Diamonds in the Shadowlands
Baseball | As a new baseball season begins, a personal reflection of the past 50-plus
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 4/18/15, 08:45 am
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 10, 2010, issue of WORLD Magazine and is republished here as part of our Saturday Series. The article has also been added as Episode 18 in Marvin Olasky’s biographical series.
C.S. Lewis, as many WORLD readers know, called this world “the Shadowlands.” In a parallel way, Hasidic rabbis referred to heaven as “the true world.” We know we see through a glass darkly, with God graciously giving us glimpses of heaven through occasional aspects of our lives. The danger is that we turn glimpses into objects of worship, mistaking the shadows for the true world.
On June 26, 1975, after the worst years of my life, as Christ was slowly dragging me to Himself, I walked 12 miles from an apartment west of Boston to the spot in the city where I had always felt happy. I sat in the Fenway Park stands for the game that evening between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Watching Luis Tiant’s winning pitching, his body twisting with every fastball and curve, I felt hopeful.
After the game I took the subway/trolley as far as I could and then walked the remaining miles to that apartment, singing under the stars. It turned out that true love was around the corner: A year and a day after that game, Susan and I were married, and both of us professed faith in Christ about four months after that. But for 18 [now 23] years now I’ve written occasionally in WORLD about baseball, and the question still hangs: Do sports and sports fandom turn us toward God (see books like Sermon on the Mound) or away from Him?
I’m asking these questions anew because 2010 is a golden anniversary for me. In 1960, as a child in Boston, I became a Red Sox fan, and 50 years later remain one. Many WORLD readers are long-term fans (the word derives from “fanatic”) for their favorite teams. Is such a bond spiritually helpful or harmful? And there’s also the curious question of why these bonds develop.
I’d like to say that, for me, aesthetic reasons are paramount. Soccer aficionados have reason to call their pastime “the beautiful game,” but baseball has its own loveliness. White ball, green grass, blue sky. The thwack or ping of bat on ball. The geometry of the race to first base. The soaring of fly balls descending into gloves sprinted to the right spot. The individualistic staredowns between pitcher and batter. The crowd sounds that arise without electronic stimulation at late-inning moments of maximum confrontation.
Or I could emphasize the memories many readers and I have of particular moments and particular locations: I’ve watched games at 41-plus major league and spring training ballparks, and if I close my eyes I can remember the look of almost all of them. Venerable Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, of course, but also the old and new parks of the Orioles, the Yankees, and the Mets. I can mentally contrast the thankfully demolished modernist multisport monstrosities in cities from Philadelphia and Atlanta westward with beautifully quirky postmodernist parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix …
But let’s face it: Fans are needy, because all of us are needy. “Physician, heal thyself,” the saying goes, and a parallel one is, “Journalist, reveal thyself.” Aesthetics and memories both work wonders, but the main reason I became a fan was … my neediness. And if I don’t admit my neediness, what chance is there that you, dear reader, might—whatever you’re a fan of—admit yours?
In 1960, the year I became a 10-year-old baseball fan, my mother went to work as a secretary at a tannery in Peabody, Mass. The smell was bad but her sense of defeat was worse: Her sisters had married rich businessmen and she, who had snagged the smart husband, a teacher, took dictation. I became a latchkey kid, comforting myself with after-school snacks of Fig Newtons and Nestlé’s Quik with a bit of milk: I was, in essence, mainlining chocolate syrup.
As the new fat kid on the block, lonely and bored during the summer, I discovered on the radio and sometimes on television the voice of Red Sox announcer Curt Gowdy rhythmically describing the exploits of players from mysterious places like Yazoo City, Miss., and Ponca City, Okla. I used $10 of the $11 that comprised my life’s savings to buy a transistor radio at Radio Shack that I could listen to every evening and put next to my pillow when it was time to go to sleep.
The Red Sox finished next to last that year, but I was loyal to them and even made my way to an afternoon game in September. It was dark walking in under the Fenway stands and then through a tunnel to my seat, but suddenly came a blaze of light over—I was a city kid—the largest and greenest patch of green I had ever seen. Later, when reading 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell, I ran across his lapidary line about “a green thought in a green shade.” That was Fenway Park for me. Was there something like that for you?
In October 1960 the Red Sox were not in the World Series—they had not won a Series for 42 years and would not win one for another 44—but the Pittsburgh Pirates were. I suspect many of our older readers will remember watching on television as Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven to defeat the New York Yankees. Mazeroski circled the bases, waving his cap, and anything was possible.
Except to be a good player myself. In the spring of 1961 I determined to do more than watch and listen to baseball: I decided to play. My father, a good man who liked only to read, considered this foolishness, but from somewhere among the relatives an old, 1940s-style pancake glove emerged. With that and my Nestlé’s-Quik-and-Fig-Newton-honed body, I went to the Little League tryouts as an 11-year-old who could hardly catch. To make up for my defensive liabilities I had a classic rusty gate swing.
Placed on a team, I received my requisite one at-bat per game and one inning in right field or left field. The following year, the coach who cut me from my sixth-grade baseball team in 1962 did me a favor: I had better prospects in studying history and learning how to write. In 1963 I stopped going to the synagogue and started taking the trolley on Saturday mornings to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. There I would crank the microfilm of old newspapers, often reading sports-page accounts of the Red Sox world championship years of 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. Then I’d walk the mile to Fenway Park and sit in the right field stands. Tickets were cheap and easy to buy on game day, because the Red Sox had a losing record every year through 1966.
On April 29, 1967, I hung on through an extra-inning game where the temperature dipped below freezing. The Kansas City A’s scored a run in the top of the 15th but the Red Sox scored two in the bottom to win the game, 11-10. A meaningless game between seventh and ninth place finishers the year before who weren’t expected to do better in the new season? So it seemed, but the Red Sox soared that year and ended up winning the American League pennant on Oct. 1—by one game. (They lost the World Series, of course, four games to three.)
In 1968, off to college and communism, I still kept track of the Red Sox. By 1975 they were winners most of the time, and Susan and I watched on TV, in Michigan, Carlton Fisk’s past-midnight walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th inning of the sixth game of the World Series. New Yorker writer Roger Angell, in an essay titled “Agincourt and After,” described the moment this way:
“I was watching the ball, of course, and so I missed what everybody watching on television saw—Fisk waving wildly, weaving and writhing and gyrating along the first-base line, as he wished the ball fair. … John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ fortissimo. …
“I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends. … I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway—jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms … and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy—alight with it.”
Is that blasphemous? Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” of course, proclaims, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. … The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord … and He shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings, forever and ever, and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!” That’s a far cry from Fisk of Fisk, even if he is a Hall of Fame catcher. But … through that event did we get a brief, shadowy glimpse of heaven’s utter joy? So what if the Red Sox once again that year lost the seventh game of the World Series. (If I were a Yankees fan, would I mistake earth for heaven?)
Over the next three decades came many memorable games. At a ballpark date Susan and I had in 1976, Detroit pitcher Mark Fidrych (“The Bird”) pitched magnificently en route to his Rookie of the Year award. Fidrych manicured the pitching mound at the beginning of each inning and talked to baseballs before he threw them. New York’s Graig Nettles once tried to rile him by stepping out of the batter’s box and talking to his bat. Nettles later explained that he told the bat, “Never mind what Fidrych says to the ball. You just hit it over the outfield fence!” Nettles struck out and later explained why: “Japanese bat. Doesn’t understand a word of English.”
But this shadowland of a world is not our home. Joy that lasts more than a moment is always bittersweet. Fidrych tore the rotator cuff of his right arm the following year and never again pitched effectively. He bought a farm in central Massachusetts. Last April 13  Fidrych was on his farm underneath a 10-wheeled dump truck, trying to fix it, when his clothes became entangled with the truck’s spinning shaft. He suffocated. The Tigers had a moment of silence before their game on April 15. On June 19 Jessica Fidrych threw the ceremonial first pitch before a Tigers game—after manicuring the mound as her dad had done.
In 1986 the Red Sox were one strike away from elimination in the American League Championship playoffs, but sore-armed California Angels pitcher Donnie Moore, who needed cortisone shots to throw at all, served up a home run ball. The Red Sox won that game and Moore, perhaps because of injuries, never regained his effectiveness. Off the field, his marriage disintegrated. On July 18, 1989, he culminated an argument with his wife by shooting her three times, then fatally shooting himself in the presence of his 8-year-old son, Ronnie. In this shadowland, Boston joy was Moore misery.
Later in October 1986, the Red Sox in the 10th inning of a late game were one strike away from winning the World Series against the New York Mets. I woke my eldest son Pete, then 9, who had fallen asleep on the couch, so that he could see the Red Sox triumph. Instead, he watched the Mets score two runs to tie the game on three hits and a wild pitch. He heard my anguished cry as a ground ball rolled between the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner and the Mets won: That moment has been rebroadcast thousands of times.
Boston media crucified Buckner to such an extent that baseball fan John Hodgen, who lives about five miles from Fidrych’s farm, felt moved to write a poem based on that error. “Forgiving Buckner” includes these lines: “The world is always rolling between our legs. It comes for us, dribbler, slow roller. … We spit in our gloves, bend our stiff knees, keep it in front of us, our fathers’ advice, but we miss it every time.” Only Christ provides true hope: “the oh of your mouth as the stone rolls away.”
Because most religions emphasize an exchange—we do something for God, He does something for us—it’s easy to think that if we work hard enough we’ll win. But Christianity is all about amazing grace, and it’s grace that I’ve received. Starting when they were toddlers I was able to play catch with each of our four boys. Starting in 1985 I could watch one or more of them play baseball for 21 straight years.
The Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. When the players paraded through the streets of Boston, it was like the victory scenes in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. New Orleans had something like that recently when the Saints won the Super Bowl. In both cases the teams won after decades of disappointment, with some fans perhaps learning (as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans) that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”
Of course, as Chicago Cubs fans would remind us, in this shadowland a century’s wait may not be enough. But even so, forgiveness provides a glimpse of heaven. After his 1986 error Bill Buckner moved to Idaho, became a real-estate developer, and named one of his subdivisions “Fenway Park.” Two years ago, on April 8, 2008, after the Red Sox the previous fall had won their second World Series, Buckner—a Christian—strolled slowly from the real Fenway Park’s left field door to the pitching mound. His task: to throw the ceremonial first pitch for the team’s home opener. His joy: He received a five-minute standing ovation.
“Is this heaven?” a young player asks when he glimpses the field in Field of Dreams. He’s told, “No, it’s Iowa.” When we mistake earth for heaven we need reminding: “No, it’s the Shadowlands.” But searching in the shadows, through God’s kindness, we can find a diamond.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.