Baseball as Pilgrimage

I'm the third kid on the right, front row, beside Harry Agganis
Fenway Park, 1954: I’m the third kid from the right, front row, beside Harry Agganis

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Every year, millions of people make a pilgrimage to see their favorite baseball team. I’m sure most of them don’t think of taking in a ball game as pilgrimage, but as with all pilgrimages, going to a game often at some level involves making a journey that is both physical and spiritual, taking risks, paying homage, and searching for a source of healing and renewal.

It’s possible, then, that the first pilgrimage I ever took was to Fenway Park in 1954 to see the Red Sox play the Detroit Tigers. I remember the ride to and from Boston was interminable, Fenway Park was huge, Red Sox first baseman Harry Agganis (who would die a year later of a pulmonary embolism) looked like a god, and I ate lobster at a restaurant on the ride back, courtesy of my little league coach, a saint named Frank Knight (who would live to be 103).

I was reminded of my early love of baseball a few weeks ago when I started reading Dingers: The 101 Most Memorable Home Runs in Baseball History, by Joshua Shifrin and Tommy Shea. I’ve had the good fortune to have shared coffee and conversation with Tommy Shea, who was a reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican for forty years, including six years covering the Red Sox, and whose very being exudes the joy I once felt about the game. (Nobody’s perfect, however; Tommy is a Yankees fan.)

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 I hit two dingers in my baseball career. The first, in little league, cleared the fence and almost hit my family’s car. The second, when I was in what was then called junior high school, disappeared into the fog blowing in off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, but since there was no fence, I had to run it out. I run like a wheelbarrow, so I barely beat the throw home. Still, I thought I had won our team the game, until Ronnie Bancroft, the Cape third baseman, tagged me after I’d crossed the plate, and the umpire called me out. “Sorry, son,” he said, “but your foot missed third base by a good two feet.” (For those of you who don’t know much about baseball, the runner must touch every bag before touching home plate.)

So much for my making it into Shifrin’s and Shea’s book.

But one of the home runs that did make it into the book—Shifrin and Shea rank it as the fifth most memorable home run in baseball history—is Kirk Gibson’s game winning home run in the 1988 World Series against Hall of Fame relief pitcher, Dennis Eckersley. In fact, Dingers features on its cover what has become an iconic picture (so iconic that I can’t find one to post that’s not copyrighted) of Gibson, hand raised over his head in victory.

I remember Gibson’s homerun even more than I remember my own. His took place on the October weekend when my wife Mary Lee and I were visiting my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie in Ellsworth, Maine. That spring, Laurie had been diagnosed with Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor, a virulent cancer. Over the summer, chemotherapy and radiation had shrunk the tumor and we were hopeful, but in September, while she was walking a beach, her leg collapsed under her, and since that time, the only way she could walk was with a walker. In continual pain, my daughter was trying to remain positive, living at home with her mother, working on various art projects and designing placemats for a new restaurant in town, but she was discouraged and afraid, often dissolving in tears as she talked with me on the phone. To give both Laurie and my ex-wife a break, Mary Lee and I drove up for the weekend, rented a motel room, and took Laurie to stay with us.

On Saturday afternoon, we drove around Hancock County looking at foliage until a freak snowstorm sent us back to our motel. That evening we went to the new restaurant that featured Laurie’s placemats, but my daughter’s leg pain grew so bad that we couldn’t finish our meal. Mary Lee and I had to carry her out to the car.

Back at the motel, Laurie lay down on our bed, closed her eyes, and, I thought, fell asleep. I turned on the television just in time to see Gibson, of Los Angeles Dodgers, who hadn’t been in the game because of a severely strained hamstring in one leg and a bad knee in the other, come to the plate as a pinch hitter. The Dodgers were behind the Oakland Athletics by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning. They had a man on first base, but there were two outs. With a count of three balls and two strikes, Gibson, with what Shifrin and Shea describe as “an awkward upper body swipe,” hit his home run. As he limped around the bases, pumping his fist, and one talking head after another extolled his courage in the face of pain, I heard Laurie say to Mary Lee, who lay beside her on the bed, “I know this cancer might—probably will—kill me, but hopefully not for years. I need to make the most of whatever time I’ve got left.”

I looked at my daughter, her bright red bandanna and matching socks, her eyes sunken, her face drawn by pain. Those assholes on TV have no idea what courage is, I thought bitterly.

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And there’s part of me that still feels that way. I’m certainly not the first person to complain about how we have glorified beyond reason sports and deified grown people playing games. But like pilgrimage, sports—and I would say especially baseball—is a way to encapsulate the human journey in a few hours. We fans travel to what one of my favorite movies calls our “Field of Dreams,” and the players themselves try to get, as we all do, “Home,” where, as James Earl Jones says in the movie, “… what once was good … will be again.”

Home is where my daughter went less than three months after Gibson’s dramatic “dinger.” Now that I’m in my seventies, it helps to see myself rounding third base (making sure to touch it this time), heading to join her.

Fenway_Park02

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