Spent an evening watching a church slow-pitch softball game – a summer ritual we miss being a part of as we travel. Thought I would share some observations.
For years I had been part of the truly American phenomenon of church softball both as a player and a coach. Since Lisa and I have been traveling with her job – we have missed out on that experience and I had to give up coaching my son’s church team last summer. Recently my daughter and I took in a game and I was able to sit back and just observe the going’s on as a simple spectator.
As we drove away from the city we were aware of the sun setting behind us and the glow of the lights illuminating the fields ahead. A perfect night for softball. We parked our car and walked with other fans and players toward the softball fields in anticipation of a relaxing evening under the stars.
We made our way to the small bleachers next to our team’s dugout passing players sprawled out in the grass with legs bent awkwardly backward in an attempt to stretch out their muscles. Others used the backstop fence or bleacher poles to press against. One slung a bat over his shoulders and used it to twist back and forth – I suppose to loosen those testy lower back muscles. Some were dressed like professionals, others looked like they just arrived from work. Some wore braces on their knees. Some wore braces on their elbows. One had braced every joint until hardly any skin was left exposed. There were men in their twenties (or younger) and men pushing (if not surpassing) fifty.
As we sat down on the ridged aluminum seats and wiggled to find a comfortable position, the players began taking the field and tossing softballs back and forth. Balls soon banged against the fence in front of us as they were thrown high, low, too hard, too soft or just simply missed. Younger players threw with great intensity – zipping the yellow orbs with the greatest of velocity. The older players were content to lob back and forth not wanting to damage any further those already damaged rotator cuffs or arthritic elbows.
The umpire yelled for both teams to gather for prayer and the teams circled home plate. As players removed their caps and bowed their heads, one player stepped into the circle and began what seemed like a really long prayer for such an occasion. I thought it strange that they positioned themselves so uniformly – practically a perfect circle. In any other setting one would swear the men had gathered to bury a dog and I was not sure if I was expected to bow my head and join in the reverence or sing “Nearer My God To Thee”. It was much like watching prayers on television and not being sure if I should join in or not – especially those that are video taped. Someone should write the rules of etiquette regarding prayers in public. I did notice most of those in the stands stopped talking during this holy moment of reverence so I ceased my conversation as well. Finally the prayer ended and the two teams wished the other good luck as they both moved into position. “Play Ball!”
George Carlin had a famous routine about how baseball is designed to be more relaxed in comparison to other sports. Baseball is played in a “park” and the game can go on forever if the teams are tied after the final inning – no “sudden death” as is the harsh term of other sports. There did not seem to be anything remotely “laid back” about this softball game as it progressed. Players seemed to grow more intense as the game moved along. A close play at third resulted in a semi-heated exchange between two opposing players and scores were met with added enthusiasm as the teams interest in winning seemed to grow throughout. As the intensity grew – so grew the number of injuries. A middle-aged player tore a muscle of some sort in his thigh while trying to beat out a slow grounder to second base. From my perspective the second baseman would have had time to go get a coke at McDonald’s in the time it took the hobbling hitter to make it to first and yet he gave it all he had. After all – this is an important regular season church softball game and a win tonight might determine a higher seed for the all important tournament later on. Players cheered the man’s hustle with “good job”, “nice try”, “good hit” and he managed a shaky grin while trying to hold together his shredded hamstring muscle though his dark blue “Dickie” work pants. Time was called for the injured player as he limped back toward his dugout and was replaced by a man much older who could hardly walk – let alone run. But – “Play Ball!”
The last couple of innings grew more intense and the comments began to fly freely between the two teams and toward the umpire. The umpire, making all of twenty-five dollars per game, began to have his skills in calling balls and strikes questioned as well as every play (close or not) at first base. I was struck at how well composed the umpire remained and wondered if he experienced this a lot calling church softball games. Then I had to wonder if he went to church somewhere. If I was him – I probably would not.
But finally the game came to an end when one team managed to score enough runs to end the game on what is called a “mercy rule”. There was this strange silence as the umpire yelled, “Ball game!” and the two teams formed a line to allow a hand shake and a closing “Good game!” salute to each other. It seemed more appropriate that they end by saying to each other, “We survived!”.
Players gathered up their bats, balls, braces and Ben-Gay and moved toward the parking lot tired, dirty and probably a little ashamed. My first conclusion was that very little of anything remotely Christian took place tonight – all that was revealed was a lot of flaws, failure and pain. But then I realized that in the end there was a sort of unspoken forgiveness expressed to one another. It crossed my mind that what happened tonight was absolutely characteristic of the church. People striving to succeed, some meeting failure, some expressing joy – some expressing pain, anger and frustration. But in the end forgiving and being forgiven.
This wasn’t a softball game – this was church.
Have a great day!