantage of the fine weather for cycling. Lots of people were out—walking with or without pets, jogging, cycling. There were family groups where physical distancing would make little sense, and paired walkers, who weren’t always fastidious about the six-foot spread. People were on streets, sidewalks, and trails, but parks and playgrounds were deserted. There was one exception. At a popular park along the Centennial Trail, a few guys were shooting hoops; some young girls were playing soccer. Breaking the rules? Well, bending them. The baseball diamond was empty, as they were everywhere. In times past, I occasionally came across a ball game. Boys, and girls, too, playing baseball or softball. Soccer appears to have more appeal now. I don’t appreciate the game and can’t understand how anything good can come from head-butting a ball.

Baseball plays a part in my pastoral ministry. Do you know what makes a baseball player great? Failing seven out of 10 times. That’s right. A batting average of .300 (three hits for 10 times at bat) makes you an elite hitter. Sometimes, this is how I encourage a penitent. Maybe you’re not doing that badly after all. Keep your eye on the ball, and keep swinging.

Watching Baseball reminded me that I used to be a more enthusiastic fan—when the Mariners fielded winning teams. Do you remember Edgar’s double in 1995 that won the division series, or the M’s 116 wins in 2001? Get a cap and get to a rally. Make The Mariners Great Again!